Distracted students and dense material are the curse of professors everywhere. But try keeping a classroom full of twentysomethings focused on the marketing merits of Morton salt while fighter planes roar off a flight deck overhead.
And, oh yeah, they're 7,000 miles away.
As the U.S. Navy continues to offer educational advancement to sailors at sea, the Internet and satellite hookups are taking over from the old-time correspondence courses. But few are as advanced as the graduate-level business curriculum Old Dominion University is pioneering from this quintessential Navy town.
The Norfolk Naval Station is the world's largest. About 100,000 military personnel and 100 ships are based in the Hampton Roads area. And Old Dominion, already a leader in what's called "distance learning," has begun offering courses to an ambitious pool of students who have a little time on their hands--like six months.
The courses, such as the four-hour marketing management class beamed to the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea today, draw both those seeking advancement within the service and those preparing for a new life outside it. Either way, an MBA is a ticket up.
Lt. Thomas Musselman, a 26-year-old Naval Academy graduate serving as a deck officer on the aircraft carrier, has visions of starting an Internet company when his commitment is up in May. Or maybe he and a buddy will start the military affairs newsletter they've been dreaming of.
"I think an MBA would certainly benefit me, whether I started my own business or worked for another one," said the blurry, digitalized image of Musselman as he spoke over the same two-way satellite link used for the class.
The technology of distance learning has improved remarkably since Old Dominion began beaming courses to area military sites 16 years ago.
Back then, the university routinely had to send a staff member onto the roof on windy days to keep the microwave antenna on target.
Today's course traveled via land-based phone lines to New Jersey before beaming to a satellite and back down to the Roosevelt. Assignments and office hours happen by e-mail. And to make the course as user-friendly as possible, its time--6 p.m. to 10 p.m. each Sunday--doesn't change for its entire 11 weeks.
The professor and university techs adjust their schedule as the ship slips through time zones on the way to the world's hot spots. The Roosevelt flew sorties over Serbia and Kosovo a few months back and now is targeting Iraqi air-defense systems from its base in the Persian Gulf.
Seven business administration courses have been beamed to three carriers since the program began nearly two years ago. So far, only one class has been lost to technical glitches despite the perils of technology and the high seas--including a plane crash.
"You've got a bunch of bright kids out there itching for an education," said retired Navy Capt. F. Richard Whalen, Old Dominion's military liaison. "We've done this through aircraft mishaps, wars, good days and bad."
Whalen said the cost is small: about $1,000 per student for the Navy plus a one-time cost of $40,000 to equip the ships with wiring, monitors and cameras for the satellite link. Old Dominion officials take sometimes-harrowing flights to sign up students on their ships.
The Navy hopes that the offerings will persuade both officers and enlisted personnel to make careers in the service, but officials say it's a good investment even for those who opt out sooner.
"It makes our sailors better and more productive for the Navy," said Capt. David R. Bryant, skipper of the Roosevelt.
Many are like Lt. Bowen W. Ranney, who's getting married in October and hopes to start a business with his new wife, perhaps after his commitment ends next May. She's a graphic artist who could use a little help on the business end, Ranney said.
"I'm trying to find a way I can cash in on all her abilities," he said.
CAPTION: Professor A. Robinson Winn, left, teaches a marketing class to students on the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt from the Teletechnet Center at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.