By Dionne Walker

Traditionally, distance education has meant sitting in front of a computer or a television with the professor miles away. But for 12 graduate students in one of Old Dominion University's engineering programs, the distance is of a different sort. Not only are the students in the middle of an ocean, they are also several thousand feet below the surface. The classroom is the USS Montpelier, a nuclear attack submarine that is testing a program letting U.S. naval officers earn their master's degrees while answering the call of duty. The Navy College Program for Afloat Education works with colleges and universities to send courses to officers deployed on ships for long periods of time. Using CD-ROM technology, Old Dominion records lessons for the sub's officers to be viewed while they are deployed off the coast of South America.

Begun in 1996, the program originally offered only bachelors' degrees, but it was so successful that the Navy approached the school about developing a master's degree program for submarine officers, says Dick Whalen, retired naval captain and director of military activities at Old Dominion. "Based on the success of that program, the next logical step was to consider the nuclear power officer community and their pursuit of master's degrees," said Whalen. But the task of creating a master's degree program for submarines was full of roadblocks. For one, though the Navy routinely encourages officers to seek master's degrees in their specialized areas, the officers would need some incentive to incorporate school work with their already busy schedules on board the sub.

Located in Norfolk, VA—which is home to the world's largest Navy installation—Old Dominion obliged by offering students 12 credit hours of advanced study toward the 30 credit hours required for a degree in engineering management. This enables the officers to earn a master's degree in a little over a year. Next, Navy and university officials had the daunting task of getting the courses to the officers while they were several thousand feet below the surface. Because of the submersion, broadcasting live classes—as Old Dominion usually does in its other distance programs—was out of the question. Instead, engineering instructors record their lectures on interactive CDs, which are packaged with textbooks and sent out to sea along with the submarine.

"The CD-ROM format is very well-suited in this case," said Resit Unal, a professor of engineering management at Old Dominion. Using CDs, students have several advantages over traditional methods of distance learning, such as the ability to move at their own pace and to complete lessons when they find the time, Unal said. The students gather at a regularly scheduled time to watch the pre-recorded instructions from Old Dominion engineering faculty members on one of the submarine's large-screen displays. Additionally, the officers have access to Navy-provided laptops to take the interactive courses, completing lessons either in their own quarters, or in the ship's ward room. If the students have questions, they can communicate periodically with professors through e-mail, as well as ask their colleagues in the program. Thirteen of the sub's 14 officers participate in the program.

Each course takes approximately 90 days to complete, including interactive lessons, homework assignments, and tests—which are given to the ship's education officer, distributed to the students, then collected and sent back to shore for grading. The Montpelier returned to port in November and officials have begun assessing whether the program was successful enough to be incorporated permanently. The ship's skipper has given it a thumbs up. Says Commander Ron LaSalvia, "It's one of the best ideas I've seen come to the waterfront."

Dionne Walker is a former Prism editorial intern.

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