Noncommissioned Officer Academies (NCOAs) across the Army graduated the first emergency Basic Leader Course (eBLC), Class 006, May 8.
The process of each eBLC varied from fully online training to blended learning that consists of a combination of limited face to face training and online training via Blackboard.mil (BB).
No matter what process the graduates endured the end state is the same, the force is provided with newly trained and educated noncommissioned officers.
Responsible for all activities involved with analysis, design, development, and evaluation of educational products within the course is Sgt. Maj.
Christopher West, the BLC manager with the Curriculum Development directorate at the NCO Leadership Center of Excellence, and his team.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, West created and tested a BLC hub at the Fort Bliss NCOA.
“During this testing, I kept track of the situation and started to formulate an initial plan to allow academies to continue providing education for the Army,” West said. “The redesign of the BLC BB hub allows us to continue training by creating and designing virtual products to assist facilitators."
The pandemic did not stop the progress of the NCO Corps, due to the innovation of West and his team. This is how over 2,000 Soldiers graduated on May 8 from eBLC and head back to the force.
“During the entire course, we highlight the importance of leaders at every level to be adaptive, agile, creative, and critical thinkers,” he said.
Throughout the course, Spc. Xavier White had to do just that, by adapting from a hands-on and physical environment to an asynchronous learning environment overnight.
White is attending eBLC fully online through the 101st NCO Academy at Fort Campbell.
“When I joined the Army, I thought my days of writing papers and going to lectures were over,” White said. “My job is hands-on; I work with aircraft requiring minimal paperwork. When I started eBLC, I had to change my thought process and the way I learn. Going from everyday hands-on work to an online course had me completely out of my comfort zone."
White also used his critical thinking skills when it came to researching and writing papers.
“The course pushed me to do my research and work on my writing,” he said. “Something I struggled with in my high school days, all while teaching me what it means to be a future NCO.”
White also provided words of advice for future eBLC students.
“Keep up with the discussion boards,” he said. “It not only helps you from falling behind, but it also helps your classmates by giving them the ability to respond on time."
White added, “practice your time management skills now and read the rubrics before you start your assignments. They are time savers.”
Just like Spc. White, the instructors at the NCOAs, also needed to be adaptive to overcome the challenges of not being physically in the classroom.
“Attaching slides, handouts, rubrics, activities, or Center of Army Lessons Learned (CALL) discussions to the objective in the lesson, so students didn't have to go back and forth looking for items,” are ways Staff Sgt. Karlene Adkins from the Fort Hood NCOA helped her students during the eBLC due to the inconsistency of BB.mil.
She added, “We created a discussion reply tracker [separated by phases]. It helped us monitor the students who are not participating in everyday discussion and lessons.”
Preparation is vital in all things, especially when preparing for a new blended eBLC class, said Staff Sgt. Darryll Rideout from the Fort Hood NCOA who provided feedback to his NCOA counterparts.
"Prepare your classes before you post them on a live feed," he said. "Because of the blackboard backlog. Once you get into a rhythm and everyone does their part, it will run a lot smoother. It may seem like a lot of work, but it is accomplishable.”
Besides preparing for another BLC class, the instructors needed to shift their thinking from the physical classroom to a virtual one.
“One of the key changes we encountered with the instructors is changing their mindset from a controlled environment [resident] to a Mission Command approach to conduct the blended model,” Command Sgt. Maj. Alton Wright of the Fort Hood NCOA said.
Through the eBLC, all of the NCOAs worked closely with each other and the NCOLCoE team.
“The NCOA moto is Team of Teams, our instructors had to learn quickly how to collaborate and trust leaders from other units and sometimes other installations,” Wright said. “They had to adapt quickly to the day to day challenges of working within the technically challenging environment of BB for over 310 students [Fort Hood NCOA].”
Even though eBLC is either fully online or blended, the curriculum is the same as the resident course, and the essential element of rigor is never left out.
“Our overall approach to the Blended BLC was for us to try our best to maintain the integrity of the course by adding rigor and keeping our soldiers safe,” Wright said.
Senior leaders throughout the force demonstrated and set the example by continuing to provide a world-class education to the junior leaders.
“This approach was challenging but not impossible. As the course progressed, we notice more leadership involvement from the Brigade level leaders on down," Wright said.
The collaborations from the NCOAs and the instructors also brought about best practices for the course.
"Brigades from Fort Hood and Fort Riley identified prior certified instructors and Drill Sergeants within their formations to serve as Assistant instructors to help with the four Face to face evaluations for the offsite students," Wright said.
“Every NCOA had their challenges during the eBLC, and I commend them on their efforts in executing and delivering the course content,” West said. “All facilitators have done a tremendous job during this time of crisis affecting the world.”
He added, “the BLC Branch chiefs worked tirelessly with the NCOLCoE team migrating internal tracking systems and establishing BB systems which set the conditions for the instructors to utilize during their period of instructions.”
The eBLC is a temporary fix for, the current environment.
“The plan for BLC is to go back to being a resident course with the ability to conduct a virtual version to areas that might not be able to travel to an academy as well as any future pandemics or crisis,” West said.
Wright added, “As the Army continues to modernize, we can use this approach during contingency periods when soldiers are forward-deployed, which will enable them to stay on course with the select-train-educate-promote (STEP) model."
COVID-19 may have limited regular operations and troop movement, but it did not inhibit the NCOLCoE's ability to train and educate new NCOs into the force.