Computer training for a safer ship

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

14 April 2017


Classroom training interspersed with periods of practical instruction at sea has traditionally been the main method of delivering training but in the digital age these are being complemented and in some cases replaced by newer methods.

Leaving aside simulator training the means of delivering training are changing at an accelerating pace. One of the earliest means of delivering training was by making use of films. Now there are many organisations that produce training films but one of the early pioneers was UK-based Videotel which was established by ex-seafarers in the early 1970s and which was requested by IMCO (now the IMO) to produce a series of films that could be used by training establishments in the developing world. Being produced in English they were also useful in helping to familiarise students with the Standard Marine Navigational Vocabulary (SMNV) which was introduced for watchkeepers around the same time. Today the use of English as the common maritime language is enshrined in many regulations beyond those just relating to navigation.

However, the message in training films can be difficult to understand if the language used is foreign to the audience so major manufacturers do produce dubbed or subtitled versions in many different languages. The use of training films was quickly taken up by ship operators as well as training establishments. Before the satellite age, the films were ideal for showing in the mess rooms onboard where they had the dual role of providing both education and some degree of entertainment for ships’ crews. Videotel’s initial operation strategy was to provide vessels with a selection of films which would later be exchanged for different titles. This rental system rather than outright purchase made the service more accessible at the time. The concept of training videos was taken up by other suppliers and the number of providers has expanded over time as has the subjects of the films themselves.

Training films are typically quite short deliberately so as to avoid attention lapses and where a subject demands more time this is frequently split over two or more films. While it is perfectly possible to gain a lot of information from just watching, a good trainer will look to extend the session with discussion and anecdotes that help reinforce the lessons learned.

Of necessity, most films are generic but some training film makers offer shipping companies customised products that are filmed onboard their own vessels but perhaps with specialist or selected highly competent crew members. This approach adds a personal touch and trainees will recognise how the exact equipment on board should be used. In addition to bespoke company films it has become common for film makers to team up with other industry bodies such as P&I clubs or class societies to produce specific films. The majority of films are intended as training aids for STCW competencies. There are also many more that cover non-STCW issues including catering and offshore operations.

A recent development is providing the films in electronic format, either delivered on board using a computer or online using a ship’s communication equipment. With computer equipment now commonplace on board it is even easier to have multiple groups undergoing training at the same time watching different films at different

The computer age

Seafarer training involves gaining knowledge and skills of many different systems, technologies and machines depending on the particular specialisation of the trainee. In the 1990s training institutions and manufacturers began exploring the use of interactive computer based training (CBT) in a range of subjects and equipment.

Definitions of CBT can vary but it is usually accepted that there are certain elements that must be present beyond the training being delivered by computer. These are that they:

  • Can be completed without the need for support or assistance by instructors
  • Have built in assessment and produce records of the training time and the student identification
  • Are interactive
  • Use multimedia technology
  • Are run on standalone PCs, networked computers, the Internet, or corporate Intranets
  • Are run aboard ship or at shore locations

Most early CBT courses were on basic training matters but as the scope of topics and the number of course providers grew it was felt by many in the industry that some guidance was needed. In October 2000, the Nautical Institute held a conference in London under the title CBT@Sea and the findings were published.

These outcomes were considered by the IMO’s Sub-Committee on Standards of Training and Watchkeeping and in 2002 the IMO issued a circular – Issues to be considered when integrating computer based technologies into the training and assessment of seafarers (STCW.7/Circ.13).

The issues were broken down into different areas and are detailed below;

Issues for Maritime Administrations

Maritime Administrations, in their role of approving training for compliance with the requirements of the STCW Convention, as amended, may be asked to approve CBT packages.
Issues to consider when approving CBT for compliance should include all traditional aspects of approving training programmes, such as accuracy and scope of course content and the effectiveness of the assessment, but should additionally include:

  • Tutor support load – some organisations have found that the support management load by shore staff training students at sea is enormous.
  • Results from CBT assessments – will the program produce its own printed assessment results? What is the procedure for monitoring the assessment process?
  • The quality of assessment – the Administration must look at the topic being examined and satisfy itself that the CBT package not only includes a sufficiently comprehensive list of questions to adequately assess student competence but that the mechanism for selecting the questions is appropriate to the level being examined and that the answers are correct.
  • Prevention of cheating – the Administration must satisfy itself that the database of assessment questions is of sufficient volume to prevent correct question guessing or other circumvention of algorithms to achieve an undeserved pass, and that the range of questions accurately assesses the student’s competence.
  • Security – the database must be secure against hackers and should alert supervisors to attempts at tampering.

The following considerations need to be taken into account by Maritime Administrations thinking of using CBT to assist in the assessment of a seafarer prior to issuing a certificate of competency. The advantages to an Administration in using this technique may include reduced running costs, remote assessment of competence, and improved service to the industry through reduced processing time for the certification of seafarers.

Other issues requiring consideration include:

  • The process for updating questions in the database.
  • The need for assessing competence through practical exercises as well as computer assessment. Computer assessment can assess knowledge but not skill.
  • Validation – the process for handling assessment results: whether the assessment results are sent in by the seafarer, or whether the assessment will be held in real time, possibly via the Internet.
  • The monitoring of assessments: is the assessment to be monitored at an approved location, or can it be taken at any time and location by a lone seafarer. If so, how will the identity of the seafarer be confirmed?
  • The security of the database to prevent cheating.