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Sheppard NCOA mission doesn't falter amid global pandemic

Sheppard NCOA instructor Tech. Sgt. Eric Partlow talks to a virtual class

Empty chairs surround tables that are typically occupied by students as Tech. Sgt. Eric Partlow, left, a Sheppard NCO Academy instructor, talks to his class during a lesson at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, June 30, 2020. The SNCOA began their first virtual class June 15 after shutting down a little more than two months ago when Sheppard AFB and the academy responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. (U.S. Air Force photo by John Ingle)

Sheppard NCOA instructor Tech. Sgt. Eric Partlow talks to a virtual class

Tech. Sgt. Eric Partlow, a Sheppard NCO Academy instructor, listens to his class work through a discussion on negotiating during a virtual lesson at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, June 30, 2020. The SNCOA began its first virtual class on June 15 with students from around the globe attending via Microsoft Teams. Partlow said the flexibility of the virtual environment benefits instructors and students alike, but it can't replace the in-person interaction normally seen in a typical classroom environment. (U.S. Air Force photo by John Ingle)

The Noncommissioned Officer Academy, or NCOA, continues to develop leadership and communication skills for NCO's all over the Air Force even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tech Sgt. Eric Partlow tells us how the academy has transitioned into a virtual format and the benefits of doing so.

SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – Many people often joke about how nothing can stop the Air Force other than lightning within 5-nautical miles. But what about a global pandemic?

The Novel Coronavirus temporarily put a stop to Air Force professional military education. Less gatherings of students in classrooms would contribute to flattening the curve and eventually aid in beating COVID-19.

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VIDEO | 01:57 | NCOA Goes Virtual
Students of the Sheppard Noncomissioned Officers Academy were released and the academy at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, closed it’s doors in mid-March.

“Lt. Gen. James B. Hecker, commander and president of Air University, felt that PME was very important for the development of our force and sought an innovative solution to continue developing the force we need,” said Chief Master Sgt. Malik Barnes, Sheppard AFB NCOA commandant.

Sheppard NCOA’s new innovative solution took its maiden voyage on June 15, 2020.

“We have condensed the schedule from a 25-day in-residence course to an 18-day virtual course,” said Tech. Sgt. Christina Williams, NCOA instructor. “Our virtual class will be multi-base just like our in-residence course.

The goal of the virtual course is to meet Air University’s intent of replicating the in-residence experience as much as possible, which is no small feat.

“The first process was having to train and qualify 34 members of our instructor cadre on the new rollout of a new NCOA curriculum during this COVID pandemic,” Williams said. “We have done this by conducting training via WebEx and Microsoft Teams 3-5 times a week in large and small groups totaling more than 120 training hours combined.”

The plan was to maximize throughput without sacrificing quality of instruction in order to decrease the backlog of students the academy acquired during COVID-19 Health Protection Measures, Barnes said.

“The second process has been trying to nail down the right virtual platform that will allow us to deliver the curriculum to potential and future students,” Williams said. “The third process involved securing $4,500 in funding from the Barnes Center to purchase peripherals such as webcams, wireless headphones and microphones that will enable us to retrofit 24 classrooms for the virtual teaching environment.”

The classrooms are capable of hosting 366 students throughout 24 virtual flights.

“The goal was for virtual-in-residence courses to resemble normal residence courses as much as possible,” Barnes said. “We sought to seek a 70-percent synchronous and 30-percent synchronous course schedule.”

But with any major change, there are obstacles that must be overcome.

“Teaching virtually does come with some potential challenges. Networking is a big part of any PME course experience. Although students will still be able to converse and cross talk with other NCOs, they may not have the same in-residence networking experience,” said Master Sgt. Charles Davis, SNCOA director of resources.

Members from a massive variety of Air Force carrier fields attend NCOA during their careers, some jobs require more time in front of a computer monitor than others.

“We use computers quite frequently to do our jobs and in our personal lives but some members are not as computer savvy as others,” Davis said. “So we will make sure that our students are familiar and comfortable with navigating the course and whatever IT platform we use to deliver our curriculum.”

Offering a fully virtual course also yields a variety of benefits.

“Students attending virtually have the opportunity to complete their PME without any career or promotion disruptions,” Davis said. “This opportunity may alleviate any family or work issues that could arise from the member's absence.”

The NCO Academy on-line will save the Air Force approximately $900,000 in temporary duty-to-school cost.

The next virtual class is scheduled to begin July 20, 2020.