Navy hopes the PlayStation will help officers sail through exams

By Greg Hurst in the UK’s TimesOnline:

The Royal Navy has begun issuing handheld PlayStations to sailors to encourage them to study while at sea.

Sailors will be able to use the PlayStation Portable (PSP) to read and listen to coursework and practise on-screen tests in confined quarters.

The consoles, which are bright blue and worth £120 each, may hold the answer to two of the key challenges facing the education world: workplace training and distance learning.

Whether being battered by storms in the South Atlantic, or 200 metres underwater patrolling a troublespot in a submarine, sailors can brush up on maths and refresh their physics from their bunks.

The first to receive the devices are marine warfare engineering technicians, who maintain the fleet’s radar, sonar, VHF radio and communications systems. If the PSPs are a success, their distribution could be widened throughout the Navy, starting with air and marine engineers but potentially to many other disciplines.

The idea was developed at the maritime warfare school at HMS Collingwood in Fareham, Hampshire, which trains electrical engineers for the Navy. Alarmed that a quarter of ratings were having to drop out and retake courses, instructors decided on a new approach.

Consoles will be issued to sailors three months or so before they begin studying at HMS Collingwood, enabling them to prepare subjects in advance, particularly maths, which is crucial.

The consoles are preloaded with study packages, comprising slides and commentary prepared by instructors, compacted into “bursts” of between eight and twelve minutes each.

Lieutenant-Commander Mark “Beasty” Williams, who developed the programme, said: “On most ships, the space people have is quite small. Many have bunks with just a couple of feet above. This is the sort of thing that can be used in a bunk space.”

Similarly, consoles will be available once engineering technicians arrive for their courses, to go over lectures and revise afterwards.

Initial trials were popular with sailors, who tended to be familiar with the PSP commands and needed no help to start using them. Sony’s target market of largely male users aged between 18 and 30 matches that of the Navy’s weapons engineering technicians, although there are women among them. Sailors are free to play games on the console as well as study after naval chiefs decided against disabling its disc drive.

“I thought if we don’t disable it, it’ll be better looked after,” Commander Williams said.

“They are also engineering technicians and would probably be able to fix it themselves.”

Another reason for choosing the PSP over other consoles was it was deemed the most “Jack-proof” — sailors have a reputation for breaking equipment. A Sony representative visiting HMS Collingwood hurled one against a wall to prove its durability.

One of those to have used the console for study is Leading Engineering Technician Chris Colpus, 37, from Plymouth, who found listening to the commentary most useful.

“You have a voiceover as well as a presentation to explain it, instead of having to sit there and read it from a book and fix it in your own mind,” he said. “As soon as people know they are going on a course, they are going to want to get their hands on these as quickly as possible so you can get a heads-up on the maths.”

The incentives to pass courses are high. They are the route to promotion and a rise in salary of £2,000-£3,000. They also bring qualifications: a basic or advanced apprenticeship or, for petty officers, a foundation degree accredited by Portsmouth University.

So far, the weapons engineering school has bought 230 consoles, spending £50,000 including programme development, most of it from the Learning and Skills Council, which funds apprenticeships.

Engineering technicians on the destroyer HMS Liverpool were the first to receive their batch of PSPs. Submariners operating from Faslane naval base on the Clyde get theirs this week and those elsewhere in the fleet will follow.

Far from being an extravagance, naval chiefs see the move as part of their efficiency savings, which have cut training costs to £200 an hour.

Courses have been compressed into shorter periods to cut costs and advanced study should improve the success rate.

Commander Trevor Price, of Navy Command, said that training had to adapt for a generation that no longer naturally studied from books. “We are working on the premise that looking at a book is now seen as dull and boring,” he said. “When I was at school you sat at your desk and you did your work and that was it.”

It’s not all fun and games

The Navy issues bright blue PlayStation portable consoles with a case, earpiece and lanyard. The alternative colour offered was pink but was rejected

Consoles are being issued to weapons engineering training co-ordinators of each ship, to distribute to their team

Each comes preloaded with a choice of courses for engineering technicians at three levels The basic weapons engineering course includes atomic structure, semi-conductors, doping, the positive-negative (PN) junction, reverse biasing and forward biasing

Much of the course is based on mathematical principles. Maths questions include: what is -7 — -5 [minus seven take away minus five]

No answers or scores can be recorded on consoles because of the Data Protection Act.

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