A Brief History of SAO

The initial idea for SAO was conceived mid-1997 by the then head of the Swinburne School of Biophysical Sciences and Electrical Engineering (BSEE), Prof Dale Murphy. Dale asked Dr Margaret Mazzolini to design an online Graduate Certificate in Astronomy as a pilot study for a future online Master of Science in Astronomy program. By the end of 1997, a business plan was drawn up, as was the course structure, and by the start of 1998, Prof Matthew Bailes joined Swinburne and created the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing within BSEE. By mid-1998, the online Graduate Certificate of Astronomy was accredited by the University with Margaret as program coordinator.

SAO commenced world-wide delivery in March 1999 as a Graduate Certificate course, thanks to the hard work of Margaret Mazzolini, Jon Booth (technical design), Bronwyn Lloyd (nee Halls - illustrator), Prof Ray Norris (advice on assessment and newsgroup design) and support by Swinburne Learning and Teaching Support. About 50 students initially enrolled in the Graduate Certificate program. In January 2000, the ClearSkies! CD-ROM was distributed with Sky & Telescope magazine (thanks to the generous support of the Swinburne University Vice Chancellor Prof Iain Wallace), coinciding with the launch of our Master of Science and Graduate Diploma of Science degrees. Dr Sarah Maddison joined the group in late 1999. Enrolments began to climb (probably due to the launch of ClearSkies! rather than Sarah's arrival!) and by 2002, SAO's enrolment numbers exceeded 250 students from over 35 countries around the world. The growth of SAO has allowed the Swinburne Centre for Astrophysics & Supercomputing to hire more staff, broadening its teaching base and allowing new courses to be designed and taught "in house".

Sarah took over as program coordinator mid-2001. Margaret moved to the Chancellery, becoming Pro Vice Chancellor (Learning & Teaching), and subsequently moved to Victoria University as their Pro Vice Chancellor (Learning & Teaching). Dr Glen Mackie joined the SAO team in 2001 and has acted as the program coordinator a number of times when Sarah has taken leave. The Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing moved to the then new Faculty of Information & Communication Technologies in late 2004. In 2005, SAO staff and CAS colleagues developed Cosmos, the SAO Encyclopedia, an open resource that is also directly linked to SAO course content. The rise of Wikipedia curtailed expansion beyond a few hundred entries.


By the end of 2008, SAO celebrated 10 years and 20 semesters of delivering an online astronomy program. During 2008 and 2009, SAO moved from a hybrid delivery system (with course content delivered via CD-ROM and the internet used for communication and assessment purposes) to a fully online system (with course content now delivered online via a Content Management System).

In mid-2012, Sarah retired from the SAO Coordinator role and Dr Glen Mackie then managed the program until 2020, just before the covid-19 pandemic struck.

In 2014, the university underwent a major structural change, resulting in the creation of a new Department of Physics & Astronomy (DPA), which together with the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing (CAS), are now included in the new School of Science, Computing and Engineering Technologies.

In 2019 the university adopted Canvas as its Learning Management System (replacing Blackboard). As of 2020, all SAO units are Canvas-based, with course content now embedded within Canvas 'pages'). By the end of 2019, SAO had produced over 500 graduates.

In 2020-2021, Dr Rebecca Allen served as the Program Coordinator.
Prof. Alister Graham was the interim Program Director for Semester 1 of 2022.
Dr Wayne Rowlands took over the role starting July 1, 2022.

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