When the coronavirus first appeared in China, then migrating throughout Europe, Sgt. Maj. Christopher West, course manager for the Basic Leader Course, knew that soon the virus would make its way to America. Fortunately, though, West and members of the Curriculum Development Directorate, were already testing out the revised Basic Leader Course for use on Blackboard, an online education and training platform, with the NCO Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas.
“We identified early on that we were not using it to the full potential of Blackboard for the Basic Leader Course, West, a Class 68 graduate of the Sergeants Major Course, said. “So we were already in the process of testing the new version of BLC that we created and then the COVID 19 situation happened.”
West said that the Basic Team, responsible for the development of BLC, got together with the Fort Bliss NCOA, to discuss the possible impacts of the coronavirus on the course and the instruction thereof.
“We were able to think ahead, outside the box, in case this happens,” West said. “Social distancing was beginning to become a thing, so we were looking at different ways to do stuff to continue the education of junior leaders.”
West and his team began testing some of the curricula on Blackboard using the Fort Bliss NCOA as the test bed. The results were favorable, and the team continued to modify the delivery of the applications, assignments and assessments all while the virus was impacting the East Coast.
“The idea was starting to bloom a little bit and I presented our idea to the commandant, Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmy J. Sellers,” he said. “He liked it and we ran with it.”
Sellers said from the beginning, West put the whole project on his back and did an outstanding job.
“We were the only institution to ensure we continued to train and educate Soldiers during the COVID 19 pandemic,” he said. “That is a tribute to all the hard work and leadership of the Curriculum Development Directorate and Sgt. Maj. West. He was definitely the right man at the right time during these uncommon times.”
Shortly after meeting with Sellers, West said, the Army announced the stop movement and social distancing requirements for all components of the Army, active, National Guard and Reserve. West and his team were ready to launch BLC online.
“I saw it coming as well as some of the staff at the Fort Bliss NCOA. We had some discussions while we were testing the new version of Blackboard for BLC,” he said, adding the team planned for a worst-case scenario of having BLC totally online with no facilitation, similar to what online colleges and universities have where the students teach themselves.
“That was the worst-case scenario. We worked on those products and got the NCO Academies on board to teach it that way,” West said. “We told them, if you could find a way to continue to deliver BLC the same way in the classroom, do it, but if you can’t, here is one solution.”
West knew there was a better way and with the collaboration of his team and members of Curriculum Development they thought outside the box. A big part of the discussion was how do you do the assessments of the hands-on part – conducting Physical Readiness Training, Drill and Ceremonies and public speaking. West then took note of his daughter’s school assignment on public speaking where she had to record herself and submit the video on YouTube.
“That was the standard we looked at early on,” he said. “We could still do PRT assessments; have the student create their own videos; do it by themselves.”
There was a lot of individual trust involved in the video assessment, West noted, but the overall intent and learning outcome was still there. The students still had to rehearse the same way they would have if it was done in the classroom.
“In today’s day and age, we have cell phones, we have ways to communicate and I put faith in our Soldiers to do it right,” he said. “Some of the videos sent back to us are pretty amazing. These junior leaders are working outside the box; they are onboard with it; they did it.”
Bill Ogletree, director of the Curriculum Development Directorate, said West’s work on converting BLC to an online course was phenomenal.
“As the course manager for BLC, he personally designed and developed the Blackboard platform ensuring the content was balanced, maintained safety and academic rigor,” Ogletree said. “He personally reviewed each piece of information to ensure the integrity of the course was maintained and conducted several Video-Teleconference training sessions for 32 NCO academies to ensure they were onboard and ready to teach the course.”
A graduate of the Primary Leader Development Course, West said, as he grew in rank and responsibility, he saw issues with what the Soldiers were learning from the course, and the future courses – Warrior and Basic Leader courses. When he graduated from the Sergeants Major Course and was assigned as the course manager for BLC two years ago, he said he did not know what he was getting into, but he knew what he thought needed to be changed.
“I had an issue with what was coming out of BLC. I didn’t think we were focused on the right areas,” he said. “As I came on board, I had that discussion with the team and they showed me the new BLC – it was already in the works, it was awesome and I was 100 percent bought into it from day one.”
West said BLC has progressed since those days and is quick to tell junior leaders preparing to go the revised BLC – “prepare yourself, hit the books, regulations, materials. Get yourself prepared, get your leaders involved, let them prepare you – you will be successful.”
For his efforts in transforming the resident BLC to an emergency online BLC via the Blackboard learning environment, West was awarded an Army Commendation Medal during a special ceremony June 19. The citation reads, “For exceptionally meritorious achievement while serving as the Basic Leader Course manager for the Noncommissioned Offer Leadership Center of Excellence. SGM West personally designed and developed an emergency BLC in Blackboard so Soldiers could attend virtually during the COVID-19 outbreak. SGM West’s high degree of motivation and professionalism brings great credit upon him, the Noncommissioned Offer Leadership Center of Excellence, and the United States Army.”
West has one last thought to Soldiers about his experience with BLC – “Take what you learn in this course and apply it. You can’t go wrong,” he said. “You will be going in the right direction for the future. You never know, you might be that up and coming leader who ends up graduating from the Sergeants Major Course and then find yourself as the BLC course manager.”
The NCO leadership Center of Excellence mission is to provide professional military education that develops holistically fit, disciplined, well-educated professionals capable of meeting the challenges of large-scale combat operations in a multi-domain environment. We are the premier institution driving innovative development for enlisted leaders; constantly focused on readiness.
To learn more about the Basic Leader Course visit https://www.ncoworldwide.army.mil/Academics/Basic-Leader-Course/.