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Editor’s Note: There is a long and productive history of distance learning support for students in the military. The tremendous size of this effort dates back to World War II. This article provides insights on effective use of technology to overcome a series of constraints in deliverfing programs to navy ships in different parts of the world.

On the Front Lines of Distance Learning:

Teaching Warrior Students

Patricia B. Strait


This paper offers a detailed account of the challenges encountered during the implementation of a unique distance learning program which provides graduate courses to active duty military students serving onboard combative ships. The paper begins by providing an overview of the distance learning technology which makes it possible to provide live classes simultaneously to students who are on board ships located in multiple time zones up to thirteen hours away from the professor teaching the class. Despite the advancements in this distance learning method, there remain several challenges for both the students and the professor participating in this distinctive program. To that end, five specific challenges are explored. These challenges include: classroom conditions onboard the ship, conflicting priorities, security restrictions, multi-time zone scheduling, and student isolation. Lastly, commentary is provided which contemplates the future of distance learning programs to “warrior students” on the open seas.

Keywords: distance learning, implementation, military, technology, challenges, ships, students, education, programs


The navy, like all branches of the military is deeply concerned about retaining qualified employees especially now during the global war against terrorism. To aid retention and foster continuing education efforts, the navy offers several distance learning opportunities to personnel at sea. This article provides an instructor’s observations regarding one of the most innovative distance learning initiatives called, “Ships at Sea”. First, an overview of the program and the technology it uses will be provided followed by an analysis of five specific challenges an instructor can expect to encounter when teaching active duty military students via this unique distance learning program.

 The Ships at Sea Program delivers live televised courses to navy ships at sea via a joint military/civilian satellite connection for students pursuing a Master’s Degree in Business Administration. The Ships at Sea Program not only allows these sea-based warrior students to receive a live lecture from a professor located several time zones away, but also provides the professor with a live view of the students who are operating in such distant seas as the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Sea of Japan.

Program Overview and Implementing the Civilian-Military Technology Link

The Ships at Sea program is provided by Old Dominion University. ODU’s distance learning network is one the largest interactive distance learning networks of its kind in the United States. A public doctoral research institution, ODU is located in Norfolk, Virginia which also happens to be the home of the world’s largest naval base. The proximity and shared interests of these two institutions has resulted in a unique partnership. TELETECHNET, as the distance learning system is called, delivers graduate and undergraduate courses to students who are unable to attend traditional campus classes. The ODU distance learning system includes a large modern facility which contains approximately fifteen studio classrooms equipped with cameras, tracking devices, instructor control panels, computers, monitors, and digital white boards. The audio system allows the professor to choose between a traditional microphone that is clipped to one’s jacket or a sensor-mike that tracks the professor via a remote controlled camera as the professor moves about in the studio classroom. By selecting among the options available in the control panel, the professor is able to provide the students with a video presentation, internet access, a PowerPoint presentation, overhead projection, or digital white board notations. An integration of these options allows the instructor to broadcast a sophisticated and interactive presentation to students at extremely distant locations. In addition to the training needed to operate the technology, each professor must also adapt his or her course and presentation style to the live televised format. Consideration must be given to camera angles, lighting, and movement. Thought must also be given to patterns and colors of clothing worn by the professor as particular colors tend to “bleed” on television and certain patterns can cause visual distortions for the viewer.

To accomplish the satellite connection, university technicians work with military technicians to link the civilian and military satellite systems. The navy provides the primary means of communication for the Ships at Sea program by allowing the university to access the military satellite system known as Challenge Athena. Simply stated, the university’s satellite system sends the live feed to the Challenge Athena satellite via a connection of naval communications centers. From there, the ship links directly with Challenge Athena and downloads the live signal. The latest advances in this technology have made it possible to link with multiple ships simultaneously thereby allowing students located in different time zones to participate in the same class together. All classrooms aboard the ships are equipped with cameras and audio systems and students are able to view their classmates located on other ships. When a student activates the microphone at his desk, the camera abandons the wide angle default position and zooms in for a close-up on the student keying the microphone. When the student is done speaking, the camera resumes its default position which provides the professor with a panoramic view of each ship’s classroom. If a professor is broadcasting to more than one ship, the monitors in the instructor’s studio provide the professor with a thirteen second scan of each ship’s classroom. From the students’ perspective, they are provided with a close-up of their professor throughout the class or the alternative view the professor has selected such as a PowerPoint presentation or whiteboard illustration.

The Five Challenges of Teaching of Warrior Students

Teaching is never accomplished in a vacuum. Even in a conventional classroom environment, the world intrudes from time to time via local or national events or even simple things such as power failures, or fire drills. The conditions encountered when teaching students onboard combatant ships via live television, however, are particularly challenging. Below is an analysis of five unique challenges an instructor faces when teaching warrior students at sea via a live satellite connection.

Challenge Number One: The Classroom Environment

The location of a ship’s classroom is critically important to the learning environment. While some ships have dedicated classrooms reserved specifically for education and training, most ships must use rooms that serve a variety of purposes. Examples of classrooms that serve more than one purpose include classroom spaces which are also used as the ship’s chapel or the ship’s library or the ship’s theater. Some floating classrooms can be rather noisy depending on where they are located on the ship. For instance, on aircraft carriers it is not unusual for the ship’s classroom to be located under the catapult which launches the aircraft from the flight deck. When a jet is launched, the classroom flexes with the force and weight of the catapult. The sound of the jets engines can often be heard by the professor back in the studio in the United States. Both the students and the professor must learn to concentrate through these considerable distractions. Classrooms can also be unbearably hot or extremely cold according to the location and/or operating conditions of the ship. When ships are located in warm waters such as the Persian Gulf, students can be seen sweating and squirming in their seats or bundled in warm coats if the ship is operating in the North Sea. Seldom is the warrior student treated to a comfortable and quiet classroom environment.

Challenge Number Two: Warrior Student Priorities

The priority of every warrior student is the military mission. A professor who teaches warrior students must accept that his or her class has and always will have a lower priority. In addition, the warrior student’s attention is seldom focused entirely on what is happening in class when he is in class. Many students carry emergency beepers, walkie-talkies, or cell phones which ring or vibrate in class. There are times when special alerts are sounded and every student must immediately leave the classroom and report to assigned battle stations. The professor in the studio has no way of knowing when or if the students will be returning. The flight surgeons in the class (physicians who specialize in treating pilots) must respond to medical emergencies. The pilots in the class must leave to fly their assigned missions. The engineers in the class must respond to equipment failures, and the chaplains in the class must respond to a wide variety of crises. Students must also react to aircraft accidents on the flight deck, and fires that occur throughout the ship. This is only a small sample of the things that can happen during classroom time. Lastly, an instructor must learn to accept unusual excuses for late assignments such as; “I was out bombing Afghanistan” despite the nature of his or her political beliefs. Faculty members who to teach warrior students must accept these priorities.

Challenge Number Three: Communication Restrictions and Security Issues

To borrow the words of playwright Tennessee Williams, educational programs delivered via satellite connection must “rely upon the kindness of strangers”. In this case, the broadcasting university must rely on the bandwidth available in the navy’s communication’s system. The availability of bandwidth rises and falls according to the intensity of the military operations. As the intensity of operations increases, the available bandwidth for education purposes decreases. Although there has been a general decrease in bandwidth since the events of September 11th, 2001, it has not been enough to cause serious disruption in classroom connections. During times in which bandwidth does become scarce, more frequent interruptions in the signal will be experienced by both students and professor. In addition to bandwidth issues, professors are not allowed to know where their students are located or where the ship is headed except for in the most general terms. Ship movements are confidential, and any leeway that might have existed in this regard was eliminated after the United States was attacked in 2001.

Challenge Number Four: Scheduling

The student’s classroom is sailing in vast expanses of open water. As it does, the ship moves from time zone to time zone, and from country to country. The ship operates 24 hours a day seven days a week. Typically, classes convene in the evenings according to the ship’s time zone location. Most ships prefer that the classes be offered during the weekend since this timeframe offers the fewest potential interruptions for the students. The start time remains the same from the student’s perspective, which means that the professor must adjust his or her starting time each week according to where the ship is located in the world. This requirement creates constantly changing work hours for the instructor. Each week the professor must wait for a start time message from the lead ship. The message will contain general information regarding the time zone in which the ship is operating, and will inform the professor as to the time that class must begin the following weekend. The start time messages are sent via e mail in Greenwich Mean Time or what military personnel refer to as Zulu time. The professor then converts the Zulu time to his local time zone. The ships participating in the Ships at Sea program are typically located between six to thirteen time zones away from the east coast of the United States. This being the case, classes will typically start between midnight and six in the morning Eastern Standard Time.

Challenge Number Five: Stress and Isolation

The typical student who enrolls in the Ships at Sea Program has an undergraduate degree from a very selective university. Many students are graduates of the Naval Academy or other top universities. Several students will already have advanced degrees. Nearly all of the students have significant work experience. Their academic histories typically include course work in quantitative analysis, business, and engineering. In addition, many students hold positions of great responsibility supervising large numbers of personnel. Nearly all of the warrior students are technologically savvy from both a civilian and military perspective. The typical age range for MBA students in the Ships at Sea Program is between the ages of 28-48 years. The students include both enlisted and officer as well as male and female students. Long deployments away from loved ones are particularly trying on the warrior student. Navy ships are typically deployed for a minimum of six months and are often extended beyond six months. These long separations are stressful to military personnel and their families. The stress impacts not only their professional lives, but their personal lives as well. Professors who teach via television are often the only live connection that naval personnel have with the home front. This personal connection forms a unique bond between the professor and student and can serve as an important support system as the student progresses in his or her education.

Teaching Warrior Students in the Future

The military continues to place a high value on education. This is not expected to change in the near future. The way educational programs are delivered to the military, however, must change. The biggest challenges to military distance learning remain accessibility and flexibility. Live televised education, while providing a rich interactive experience for the student, draws heavily upon military and civilian resources. The fixed time frame of a live televised class can create problems for many military students who are unable to get away from their duties at a specified period of time each week. Televised classes are also prone to signal disruptions as well as classroom availability problems. Students need to be able to access their courses from a variety of locations on the ship, not just a single classroom which may be needed for other purposes such as Sunday worship. Warrior students must also be able to start and stop a course according to his or her military duties.  These disruptions may last thirty minutes or more than thirty days if the student is sent on temporary assignment to another location. It may appear that the answer to these problems is to deliver classes via an asynchronous format. There remains, however, one significant problem with this method for warrior students; internet bandwidth for tasks other than the military mission itself remains very limited on most combatant ships. In addition, the internet access that is available is not evenly distributed among all crew members. Typically, senior military personnel or personnel serving in sensitive positions have better access to internet resources than other personnel. Security firewalls create yet another challenge. Sites such as MySpace, YouTube, and Twitter are also restricted due to the tendency of these sites to expose military computer systems to viruses. Many naval ships restrict access to anything other than one’s military e mail address. Until these problems are resolved, the viability of asynchronous courses on naval ships for educational purposes remains limited.

In conclusion, warrior students will never be like other college students. Their schedules are often interrupted and their assignments are often late for strange reasons; but they also hungrier to learn than the traditional student and more grateful for the attention that is given to them. Most professors who have taught in this rather unique program agree that military students are deserving of the extra effort and the attention they require. After all, some warrior students never come home.

About the Author

Patricia B. Strait Ph.D. is a faculty member at the University of Richmond. She is currently chair of the Department of Human Resource Management and Leadership Studies. She has over ten years of experience teaching in the distance learning including the program described in this article.

A former Navy air traffic controller, she is well acquainted with the educational challenges that military people face. Dr. Strait’s research interests include distance learning, employee ethics, immigration, and labor economics. She writes articles both in English and Spanish and belongs to several international organizations.

She can be reached at pstrait@richmond.edu




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