Flexibility essential during pandemic: NCOA builds first-ever virtual course

  • Published
  • By Andrew C. Patterson
  • 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

The first-ever virtual, in-residence Enlisted Professional Military Education Course at the Robert D. Gaylor Non-Commissioned Officer Academy at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland is now available to students across the country. The inaugural course started June 15 and the first graduation is scheduled for July 10.   

Restrictions put into place due to COVID-19 forced a change in the delivery of enlisted professional military education in March when classes suddenly came to a halt.  

In May, the Air Force’s enlisted professional military education hub, the Thomas N. Barnes Center for Enlisted Education at Gunter Annex, Alabama, notified the Air Force’s 10 NCOA locations that a virtual course was going to be attempted. The individual academies were delegated the responsibility of designing and delivering the course themselves, with minimal guidelines.  

“The PME mission needs to continue. Our mission doesn’t end just because we’re facing a pandemic,” said Chief Master Sgt. Heather Hodge, Robert D. Gaylor NCOA commandant. 

Master Sgt. Jamie Matekaitis, Programs and Project Management superintendent at JBSA-Lackland's NCOA, said he and his team of instructors first had to learn the new curriculum, thoroughly scrub it, then adapt it from a 25-day, in-residence course to a 20-day "virtual, in-residence" program.  

The instructors excelled at the challenge, which consisted of fitting 30 hours of live-streamed training and adapting nearly 40 hours of coursework into a 20-day timeline. They then tested four different virtual platforms to find the best delivery system.  

The success of the team's mission was pivotal in continuing a course essential to the Air Force, providing the service with educated, skilled non-commissioned officers.  

"The importance of this PME is that it is a mid-level leadership course to take technical sergeants in the Air Force, and other military services, and prepare them to be senior NCOs in the military,” Matekaitis said.  

In the new, virtual environment, the current class consists of 242 students located in places ranging from California to New York, with 70 “virtual” walk-in students.  

The virtual walk-in students present another challenge; their attendance in the course is not scheduled. The students’ verification, enrollment, and registration occur expeditiously to get them added to the course. 

“This class size was the largest to-date for the Gaylor NCO academy,” said Tech. Sgt. Brandon Paige, a 326th Training Squadron military training instructor who is currently attending the virtual course.  

Paige appreciates the efforts made to give him the opportunity to prepare for advancement, even during a pandemic.  

“I was excited at the opportunity to be in the first class to experience this course and help with any hiccups along the way to better assist the instructors with future classes,” he said. “My expectations for this course are to gain more insight into being a leader and mentor and to gain tools I can use throughout my career. 

“I would also like to add that the instructors are doing a great job with the technical issues that have popped up and are able to press forward and still offer great material and get the mission accomplished," Paige said.  

Air Force Enlisted Professional Military Education is provided through the Thomas N. Barnes Center for Enlisted Education, which is named after the service's fourth Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force, Thomas N. Barnes, the first African-American to attain the highest enlisted position in any branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. The mission of the center is to educate, develop, and inspire enlisted leaders for joint, all-domain warfighting excellence at all of its locations.  

There are six stateside locations, to include:  Airey NCOA, Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida (temporarily relocated to Gunter Annex, Alabama); Gaylor NCOA, JBSA-Lackland; Mathies NCOA, Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi; Lankford EPME Center, McGhee-Tyson Air National Guard Base, Tennessee; Sheppard NCOA, Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas; Vosler NCOA, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado; and four overseas locations, to include:  Elmendorf PME Center, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; Binnicker PME Center, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; Erwin PME Center, Kadena Air Base, Japan; and Kisling NCOA, U.S. Air Forces Europe PME Center, Germany.  

To learn more about enlisted professional military education, visit https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Barnes/NCO-Academy/.