“Too much technology”

The disabled USS John S. McCain being tugged to shore

That’s the quote from an article in the Navy Times, expressing the author’s take on the root cause for the surprising series of incidents recently involving the U.S. Navy. There were two fatal collisions of Navy warships with commercial vessels, resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors. The culprit, according to the article, and other reports, is the transition from face-to-face training in ship navigation from SWOS (the Surface Warfare Officers School Command) to the use of computer-based training. The article describes the process:

After 2003, each young officer was issued a set of 21 CD-ROMs for computer-based training — jokingly called “SWOS in a Box” — to take with them to sea and learn. Young officers were required to complete this instructor-less course in between earning their shipboard qualifications, management of their divisions and collateral duties.

The article asserts that those navigating the ships which suffered the collisions were trained under this system and concludes that “the Navy’s growing reliance on technology has eroded basic seamanship skills”. A story on National Public Radio last week echoes this view, with the commentator describing the change in the approach to training in this way: “They’ve been given a load of CDs. That’s right – online learning”.

The dismissive tone used here is something one hears often in connection with online learning, with the implication being that of course it cannot be as effective as face-to-face instruction. The problem here, as is often the case, is that this assessment does not consider the nature of the computer-based learning environment. It’s entirely possible to have such instruction be ineffective. Self-paced learning materials which center around static content presentation through presentations and documents are not likely to foster effective learning. But a slew of studies have shown that computer-based learning can be effective – if done right, with dynamic, media-rich, and interactive content. It’s particularly effective if incorporated into a socially connected and collaborative online learning environment. I have no idea how well the Navy’s training materials were designed, but neither did the commentators cited above. This kind of undifferentiated assessment of the use of technology in education and training gives a distorted picture of the reality of online learning.