Hank Edmondson never knows if his class is feeling the yawl of the ocean or if they will suddenly disappear in a hiss of static.
Then again, it's like teaching any other class -- he brings up a topic and steps back to watch the class wrestle with it, even if they are separated by a continent or thousands of miles of ocean, even if some live with the threat of war hanging over their heads while others ponder whether to study in the library.
Dr. Edmondson's unique bifurcated class is live every Tuesday, beamed from his classroom at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville to wherever the U.S.S. Carl Vinson is steaming. The school is one of two in the country beaming classes to Navy ships in a pilot project to see if those put to sea for six to eight months can have access to higher education and work on advanced degrees.
Dr. Edmondson, who lives in Augusta but commutes to Milledgeville to teach, is at the center of a virtual classroom, where students on the ship turn in assignments by e-mail, pick up reserved materials from the Internet, and join in live chat groups and forums by computer. The arrangement has brought home something to the graduate students in his Ethics and Public Leadership course who never leave the comfort of the Milledgeville classroom.
"They get a perspective (from the officers and enlisted personnel) they wouldn't have otherwise," Dr. Edmondson said. "Generally speaking, I can't get the guys on the ship to shut up."
For the last two weeks, Dr. Edmondson has gone through the looking glass to peer back from the other side, traveling to the aircraft carrier and beaming the class back to Milledgeville. On Monday, the class became part of a historic three-way conference when U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., joined in from Washington, D.C.
It was particularly thrilling to Mr. Cleland, a former Army Signal Corps officer, to see how far communication has come.
"I told them it was a heck of a bank shot, a three-way bank shot," he said. "This was a three-way call with a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier out in the Pacific three time zones away, with a state college here in Georgia and a U.S. senator here in Washington. That is really something."
The course was a chance for Mr. Cleland, a wounded Vietnam veteran who describes himself as "someone who's been there, done that, gotten a few holes in his T-shirt," to use his personal experiences to illustrate issues of leadership. The difference between the two sites was readily apparent in the questions he was asked.
A student in Milledgeville told him, "You proved my thesis that a Democrat could still win in the South."
Out on the ship, however, the concerns were much less academic.
"The first thing they asked was, `Are the U-2s flying?' Mr. Cleland said.
Iraq had threatened to shoot down the spy planes if they passed over the country in an attempt to determine if Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction. If tempers flared and missiles flew, half the class could be steaming toward the Persian Gulf, Mr. Cleland said.
That risk also illustrates the benefits of giving the crew a chance to further their lives and careers by having access to college courses, Mr. Cleland said.
"This is one way to improve quality of life," for soldiers and sailors asked to do more and more with military down-sizing, he said.
It's also a chance for Georgia to reach out and pluck an opportunity, said Jim Wolfgang, vice president for distance learning at the school. The courses use the Georgia Statewide Academic and Medical Systems two-way video and audio system, which also includes more sophisticated innovations such as the telemedicine system connecting Medical College of Georgia with rural clinics and rural hospitals across the state.
The course may be extended in December and the school is hoping the Navy will release in February a proposal that would cover at least five other ships and some land bases, said Mr. Wolfgang.
Georgia quietly has positioned itself to lead the way in that field, he said.
"We're the envy of every other state in the Union," he said. "But people in Georgia don't know what's going on."
In the cramped quarters at sea, perhaps on their way to battle, they do.
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