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.
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.