FORT BLISS, Texas – While the spread of the coronavirus worldwide has impacted the way U.S. Army operations are conducted, the military and civilian facilitators of the Master Leader Course at the NCO Leadership Center of Excellence have never ceased educating Soldiers. They leveraged technology to continue to provide essential learning opportunities to the Army’s senior NCOs.
Despite moving its traditional two-week resident MLC to a virtual space, the NCO Professional Development Directorate at the NCOLCoE has not cancelled, postponed or delayed the required professional military education course for Soldiers in the rank of sergeant first class.
“While we originally planned for the resident course to continue with face-to-face instruction, the increase in COVID numbers in El Paso meant we needed to adapt for the safety of our students and faculty,” Sgt. Maj. Yolanda Hill said, MLC chief instructor. “Instead, the decision was made to capitalize on our available technology resources to deliver the course that is vital to prepare our sergeants first class for their future roles as first sergeants and master sergeants.”
Before the pandemic, Soldiers who met the course criteria were either enrolled in the two-week resident course or the six-week distance learning course, the latter saved for those Soldiers who could not travel to Fort Bliss due to other temporary duty assignments or deployments.
Since the closure of the NCOLCoE campus in March, more than 1300 Soldiers have completed the MLC Distance Learning program consisting of 21 lessons and 112 academic hours, focusing on four common core competencies – communication, leadership, management and operations.
The distance learning method, however, was not always the best option for some students who were visual learners or learned by doing. Soldiers who were selected for the MLC resident course benefitted from peer-to-peer conversation, learning models that relied on discussion, and immediate feedback from a course facilitator or fellow students
“When we [have] face-to-face instruction, [the facilitators] only provide a little bit of knowledge to jump start the conversation and the students start teaching themselves and learning from each other,” Master Sgt. Catherine Adams said, a MLC resident course facilitator. “We get senior NCOs from across the Army, whether they’re from general officer staffs, or battalion staffs, or in the line units, and they bring so much knowledge and input to really get after the desired goals of the course.”
Adams said that preparing to go from face-to-face classes to completely virtual required a quick understanding of the MLC Distance Learning program of instruction, which was different from the POI taught in the resident course. She added, the NCOLCoE oversees course material and instruction at all NCO Academies located across the Army, requiring her to also serve as a liaison to MLC facilitators assigned to the outlying stations.
“It’s really important that all [MLC facilitators] are on the same page when we’re delivering blocks of instruction to our students,” Adams said. “Every NCOA had the same learning curve as we did, so the facilitators here at the NCOLCoE had to ensure we were all on the same sheet of music in order to best support those facilitators assigned elsewhere.”
With a little over a week to prepare before the start of the next cycle of students, the MLC facilitators were able to meet and discuss lesson plans, the features and capabilities of their online platform, Microsoft Teams, and pick the brains of the MLC Distance Learning facilitators who were accustomed to enabling adult education in a digital environment.
By the start of December, Adams and the other resident course facilitators were prepared to offer the first cycle of the two-week resident course through Microsoft Teams.
“We’re in our first cycle of what I call the Master Leaders Course Virtual Resident program,” Adams said. “The 32 Sergeants First Class enrolled in this iteration of the MLC are expected to be logged in every day for the whole eight hours, participating and contributing to the discussion, just as they would if they were physically here at the NCOLCoE.”
While most Soldiers enrolled in the traditional six-week MLC Distance Learning program are also conducting their daily unit responsibilities, the two-week virtual resident course requires the student to be present the entire time.
“I think there’s a miscommunication right now with some command teams who think that just because the resident course is now virtual it means the Soldier can be included in other unit activities,” Adams said. “For their Soldiers to be successful in the course, but more importantly, be more effective leaders when they are promoted to their next rank, commanders and command sergeants major can really help them by giving them the two weeks free of any other unit requirement so they can totally focus on the curriculum.”
The delivery of MLC by the facilitators at the NCOLCoE, despite the changing circumstances brought on by the coronavirus, is a direct reflection of the dedication and commitment of the team of professional facilitators, Hill noted.
“Our facilitators love what they do and students can expect the same level of enthusiasm from them in the online class as they would in a face-to-face setting,” Hill said. “We’ve had a couple of hiccups with technology, which was to be expected, but at the end of the day, our MLC facilitators worked together to make it happen.”
The NCO Leadership Center of Excellence is an accredited academic institution aligned under the Army University and the Combined Arms Command, and is responsible for developing, maintaining, teaching and distributing five levels of Enlisted Professional Military Education – Introductory, Primary, Intermediate, Senior and Executive. Previously known as the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy, the NCOLCoE expanded its mission to include instruction for other programs such NCO Battle Staff, Commandants Pre-Command Course, Spouse Leadership Development Course and the U.S. Army Sergeant’s Major Academy Fellowship Program. For more information on the NCOLCoE, visit www.ncolcoe.army.mil.