Some technical sergeants enrolled in an Air University distance learning course in March erroneously received two sets of materials — hard-copy books and online PDFs. What wasn't clear to at least one student was that the hard copies were outdated materials and the new materials were online.
The student studied the hard-copy books — and he failed one of the two tests he would be administered during the new version of the yearlong Course 15 Version 1, a prerequisite for Noncommissioned Officer Academy.
The tech sergeant complained to the Barnes Center at Air University, which oversees curriculum for the NCO Academy and Senior NCO Academy, and was told the system error had been identified. But for him, having already taken the test, the response didn't make a difference.
"You may have identified it, but, why didn't you tell any of your students?" said the tech sergeant, who asked not to be named. "They're treating this first year or two as just a beta test, and just not telling us."
The tech sergeant noted his frustration in his complaint, saying he wasted his time studying the wrong material. But he will retake the test.
About 50 complaints, including two complaints filed with the inspector general, were reported to the Barnes Center for the book mishap. Air University was transitioning from its course development, student administration and registrar to a new system at the same time incoming students were enrolling for the newest version of the course, said Jeff Geidner, dean of academic affairs at the Barnes Center.
Students had been told to use the online materials, but then, because of the system error, received the hard-copy books in the mail — leading to the tech sergeant's confusion.
However, Geidner said, the center does not plan to reverse the test scores or give airmen who failed because of this particular issue a pass.
"I see the fact that there is some culpability on our part because the system generated a package to a student, but there's also culpability on the student's part as well," Geidner said in a Dec. 3 interview with Air Force Times. "We would have to call somebody 'good' who did not pass a test, or did not study the appropriate material and take the appropriate test when they were notified of the proper materials, so ... we'd be asking ourselves to pass somebody who didn't pass the course — that's something that we wouldn't do."
Airmen are required to complete distance learning courses — Course 15 for NCOs and Course 14 Version 6 for senior NCOs — before attending the academies.
While enlisted professional military education is moving toward more multimedia, interactive distance learning models, so far, only Course 14 Version 6 for senior NCOs operates online, while distance learning for Course 15 operates "as an electronic version for paper courses," Geidner said.
Course 15 Version 1 books were turned into downloadable PDFs that students were notified to access in their course enrollment welcome letter.
The old materials for Course 15 were cut from Air University's budget because of printing and shipping costs, said Frank Mileto, distance learning course manager for the Barnes Center. However, "the message to turn off [shipping] the books didn't go through and the books kept going out for a few months," Mileto said
Mileto said the Barnes Center is unaware of how many books were shipped out by mistake, but the erroneous shipments stopped by the end of April.
"In the cases that we saw, the students did not act on those [welcome letter] instructions ... [and] without going back and reading those instructions or acting on them," the testing materials would not match up with the course materials, Geidner said.
Airmen will download PDFs for Course 15 Version 1 until Oct. 1. The Air Force is working to incorporate the same multimedia experience for NCOs as senior NCOs via BlackBoard educational site.
The downloadable PDFs are expected to save the Air Force $675,000 annually.
How to test and when
Airmen have a year to complete the NCO and senior NCO courses with an optional four-month extension when needed in cases such as deployments, family issues or mission constraints.
Airmen are tested twice within each course, and they have two attempts to pass each of the electronically graded tests, Mileto said. If they fail Test A, they must retest, but if they fail again, they're in a three-month holding pattern before they can re-enroll to test again.
Airmen can retest on either Test A or Test B "as many times as they need to retake it" as long as they wait three months in between each failing period, Mileto said.
"As long as airmen complete and pass [their course] by the time prescribed in the AFI, [they won't be] denied re-enlistment or promotion," said Bonnie Houser, Barnes Center director of operations.
Students can provide feedback on test questions they found difficult or unfair, Geidner said. "We have people sifting through the feedback, as well as the help desk calls and also the social media sites trying to pick up information on ... what people are experiencing that they might not necessarily be sharing with us," he said.
The completion rate for Course 15 Version 1, since 2012, is around 70 percent, Mileto said.
"This is a cultural change we're going through," Geidner said. "In no time in the last 25 years has a tech sergeant had to take a distance learning course for leadership development, and so the question is from our perspective, is this the appropriate way to develop leadership via self-study courses?"