by Captain Margaret Pommert, ASA Instructor Evaluator
I have been an ASA Instructor for many years. When I went back to the University of Washington in 2016 to earn a Certificate in E-Learning Design and Development, colleagues assumed that I expected to change my profession. My reply was: “No, but I am expecting my profession to change!”.
Sailing schools have long used classrooms for instruction. Sometimes those ‘classrooms’ are the cockpit of a boat. Or below deck in the cabin. Wherever they are, classrooms are the place where sailing instructors focus on conceptual parts of learning and discussion before the on-the-water, hands-on portions. But topics like Marine Weather, Radar, Coastal and Celestial Navigation, can be taught almost entirely in a classroom.
Several ASA Affiliates and Instructors have experimented with moving more of their classes and workshops to an interactive online venue. Many of us have been cautiously dipping our toes into this endeavor for many years.
Then COVID-19 came along and literally pushed us off the dock.
In the last 2 months, I have taught 20 interactive online seminars for Seattle Sailing Club on topics ranging from Marine Diesel Engines, to Electronic Navigation, to the Racing Rules of Sailing. At San Juan Sailing and Yachting, Captain Mike Huston and his team are transitioning portions of charterer orientation to on-demand online seminars.
At other schools, instructors have been teaching some ASA Certification courses in an online webinar format. Captain Tom Tursi, of the Maryland School of Sailing and Seamanship, has been teaching Coastal and Celestial Navigation via GoToMeeting for more than 10 years. Captain Lisa Batchelor Frailey taught a complete ASA 119 Marine Weather course by webinar recently for Sail Solomons.
Lisa, Tom, and I have been teaching live, interactive, online classes. These are different from pre-recorded self-study classes, such as those offered by NauticEd. Instructional designers call this “synchronous” vs “asynchronous” instruction, respectively. Lisa, Tom, and I recently compared notes and developed some “lessons learned” to share with other ASA Affiliates and Instructors:
Lesson: Your students cannot learn to navigate the ocean if they cannot figure out how to steer a course through your online navigation seminar.
So, as the instructor, you must:
- Help your students off the dock. Send concise, well-written instructions for logging into your class and how to navigate through it well in advance. Embed screenshots. Make yourself available 15 minutes before the first class to help new users come up to speed. For a multi-session online course, have a quick check-in meeting several days beforehand to ensure that everyone can log into and navigate your classroom.
- Plot a course for your students to follow. In a face-to-face (F2F) classroom, we instructors often communicate information visually without really thinking about it. When we teach concepts from the textbook, we hold it up. When we describe an action that we do onboard a boat, we pantomime the motion. But students often don’t get those visual cues in an online classroom. So, they need an outline to show how the things we teach them will be applied, where they will be applied, and when to refer to the resource materials provided. Be clear which materials are key waypoints on their route of learning, versus those that are just interesting side meanders for them to explore later on their own. Tom includes links to specific YouTube videos along with textbook pre-reading for his ASA 101, 103, and 104 students.
- Teach students how to signal their distress early on. In a F2F classroom, if a student has a challenge with the material or how to find it (“I can’t find that page in the textbook!”), they can often rely on other students, as well as the instructor, to help them. But it’s much harder to do in an online setting. A student that runs into technical challenges may quickly be left behind if the instructor can’t “see” their distress. Alternatively, they may bring the entire class to a grinding halt as they try to communicate what they are experiencing on their end of the internet connection. So, establish a signaling protocol for your online class. This may include muting/unmuting, hands up, questions, and requests for a break. Show them how to use the chat room and/or telephone if they have audio issues. Periodically, check in with all of them and ask them to take some action to signal that they are “OK” by giving a real or virtual ‘thumbs up’ or other signal. I like to give my students a chance to signal anonymously if I’m moving too fast or too slowly. For larger webinars, it can be very helpful to have a second instructor focused on monitoring the chat room to address any problems that crop up. Tom and I have both experienced greater hesitation among students in online classrooms to ask questions compared to conventional ones . When I ask students about this individually, several have mentioned that part of their hesitation comes from not being able to see and hear cues from other students in the class. In a physical classroom, a student that has a question may look at other students to get a sense of whether they too are lost. If the student sees confused looks on the faces of other students, or sees them flipping back and forth in a textbook, they may realize that others likely have the same question. So, they feel emboldened to ask. This is an ongoing challenge for an online instructor.
- Have an emergency station bill. Communicate who is going to do what if the class starts to sink. Ensure students know what to do if they can’t log in, don’t have audio or visual feeds. Can they call in by telephone? Or refer to a PDF file? What if they are in an area of poor reception or if the connection is suddenly lost and the classroom crashes? Where and when will you regroup?
Lesson: Just as there is not a ‘best’ sailboat, there’s not a ‘best’ classroom.
Some are just more suitable for your course and crew. Here are some considerations for the ways an online classroom differs from F2F:
- Will your class be anchored (pre-recorded, on-demand, and “asynchronous”) or underway (live, interactive, and “synchronous”)? Most financial trade-offs a school makes are obvious in terms of the cost to produce a course, versus the cost to deliver a course per student. The student engagement tradeoffs are also straight-forward. Without a ‘live’ instructor to support and encourage a student to complete a course within a certain timeframe, it is much easier for a student to be left behind and/or drop out. But courses do not need to be either/or. Many schools are discovering the power of “blended learning”. One example is to combine online elements like knot tying videos into the curriculum for a hands-on ASA 101 course.
- More work to prep for the voyage. Many instructors new to interactive online classrooms don’t realize how much more preparation time is required for a F2F classroom. Truth be told, a well-worn syllabus or course outline can work fine in an F2F classroom for years. As topics become out-of-date (how many of us still have LORAN on our navigation syllabus?) and new information emerges, instructors simply drop/add the topics to present to students. If the syllabus is poorly written or non-existent, an experienced instructor can just ‘wing it’. New pictures can be drawn on a classroom whiteboard. But drawing on an online whiteboard has very limited utility. Most presentation material must be created ahead of time. Many topics, like navigation, need to be updated regularly to remain relevant. Tom mentioned to me that every year, he spends two days to update each single day of content for his online classes. This takes time, even if just converting material from a F2F classroom format. Schools and instructors need to plan for that. However, Tom, Lisa, and I all agree that there is a silver lining; reviewing and redesigning course materials for online delivery can significantly improve a course. For Tom, “one big plus of transition to online delivery was how precisely [he] could present the chart images for the navigation classes. It’s impossible to replicate the same thing in a physical classroom without the use of expensive digital projectors.”
- The helm feels very different. It’s not just a different medium. It’s also a different kind of interaction with your students. In a F2F classroom, it’s ‘normal’ for a sailing instructor to stand before the class and lecture. Students listen respectfully, often as much out of a sense of propriety as actual engagement. Then, what about that same talking head in an online classroom? The same talking head in an online classroom can be painfully boring to watch. Students will quickly escape to one of the many distractions available to them on their computer. For the instructor, it feels a bit like steering a boat without the feedback resistance of weather helm. It’s hard to ‘feel’ if your students are moving in the direction you want to take them. Not being able to see facial expressions or body language presents a challenge for the instructor to gauge the students’ comprehension. Both Lisa and I try to regain this classroom ‘feel’ by asking the class more open-and-close-ended questions and by using short quizzes and interactive elements. One technique Tom uses to engage students is to say, “Now John, you take the next 4 review questions we’re discussing, answer them, and add your own commentary.” He also requests students to turn on their video feeds (if not already on) when they ask questions so that he can see their faces.
- Choose the right online platform. It’s important to choose an online learning platform that suits your course(s). Just as there are great blue-water sailboats that would overwhelm a beginning sailor, there are online learning platforms that are appropriate in a university setting but not for a one-evening sailing seminar. If the students’ learning curve for an online classroom platform is steeper than the content of the class itself, they’re likely to drop out. On the other hand, the platform should have features and capabilities to meet needs for foreseeable course requirements. I’ve worked with several Learning Management Systems (LMS), and the one thing they have in common is that moving a class from one platform to another means starting over from scratch. Web meeting tools like Zoom are easy to learn, but cannot provide the benefits of a real LMS, such as integrating student testing and records. Unfortunately, a high-end LMS system probably costs more than any one ASA Affiliate can afford. As with sailboats, we must find a compromise between functionality and cost.
Lesson: What matters most is how and when you do online instruction.
- It’s not just the destination, it’s the voyage. We teach recreational sailing. Our students are there to meet and interact with each other just as much as they are to learn specific skills from us! Many friendships are forged in sailing courses. Unfortunately, the informal interactions that we have with students before and after class and at break times are largely lost in an interactive online class. I try to compensate for this by tailoring questions to engage students as they introduce themselves when class begins. Simple questions like, “When and where was the last time you went sailing?”, or, “What’s your favorite boat in the fleet and why?” These interactions help to make the environment friendly and fun. I also look for opportunities to break up the larger classes into smaller virtual teams to work together on assignments. Then I ‘drop in’ on each group, just to monitor the social interactions as much as to answer questions. I’ve also found that when online students share their video feeds and see the faces of their classmates, there’s more laughter and engagement. So, I’m working on ideas to encourage that. At the same time, many students have told me how much they LIKE the option of turning off their video feed to enjoy dinner or play with their pets while attending an online class. They assure me it’s nothing personal!
- Reef it down. There are lots of interesting online learning tools and techniques out there, but less is more. Try to use just one platform, and only one or two resources (workbook, PDFs of readings, etc). Send all the materials and web links ahead of time by email to ensure that students always have access. For on-demand courses especially, there’s a real temptation to include a variety of interesting, but non-essential materials. Rather than adding value, these extra materials make it harder for students to find the key waypoints that they need to pass and complete the class. A former student of mine, who is trying to work his way through an on-demand navigation course, shared these observations: “I think it’s a good course. An awful lot of content, however, and therefore I’m not sure what the most important bits to know are, versus the ancillary ‘if you can remember, it’s good to know’ information. It is very content-rich, and I think having the book will serve as a great reference for trip planning. However, as far as retained knowledge, it’s a bit of a mixed bag at this point.” And these are the comments from a university professor of advanced mathematics! One can only imagine the challenges for students less academically inclined.
- Don’t tack before the layline. Regardless of how classroom instruction is delivered, it’s important to not let too much time pass before students put it into practice. This conventional wisdom was proven as fact in research that was done to develop the NOWS (National On the Water Standards) for sailing instruction in the United States. This is one pitfall for any online training that requires a separate piece of on-the-water instruction like ASA 101, 103, 104. Once students learn concepts like sail trim in a classroom, if they do not soon put it into practice, they will typically forget most of what they have learned. So any online training in these courses should either be, (1) for content that does not involve on-the-water skills, or (2) delivered not long before it will soon be practical to perform the accompanying on-the-water, hands-on portion.
I hope these insights are useful to others on the same course and I would love to learn what others have discovered!
Captain Margaret Pommert, ASA Instructor Evaluator