Online and Way Ahead

By Joseph Keefe
Monday, October 07, 2013

Calhoon MEBA Engineering School pioneers two more distance learning programs. Where others wonder if it can work, CMES is up and running – miles ahead of the pack.

On the heels of its already highly successful Crowd Management Online, and Crisis Management and Human Behavior Online courses – both intended primarily to satisfy STCW training requirements for the cruise and passenger ship sector – the Calhoon MEBA Engineering School has rolled out two new National Maritime Center (NMC) approved Online Deck Officer Course Programs. The online programs designed to help deck officers renew or upgrade their licenses, Radar Renewal ($225) and Flashing Light ($100), allow self-paced study; and ultimately, testing at as many as 340 conveniently located Prometric testing centers distributed throughout the United States.
For mariners weary of endless travel during scheduled holiday periods for the purpose of satisfying the increasingly onerous burden of regulatory compliance, a small measure of relief is finally at hand. Course study materials include video lectures available online as well as for download to iPad, iPhone, or Android devices. USCG-approved Instructors are available to answer questions. The interactive online course materials recreate the test environment, so the student experiences the same interface used during the examination. If the first attempt is unsuccessful, a re-test is offered during the same session.
USCG-approved eLearning Courses and associated Learning Management Systems (LMS) must satisfy the same quality standards as would be needed for a similar class given in a traditional brick and mortar environment. Therefore, any training organization that wants deliver content as an online course, it must (as a minimum) assure the Cost Guard NMC that a long list of requirements are met. These include:

  • course documentation is according to USCG standards   
  • student identity is verified   
  • synchronous training is part of the course
  • online instructors are vetted and approved by the USCG   
  • testing is secure   
  • instructor identity during training is verified
  • student-teacher ratios support sufficient interaction   
  • LMS has a high degree of reliability   
  • the LMS is secure, maintained, auditable

Given these constraints, it is no wonder that few maritime training centers have entered into this form of training. When the Calhoon MEBA Engineering School received approval by the USCG – way back in 2008 – for its Distance Learning LMS, it was the product of a two-year effort adapting the DNV Standards for Maritime Training Centers to an eLearning environment. Since then, no one has yet duplicated the effort and CMES continues to develop courses for the platform. Originally set up to help the MEBA union manage training and travel costs, their Distance Learning LMS platform is available to anyone in the maritime industry who can get access to a secure internet connection. The possibilities for more of this type of training to develop are therefore endless. For now, CMES is the only maritime training school to figure out not only how to do it, but also to satisfy both Coast Guard and STCW requirements in doing so. Other STCW courses are in the CMES pipeline, too. These include ship’s stability and meteorology for advancement to Chief Mate and Master.
According to Chuck Eser, Director of Training at CMES, the RADAR Recertification Online is doing well. Late last year, reported that about a dozen deck officers had done the refresher, practiced at home, and tested at a Prometric testing center. Eser continued, “The system seems to work well. In November, the first (ever) mariner completed CMES USCG-approved Online Flashing Light Program.  He went through the Online practice sessions, scheduled his session at Prometric, and successfully completed the test.” Test results went electronically to the NMC database. And the cost? Just $100.
More than three years ago, MarineNews editor Joe Keefe was one of the first students to experience the CMES’ LMS system. During his journey to attain STCW credentials for his “continuation status” USCG Deck Officer License, he took and completed two CMES, STCW Online classes; Crowd Management Online, and Crisis Management and Human Behavior Online. And, while the numbers of students taking advantage of the CMES system is not yet where they want it to be, Eser says that metric is moving in the right direction.
The remarkable part about the CMES journey, without discounting the sweat equity and ingenuity expended to devise, develop and roll out the systems themselves, is perhaps the amount of latitude that CMES and MEBA administrators gave the team of CMES Interim Director Chuck Eser and CMES Distance Learning Manager Dan Noonan to get the job done. Eser explained, “We wanted to do something innovative. MEBA gave us the time and money to do the job right. Sure, this system saves money with remote testing for membership, but it had a long incubation period, hence it was not immediately profitable.” Ultimately, the goal for CMES is to have as many as 500 people attending the online course annually. This level, of course, would go above and beyond the elimination of travel expenses for union membership, but also provides affordable options for any mariner.
Far from a self-serving and secretive endeavor, CMES has reached out to countless other schools in any number of ways. Twice the host of e-learning conferences at the CMES School in Maryland in the past few years, their agreement with Prometric also allows the school to act as what Prometric calls an ‘aggregator’. What this means is that any school that wants to put a course online and use Prometric to test their students does not have to go to Prometric and sign a 3 year minimum contract to use their testing services. Instead, they can come to CMES and for a nominal fee to package their test, plus a per test fee of approximately $100 per student, they can validate and verify their students tests results independently at over 320 US testing centers (and hundreds more worldwide). This could be part of a school’s NMC course submittal or if they just wanted to test their candidates to impartially verify their subject matter knowledge. Eser adds, “We are already working with one school in this way and they will have their testing live very soon.” Beyond this, however, CMES needs to produce a minimum number of test candidates to Prometric annually in order to make the system pay for itself. Dan Noonan told MarineNews in August, “Are we there yet? No. We are getting close, though.”
The implications of success at CMES in terms of e-Learning cannot be understated for the industry itself. For example, the state maritime academies today largely accomplish almost all of their STCW training for cadets in-house, but at an enormous annual cost that exceeds $1 million for each. As the European model of training for future officers continually impacts STCW requirements, the task only promises to get more onerous down the road. And, packaging the maritime academy training package into a traditional four-year college experience may soon become a thing of the past – that is, without e-learning to help deliver that knowledge. Ultimately, a blended education – combining traditional brick-and-mortar training for hands-on work with the knowledge based component of training delivered online may become the rule, rather than the exception.
For now, mariners can, for certain STCW requirements, avoid a five hour round trip drive to their nearest maritime academy for what amounts to a 10 question quiz. Throw in lodging, meals, gas (or airfare) and tolls to the mix and it can add up quickly. Of course, not all mariners will have the benefit of a testing center located within 50 miles of their home, but the vast majority of U.S. mariners certainly will.
Distilled down to its common denominator, CMES simply hopes to improve mariner training outcomes using existing and future technologies. The benefits are easy to calculate and include the reduction of training costs, the extension of technical and operational resources, the freeing up of existing training resources to concentrate on innovation and core business activities, the use of complementary resources and capabilities, enabling participants to grow and expand more quickly and efficiently and, finally, the positioning of training schools to expand their training offerings into the global market place. What’s not to like?

(As published in the September 2013 edition of Marine News -


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