SSI (Scuba Schools International) is the first of the major SCUBA certification agencies to offer “FREE online training”. Now don’t get too excited. While it is truly free training. This is not great online training and you still have to pay the same to get a certified; but it is a significant and innovative approach to bring new divers into SCUBA.
Susan Fletcher of SSI marketing told ScubaGadget that the move to add the free training offering was made as way to dispel the “intimidation factor” that they found prevents people interested in SCUBA from actually coming into a dive shop and signing up for a course. An un-referenced survey from the SSI press realease is quoted saying that 24% of Americans would like to try diving. Susan said they found many prospects were just “passing by the dive shop” because of misconceptions about diving or just because they did not know what questions to ask about dive training or the equipment. The free online training, while it clearly doubles as a marketing tool for SSI and their affiliated dive shops, is designed specifically to give prospective students a full understanding of what to expect out of SCUBA, the full course and how to fit and purchase the initial equipment. It is not a demo course. It gives students a good portion of real academic training needed the diver training program.
There are a few quirks and growing pains that are evident when you go online. First it is currently way to difficult to find, sign up and begin the course on the SSI website. SSI promises this will change soon. Susan said they had a big meeting about this just before I called for the interview. The problems stems from the fact that the initial vision was for students to only be able to get to the course from an SSI participating dive center’s website. When they decided to allow anyone to access the course directly from the SSI website, the process was thrown together and not well designed.
The course itself is not very interactive. It is mostly just reading a book online with a few videos and an interactive test at the end of the chapters. There is however a cute floating couple of avatar trainers on the screen to introduce each section. We could not get past the first chapter because the quiz would not work. Susan said that because SSI is based in Germany, it would take a bit of time to get these bugs fixed.
Additionally, SSI is a bit too vague when they describe the program. The website says, “You can complete the [Academics portion] online FREE when you sign up for SSI’s Online Training program.” This seems to indicate that you do not have to pay for, or do more book/video or class room training. That is not the case. The course is not less expensive when if you take the ‘free’ online training. You also will be doing more “Academics” during the paid program.
Despite the birth pains and the fuzzy course description on the SSI website we believe that offering this “real training” that is totally free will help dispel potential diver’s myths and anxiety, lower the barriers to entry and should go a long way to helping bring more people into SCUBA.
We also interviewed staff at the other major SCUBA certification agencies for their take on the SSI offering. The responses ranged from sarcasm to “let’s see what happens.” None of the others had taken time to look at the SSI offering and none are planning a similar program. NAUI VP, Jed Livingstone was abrupt and wrote, “… they must believe that their program has no value if they are willing to give it away.” NAUI, as far as we can tell, is the hold out in offering any online training (It is the 21st century now.). SDI/TDI is the pioneer of online SCUBA training. They have the most extensive online program and have been using online training years before the others. Brian Carney of SDI/TDI offered, “that while they do not have free training, they are willing to refund any diver’s money that is not happy with their online training.” (We hope readers will comment and verify if this is true in your experience.) He also said that their program’s academics are fully online and all other work is in the water (no classroom time required). SDI also has a demo lesson online. PADI’s Therese Gulledge said, “They have no plans to offer any free programs. It is a difference in business models.” She touted their “E-Learning” program and said they have a demo. But when we checked, we found the demo was only instructions on how to use the real online program. It gave no sense about the quality of their program. SIDE NOTE: We will ask these agencies to give us a demo login so we can compare and review these programs for a future article.
As a marketing tool the comments we saw online from SSI dive shop owners about the new program were all positive. Owners seemed thrilled that they can offer free training. They believe this will get them an edge of the other agencies dive shops in getting more students. They are also pleased that the free offering does not cut into their take of the course fee. We look forward to revisiting the topic in 6 months to see if the numbers justify this experiment. Check back and, as always, send your feedback.
Given that diving is so related to water, it is odd that the dive industry is still very competition focused and has never learned what the wine industry and many others have learned – a rising tide lifts all boats. Although the numbers are not in, it is likely that if all of the agencies offered a portion of their online training for free with no risk or payment up front, we would have more divers in SCUBA and spending more money $$.