Training and certification should be a blend of theoretical learning and practical demonstration, says The Workboat Association chief executive Kerrie Forster
Ask any education professional about qualifications and skills and it is guaranteed they will tell you that certification and competency are two very different subjects.
Educationalist Professor Stephen Heppell wrote, “There is a long history of the tension between certification and competency.”
Some of that falls into a debate about the role of knowledge. Should it precede practical experience or should it parallel practical experience? Should it be built on the understandings gained from practical experience?
Of course, passive learning in a classroom is not useless. ‘Learning for its own sake’ can be very rewarding.
But for authentic skills to develop, for a grounded understanding of knowledge, for the insight of key nuances within that knowledge, for the ability to apply understanding to unexpected problems, learning needs to be situational and the accreditation of it needs to be more than just momentary.
Perhaps most importantly, when learning is divorced from actual competency, it often falls behind practice and the artificial classroom version excludes many potentially competent professionals.
The artificial curriculum just never seems to progress fast enough or be subtle enough to represent current practice. This is particularly true where practice is evolving, where technology has a key component, or where the regulations and protocols governing practice are themselves changing.
Perhaps in summary the contrast is between someone waiting to attempt a classroom-based assessment saying, “I hope there are no surprises on the test paper” and someone who is having their competency assessed in a real situation saying, “Well, I was not expecting that. But I learned so much from having to deal with it”.
So, does holding a certificate mean you are competent? The UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), closely supported by industry, has been adapting its methods for managing the assessment of competency within maritime for many years.
The age of blended learning has sparked a wider review into how maritime training within the UK is conducted. The MCA now has its own assistant director for modernising maritime education, Dr Carole Davis, who joined the team in 2021.
Tug crews are by nature primarily employed for their outstanding levels of situational awareness, hand-eye co-ordination, communications and foresight.
These skills, paramount to successful vessel operations, are not necessarily able to be taught in the classroom, nor effectively assessed in an orthodox onshore test environment either.
Back in 2013, the MCA first introduced the Voluntary Towing Endorsement Scheme [MGN 468 (M)], an onboard operational assessment of skills, knowledge, management and communication.
The MCA recognises that certificates it issues under the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping 1978, as amended (STCW) are generic to the industry, and there is no requirement for a separate statutory towage endorsement.
However, after consulting with industry, the need for a voluntary towage endorsement scheme was identified. Voluntary towage endorsements will assist owners and operators engaged in towage work, or harbour masters, contractors and others when risk assessing towage operations. Endorsements will enable individuals to demonstrate they are suitably experienced and competent to carry out such work.
The Voluntary Towing Endorsement scheme has gone from strength to strength since its launch and has become a prime example of how assessment on the vessel during towing operations provides a more natural and relatable scenario to those being assessed than that experienced in the classroom or test centre.
This style of assessment has led not only to a workforce that is evaluated on its merit rather than its academic ability, but also to a workforce that remains employed for those key vocational skills we previously highlighted. Rather than seafarers facing educational bottlenecks due to a requirement to be trained and assessed in a methodology of academic norm.
Where does this go next? Well, successes of physical- and situational-based assessments are being widely noted within seafaring, from virtual reality suites and simulators that are now becoming more and more globally accessible, to the hands-on skills and training learned during many STCW short courses.
But will we see more of this approach being taken when assessing for certificates of competency (CoC)?
RYA’s Yacht Master CoC series is a good example of how practical skills are being assessed simultaneously, with a demonstration of prior theoretical learning.
Could we achieve similar when studying the various modules to gain internationally recognised STCW CoCs? I do hope so, watch this space.