Commentary: ‘Virtually’ a reality to attend NCOA during COVID-19

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Abigail Klein
  • 931st Air Refueling Wing

When I sat down at the kitchen table in uniform with a laptop to start my first virtual session at the Air Force Non-Commissioned Officer Academy, the familiar setting of my home quickly morphed into the professional military education I had always hoped for despite doing it online.

Traditionally, Air Force non-commissioned officers attend NCOA in person at one of ten designated Air Force schools across the globe. NCOA provides Technical Sergeants with a second level of enlisted PME and prepares them to be professional, war-fighting Airmen and Space Professionals who can manage and lead units in the employment of Air and Space power.

As a six-year Technical Sergeant in the Air Force Reserve, I had long looked forward to attending NCOA, and found out in November 2019 that I was scheduled to attend the McGhee-Tyson Air National Guard Base, Tenn., location in April. With the advent of COVID-19 and the travel restrictions that followed, I found out only a couple of weeks into March that this class was canceled.

While I completely understood the need for this cancellations, I also knew I needed to seek other options with the Wing education office. When I did, I was informed of a new distance learning option that would start in June. I applied, and I was selected to begin the four-week NCOA with Class 20-5 through Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, on June 15.

On the first day, I turned on my web camera and logged into unified communications and collaboration platform, and met the instructor, Tech. Sgt. Sara Moreno, and 14 other classmates from other bases including Canon and Joint Base Andrews.
This was one of the first virtual NCOA courses for the school house. In addition to the challenges presented educating Airmen through a virtual classroom, the instructors also had to implement a new curriculum for my class. Luckily, Air Force NCOA instructors are quite used to adapting school curriculums.

“As the NCOs in the AF continue to evolve, those in the Professional Military Education arena work hard to find ways to challenge them, [then] the curriculum writers also take feedback from the students to see how they can better develop the material, ” said Moreno. “Another [way] the curriculum changed is to allow Instructors to have more freedom in their classroom because we have instructors with different levels of education, and with different experiences/backgrounds.”
Moreno also added that the new curriculum enables instructors to use those experiences and knowledge educate better.

Having attended Airman Leadership School in person in 2012, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the course, or how I would adapt to this new curriculum. It was less paper writing and included video recorded speeches, group projects, guest speakers and physical training sessions.
To my surprise, my skepticism about a virtual course quickly evaporated as the setup of the course quickly evolved into a very interactive place where students were able to engage via classroom discussions, all while facing one another on a computer screen monitor.

The attainable setup of this virtual classroom was due in large part to extensive pre-planning by the instructors, who studied the material while their physical schoolhouse was closed down due to COVID-19. Once it was decided to teach virtually, the instructors practiced with each other online. While there were challenges, Moreno says there a definitely benefits to a virtual NCOA that often are more difficult in a traditional classroom.

“There are times we cannot have a guest speaker come to the schoolhouse due to scheduling conflicts, but in a virtual environment, we can now add them to our schedule, and they no longer need to come TDY to our schoolhouse only to set aside an hour to speak to the students,” said Moreno. “Another advantage of teaching online is for students; if they have personal things going on at home, they do not have the additional stress of being TDY, and it allows them to take care of the PME requirement and minimize disruptions in their personal lives.

By the end of NCOA, I left my digital classroom every bit as nostalgic as I did the day I left any of my previous in-person ALS professional military education courses. It wasn’t the NCOA I expected, it was more than that. The distance learning still course allowed me to reach beyond my assigned duty station, and connect through a medium that still allowed us to keep in touch even after our class session.

After four weeks ‘at Sheppard,’ I look forward to applying the knowledge I received to the Wing I serve.