Online Learning

Originally published in Blue Water Sailing Magazine, Mar, 2010, updated Feb 2012

When we launched our first online navigation course in 2001, it was like having a party that no one came to. In those days, even the universities were just beginning to take advantage of online communications with their students. Few had actual courses. It took some 8 or 9 years to develop. Now there are many online training options, in all fields, and full-featured online courses are a routine part of university education. Sailing and marine science is no exception.

Online training took a long time to catch on, and we can learn some things from its evolution that help us decide if we want to take part, and how to do so most effectively. The Internet is immense. There are no standards. There is no rating system. In any field there is a huge spectrum of options. It is up to the consumer to decide what is right for them.

You might think you are restricted to learning the "book work" part of sailing or navigation from the computer screen, and to some extent that is the case. In a sailing course you would do the classroom part of the course over the Internet and the hands on sailing on the water. In navigation, you might learn the paper work of celestial navigation online, and then meet with an instructor to learn to use the sextant.

But there is really no sharp line at all between practical matters and book matters that might be learned online. I know someone who learned to the play the didgeridoo from an online course. And knots! The Internet has revolutionized learning marlin spike seamanship. The keys to this type of hands-on training include videos, Flash movies, and other animations—and, as always, clear, insightful explanations. We can in fact teach the use of a sextant in an online course.

You might say that clear explanations are always crucial to training, with or without the Internet, which is of course correct. The big difference is how you store and deliver these clear explanations. In the classroom there is always variation from class to class. No matter how often an instructor has presented a topic, some days are better than others, for numerous reasons. Once optimized, the online presentation remains consistent for all students.

Online content also has an advantage over traditional textbooks, which typically can be updated only every year or so. Online you can not only keep your own materials up to date, you can post errata for recent changes in textbooks being used. In short, online training materials in the hands of conscientious instructors just get better with time, and they can do so in a timely manner. The types of format and instructor interaction you get with online training are often indicated by the price of the course. Free training materials are usually self guided tours though more or less static materials. You proceed at your own pace by clicking through a sequence of web pages. Some offer selfgraded quizzes at the end.

A notable example of a free navigation course is the nice work of Diederik Willemsen in The Netherlands. I was struck by his materials when I saw he covered the piloting by horizontal sextant angles. This is a powerful technique, not covered enough in standard courses. The U.S. Sailing Association also has a large list of free online training presentations they offer in promotion of the sport. They are not intended as courses, but nicely presented individual topics in several areas.

Free programs are often presented to promote the products of their host, which is certainly fair enough, and a nice way to advertise. There are many online training options in this category, with a wide range of content and quality. In this article I mention only a few. If you have a favorite online training program you want to share, please post it at the Starpath Facebook page (www.facebook. com/starpathnav).

One way to find training information these days is do a search on YouTube for the subject you want. Many sites are using this option for their internal videos and you have indirect access to them this way. If you have not yet seen it, Google YouTube for "German Coast Guard trainee" to see a creative example of online training advertised.

Weather is a subject that has been covered extensively in free online courses from Atmospheric Sciences departments of several universities and from the NWS. Again, you will see many levels of sophistication in the format, as well as many levels of subject matter. A new type of online training, often in the modest price range, is called a webcast or "webinar." These are essentially a one-class seminar presented in real time on the Internet. They typically last a couple hours.

There are various levels of format sophistication, depending on the software or services owned or hired by the host. It could be as simple as all participants logon to the same webpage with a purchased password, and then listen to live streaming audio from the instructor while a power point presentation is shown on the screen. This could be followed by questions from participants typed into a form, which are then answered by the speaker for all to hear. Or the event could be way more elaborate, including embedded video, shared application use, even active white boards so any one participant could make a sketch with his mouse on his screen and every one else would see it. A live video feed of the instructor at the black board during the presentation is a common option. There is exciting potential here, but technical troubles can haunt any live presentation.

The Seven Seas Cruising Association has a diverse program of webinars called Seven Seas U presented by experts on the topics. Full online training courses with the goal of matching or surpassing what can be done in the classroom are inevitably in a higher cost category, though usually they cost less than the corresponding classroom course. There are several facilities offering this type of course now, and quite a few are in development around the country.

We have taught this type of course at Starpath now for over 10 years, after teaching classroom courses for over 25 years. We have consequently learned a lot about this format for learning, which might benefit those in the planning stage. Some things were expected, others were not. There are several notable advantages to this type of training compared to the comparable classroom course.

First, students work at their own schedule. No more long drives to the classroom after a long day at work to meet at specific times. And students work at their own pace. Some like to go faster, others slower. This was always a balancing act in the classroom to meet the needs of the full class, but it is no longer an issue at all online.

Second, we can provide much more content online that we could with only printed materials. Printing is expensive. Color printing is real expensive. Now we can provide pdfs of documents and students can decide themselves if they want print copies. This is a huge savings for the students, the schools, and the planet! Plus we can include multimedia materials at essentially no extra cost. We can also provide live content for the course. Weather courses can use real weather maps; coastal nav courses can use real charts (all echarts are free downloads); celestial navigation courses can use the real sky—and it does not matter if that sky is overhead in Chesapeake Bay or Sydney Harbor.

And by supplementing the printed books with ebooks and software that can be downloaded, students can start working immediately once they purchase the course. They do not have to wait the week or so for books to be delivered. This is especially nice for students in Australia, for example.

These are all benefits we expected. What we did not expect was the best bonus of all. Students actually get far more individual attention in an online course than they could ever get in a classroom course. It is not even close. We have no classroom time limits here, so anyone can ask their questions. And with encouragement, they can ask very hard questions or very easy ones. There is no longer any reason to be delayed in your training. If something is not making sense, or holding you up for any reason, just ask a question.

What makes this possible is an accumulated online database of the classroom discussion. This is fundamental to the success of online courses. After several year's of student's questions with their answers given, you eventually have most of them documented. Each question presented can be answered in great depth, with cross links and references. The time can be spent on doing it right, because that question never has to be answered again! I must have answered questions on compass deviation hundreds of times over the years. Now if such a question comes up, we just say use keyword "deviation" and hit the search engine, and every possible question in the world on that topic is at your finger tips with a detailed answer.

Nevertheless, such databases are always growing. Every course still generates new and interesting discussion and more questions. Some detail we had considered obvious for many years was actually not so obvious, and did need some explanation. So the next key step is having well qualified instructors standing by to answer the questions. The more, the better, and the more time zones they span, the better it is. Students will be from all over the world, so having instructors from different time zones is beneficial. When students post a question or submit a quiz to be graded, the instructors get an email with a link that takes them right to the place online they need to be to address it. The process can be very efficient and the student benefits from this.

Another new and crucial aspect of this type of training relates to the instructor- student interactions. They cannot see each other, so there are no facial expressions or body language to go by in the communications. In this sense, classroom teaching is easier. Written communications must therefore be correspondingly more careful. Careful listening that we do in the classroom, must be converted to careful reading in the online classroom. It is also to the student's and instructor's benefit that the student learns how to use the search engines as early as possible in the course. The main things we hear that are missing in the online classroom is the social life of getting together in the evenings and what some feel is the motivation they get from the classroom deadlines.

These are valid considerations. The best solution is to make it social again. That is, take the online course with your partner or crew mate. Most schools let you share one login if you are sharing expenses to begin with. Then the only difference is you must ask your questions under one login name, and you can only submit one quiz. So print out the quizzes, work them independently, meet to discuss your answers, place your bets on who has it right, and submit one set of answers to be graded. It is a very good way to take an online course. Again your own experiences or questions about online learning can be posted at the Starpath Facebook page.

At one point the USCG was trending toward allowing more online training to contribute to license training qualifications, but it seems they are rethinking the process here in 2012 as they prepare to make even larger changes to the licensing program. It is always a tricker matter when it comes to professional licensing, as opposed to training and learning for its own sake.

Some online training programs team up with a university or junior college to take advantage of an established online classroom infrastructure, others like Starpath, develop their own versatile software for the job. When we started this, we did not have many options. Most of the programming had to be from scratch. But this is no longer required. Now a school wishing to add online training can partner with numerous services that provide complete online course structure for them. Or there are open source (free) software packages such as those at with an extensive support community.

There will be stumbling blocks as encountered in some licensing programs, and even in the news these days in public schooling, but there is little doubt that online learning will be a major part of education in the future. The advantages are just too numerous. There are even online courses now on how to make an online course.

—David Burch
Starpath School of Navigation