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Satellite Switch Flipped, ODU Completes Its Transition to Online Delivery Model for Distance Learning Courses

On Wednesday, August 13, 2014, the era of satellite broadcast from Old Dominion University Distance Learning ended with the simple flip of a switch. Now all distance learning courses will be conducted online.

Shortly before noon, several members of Distance Learning staff filed into the chilly room that housed the heart of the satellite system. Racks of receivers, hard drives and signal processors filled most of the space, all cooled by a special air conditioning system that made the room feel a bit like standing in a loud refrigerator.

Susan Boze, faculty liaison for ODU's Center for Learning and Teaching, reached up and rested her finger on a green switch. As the person with the longest history working for ODU Distance Learning, Boze had the honor of officially turning off the frequency up-converters, which perform an essential step in the satellite broadcast system.

"Here we go," she said. Click. She moved her finger to a second green switch below the first. Click. The numerical display on each encoder changed from numbers to lines, then went blank.

Over the last 20 years, the Office of Distance Learning has worked consistently to improve course delivery and design. Now, with all distance learning courses being delivered online, with either live high-definition web conferencing or asynchronous content in a learning management system, earning a degree from ODU is even more convenient.

"In today's job market, having education options is key to maintaining relevance," said Andy Casiello, ODU's associate vice president for distance learning. "Being able to offer such education to where and how students need it is key to our success. We see the demand for online programs only growing, and are continually working with our faculty and administration to increase the number and scope of programs available for our ODU students."

But with the final switch being flipped this month on the satellite broadcast system, it's worth paying tribute to an innovative technology where ODU was a true leader.

Here is an excerpt about the bold move that ODU made into distance learning from "Built from the Ground Up," a history of the first 50 years of engineering at ODU, published in 2013.

"The idea was first publicized in 1984. The plan, according to The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, was to offer televised instruction of select Old Dominion classes, along with classes from other Virginia universities so students could mix and match courses to make their own degree.

"At the same time Old Dominion was forging ahead on its own plans for distance learning education, and it was engineering programs that led the way for the entire university.

"'We started so slow with two video rooms in the College of Education building,' said Gary Crossman, who taught engineering technology courses via video learning. 'We went over there and taught our courses. And we were only teaching to Roanoke and Richmond.'

"But Crossman said Old Dominion did it right as well, investing in building satellite technology, and sites across the state and the country, so students could earn Old Dominion degrees from many locations. 'ODU created a whole system,' Crossman said. 'It made it easy on the faculty to teach a distance-learning program.'

"Changes in the technology have gradually pushed ODU away from televised distance learning, and into on-line classes. There remains a large engineering presence in Old Dominion's distance-learning offerings.

"(Professor Resit) Unal taught engineering management through distance learning as a way to increase exposure to the program. 'It was just a big success all over Virginia. We had big enrollments,' he said. In 2001, Old Dominion pioneered a program with the U.S. Navy nuclear submarine fleet, providing officers with an opportunity to earn a master's degree in engineering management, learning via CD-ROM.

"'The submarine officers were going out to sea and staying there for months. You can't link to anything,' Unal said. 'When we started the nuclear submarine program we had an expectation of 75 officers enrolling in this. In three years, we had more than 250.'

"Admiral Robert F. Willard USN-Ret., former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, is a graduate of the CD-ROM-based master's program in engineering management."

Boze remembers the early days of what is now called Distance Learning. TELETECHNET, ODU's original satellite delivery program, was officially launched in 1994 in partnership with the Virginia Community College System (VCCS). The goal was, and still is, to provide quality higher education to students at a distance, especially in areas with limited educational opportunities.

"I remember when we hired our first full-time engineer," Boze said with a smile. "We were so excited." Today, ODU Distance Learning employs several full-time engineers, and control room operators monitor the live courses as they happen in the Gornto Center.

Over the last 20 years, the Office of Distance Learning has worked consistently to improve course delivery and design.

Students can now take online courses wherever they have a secure high-speed Internet connection and a computer or device with a web cam and headset.

ODU remains committed to partnering with the VCCS to support students by providing services at community college campuses and state-supported higher education centers throughout Virginia.

The university is also dedicated to supporting military students and partnering with military installations to provide educational opportunities to service members and their families.

"We believe it is through our partnerships with faculty, students and members of the distance learning community that we fulfill the interests and objectives of those engaged in distance learning at Old Dominion," Casiello said.

"That commitment has resulted in putting ourselves on the forefront of distance learning in the commonwealth, the state of Virginia and across the globe."

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