The Air Force has introduced a hybrid of Web-based instruction and in-residence training so airmen can move through their noncommissioned and senior noncommissioned officer professional military education requirements faster.

The new PME sets specific time-in-service milestones and windows of time for completing online courses and attending in-residence noncommissioned officer and senior noncommissioned officer academies. Airmen also are required to complete distance learning courses — Course 15 for NCOs and Course 14 version 6 for SNCOs — before attending the academies. Advanced courses for NCOs and senior NCOs have been shortened by more than a week.

The Air Force is working to prepare airmen for the next rank, instead of waiting until they've met that rank. The idea is to provide the training before they have "figured it out through experience and other ways," said Chief Master Sgt. William Ward, chief of Air Force Enlisted Developmental Education, in a Sept. 24 interview with Air Force Times.

"The goal of that is to provide professional military education earlier and more frequent in a member's career," Ward said. "One of the comments we always got in PME is, 'Hey this was great, wish I would have had this two or three years ago.'"

The approach is meant to raise the level of education, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody said in a Sept. 10 interview with Air Force Times. It can be delivered to more airmen, more airmen have greater access, and the material they learn stays with them throughout their careers, Cody said.

"Blended learning is the way we're using new technologies, and ... a common misconception is that the budget has driven us to do these things, but that's not the case because we've been discussing this model for several years," Ward said.

As airmen move through their career, they will hit certain windows of opportunity for completing the courses, either online or in residence.

"The way we have done it in the past was, if you're at this rank, you went in residence. The new model is definitely based on time in service," Ward said. "To meet what we consider the minimum PME requirement to be eligible for promotion, and reenlistment and all those things, those requirements are satisfied through the distance learning course."

Aided by the digital age

With the exception of Airman Leadership School, this means the first item on the checklist is the yearlong distance learning course, which has been updated to an interactive, multimedia instruction, Cody said.

The Air Force Personnel Center notifies airmen when they become eligible for Course 15 for the NCO academy at their seven-year service mark, and Course 14 version 6 for the SNCO academy at their 12-year mark.

One indication of the importance of the distance learning piece: Airmen will now receive their PME ribbon and credit after completing Course 15 and Course 14 version 6, unlike in the past, when the ribbon was awarded only after completing in-residence courses; now the credit is considered complete once Course 15 or Course 14 version 6 are satisfied.

Cody noted that distance learning for these courses offers more flexibility for airmen to learn at their own pace.

"When you do education in a distance learning environment, it's very learner centric, meaning the learner can take as long as they need to gain a kind of mastery of the material," he said.

Ward said if airmen cannot understand the material, Air University has a help desk an airman can call or consult if they need additional aid — which can be a simple email away, Senior Master Sergeant Ryan Carson said.

Carson and Master Sergeant Heather Poff, who graduated Sept. 26, said everything in their in-residence experience at the SNCO academy was built on distance learning. Carson and Poff said they were in the transitional distance learning course right at the academy — just eight days instead of one year — but the material they learned was crucial to their hands-on learning.

Without distance learning, "you would miss out on a lot of the great information the in-residence course offers," Carson, in the Air Force Band at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington, D.C., said in an interview with Air Force Times. "Everybody was dedicated to finish [distance learning] in the time that was allotted, and the only person they would have shot in the foot is themselves if they didn't complete it," Carson said.

With the new model, "they can take as much time as they need to get there, but we know they'll be there because they can't move on to the next spot until [they complete it]," Cody said.

Carson said distance learning is "like the foundation on a house, if the foundation is wrong, when the house is constructed it's not going to be built right."

Moving to in-residence

While time in service mandates an airman's PME career structure, rank remains important — between the eight and 12-year service mark, an airman will only be able to attend the in-residence Intermediate Leadership Experience course post-Course 15 if he is an E-6 or E-6 select, or is in the top 10 percent of the nonselect promotion scores across each Air Force Specialty Code, Ward said.

Similarly, at the 13-year mark, once an airman completes Course 14 version 6, he must be a master sergeant or senior master sergeant to attend the in-residence Advanced Leadership Experience. But E-8 airmen, E-8 selects, or those within the top 10 percent of the nonselect promotion board will receive priority.

"You still have to be within that 13- to 18-year window," Ward said. "If you're a senior master sergeant past the 18 year window, you will not attend the residence portion — you will only get your PME at the distance learning level."

NCO and SNCO in residence is only required from airmen who are selected to attend, Ward said.

"There is 100 percent opportunity to attend the ILE or ALE if you are within the time in service window," Ward said, "[but] we really are not going to produce any less than we have in the past — we're not changing how many we educate, but we're changing who we educate in the resident experience."

While it isn't mandatory, in-residence learning is not optional because once an airman has been notified he's selected to attend, there is no option to opt out of attendance.

"If you turn that down, you do so with prejudice," Ward said. "They may not defer attendance except for valid mission, medical or humanitarian reasons."

Decisions are still being made at the headquarters level, Ward said, but some of the newest changes can be found in the Air Force Guidance Memorandum to AFI 36-2301, Developmental Education, published in July. The Air Force is updating the instruction, but Ward could not say when the new AFI 36-2301 will be released.

One of the first changes is at the Senior NCO academy at Air University, Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, Alabama, which changed over from the legacy course to the new ALE in April, Ward said. Only three classes of airmen have graduated under the new ALE program, which shifts emphasis away from classroom work — because that was completed in Course 14 — to more hands-on, group practice of scenarios airmen might encounter in their jobs, Ward said.

"I have to lead myself first before I can lead my airmen and [ALE] is really what zeroes in on leading yourself first, holding yourself accountable, and then also opens your eyes to some things you normally wouldn't be open to by getting us into that strategic level of thinking," Carson said of the ALE course.

Poff, 361st Recruiting Squadron, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, said that everyone who comes to the SNCO academy should already have a grasp of leadership at this level in their career, but the in-residence course maximizes an airman's strengths and "polishes them up and sends them back out to the operational Air Force."

The ALE course has shortened from 33 days to 24 days.

"Because we're doing the blended approach, you don't have to bring them in-residence for as long," Cody said.

The Senior NCO academy sees about 2,000 students — active duty, Guard, Reserve, international and sister service — while the NCO academies have around 9,000 students come through in residence on an annual basis.

The Barnes Center at Air University, which oversees curriculum for the academies, will begin beta testing the ILE course for the NCO academy at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, this fall. The course will offer similar hands-on practice in place now for ALE. Thelegacy NCO course will still be taught until the ILE becomes the norm for all the NCO academies,which won't happen until spring 2015 or later.

Both the ILE and legacy NCO courses will run concurrently, Ward said.

"If you're over 12 years in the Air Force, and you have not attended PME, our goal is to get you into the legacy course in fiscal '15 to satisfy your level of PME requirement," he said. This will give airmen some breathing room if they haven't gotten around to utilizing their in-residence NCO PME requirement.

If airmen cannot get into the legacy course by the end of the fiscal 2015, under the new policy, they will be required to complete the distance learning portion to satisfy the PME requirement, Ward said.

The ILE course days will also be shortened from six weeks to about four weeks — while the number of days is not yet final, it's likely the Air Force will remove eight to 10 days from the courses, Ward said.

"We didn't just cut 10 days off and try to fit everything into it ... because we took those basic things and put them in the [distance learning] courses," Ward said.

Who won't attend

Ward said the Air Force is working to transition airmen through PME quickly because once airmen surpass the 18-year mark, they will have receivedthe basic "institutional competencies you need to function as a senior NCO" primarily from Air Force duty.

"There will be some of those E-8s beyond the 18-year point, and under the new AFI guidance, they will not go on to the ALE," Ward said. Their distance learning course gets them in line to be eligible for promotion just like for every other airman, Ward said. But if an airman is still within that 13- to 18-year window, "no question you're going to go to ALE," Ward said.

Opportunities for Guard and Reserve members to attend in residence also will be limited — they will mostly meet their requirements through distance learning. Both the NCO and SNCO academies give the Guard and Reserve a certain number of seats each year in residence, and the reserve components will convene a board to select airmen to fill those slots, Ward said.

Ongoing adjustments

Beyond the NCO and SNCO academies, the Air Force may incorporate a blended learning model into Airman Leadership School, Ward said. For now, ALS will remain in residence at the 68 installations it's offered, because most airmen who attend ALS are still on base.

"We look at the population and we determine the demographics of that base — how many airmen first class and senior airmen they have, and that determines the production of the ALS course each year," Ward said.

The Air Force is looking to receive input from commanders and wing command chiefs to help determine who attends the ILE and ALE, Ward said.

"In the past, it was pretty much driven by your rank and time in grade, and the Air Force Personnel Center pretty much directed who would attend and when," Ward said. "Commanders do have some input into it now, but ... the intent is, when the new [Air Force Instruction] comes out, there will be a mechanism in there that commanders and wing command chiefs will have an input on who would attend."

Something to note when the new AFI comes out is shrinking windows: right now, the guidance memorandum states airmen between seven and 12 years are to complete distance learning and in-residence.

"That's for those airmen who are in between the seven and 12 years who have done no PME, so we're trying to get them in ... but it will specifically say your DL Course 15 will be between at your seven- and eight-year point and Course 14 [version 6] between your 12- and 13-year point," Ward said.

While the Air Force is investing in new technologies for distance learning, the new blended learning model will save the Air Force money in the long run, Ward said.

"The long-term projections are this will certainly save money, but it wasn't initiated as a cost-saving initiative — this was meant to be able to raise the level of education ... for all airmen," Cody said.

Cody stressed that blended learning will give airmen the advantage to come together at the same level of education and expand upon their experiences with discussion and team building.

"Leadership isn't a 'one size fits all' and the one thing I'm going to take away is to zero in on those traits and specifically target and develop my subordinates," Carson said. "But this doesn't just affect your leadership of your airmen, it's going to affect your leadership with your family, too."

NCO Academy locations:

■ Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida

■ McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base, Tennessee

■ Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi

■ Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas

■ Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas

■ Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado

■ JB Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska

■ Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii

■ Kadena Air Base, Japan

■ Kapaun Air Station, Germany

Senior NCO Academy:

■ Air University, Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, Alabama

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