All active-duty airmen no longer have to complete the distance learning programs known as Course 14 and Course 15 before attending noncommissioned officer or senior NCO academies.

Instead, active-duty airmen will now complete their enlisted professional military education in-residence, the Air Force said in a release Thursday.

Airmen from the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve will have the option of completing their EPME through either distance learning or in-residence, the Air Force said.

“Ultimately, airmen are always encouraged to focus on their own self-improvement and life-long learning,” Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, said in a release. “However, because our enlisted members have a 100 percent opportunity to attend in-residence NCO and SNCO [academies], this change provides airmen greater flexibility and reduces redundancy in professional military education.”

Active-duty airmen who are now enrolled in Course 14 or 15 can choose to either stay in the course or disenroll, the Air Force said. Guard and Reserve airmen are to continue to finish the distance learning course.

“We want to ensure each level of EPME is meaningful to our airmen and works to further develop them as professionals,” Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright said. “As we work to evolve our EPME, we have to remain flexible, ensuring we have content and delivery models that work for everyone.”

The changes ― which take effect immediately ― are the latest in a series of shifts away from a distance learning system that frustrated many airmen, and cost thousands a chance at promotions last year.

Former Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody and other Air Force leaders in 2014 announced a new PME system that blended online learning and in-residence training. Cody said the blended learning system would use technology to get education to more airmen and teach them more effectively.

But the system never caught on with airmen, and grew to become a headache or even a career killer.

In 2015, the Air Force had to prod tens of thousands of enlisted airmen to enroll in Course 14 and 15.

The problems grew from there, as a one-year deadline for NCOs to finish their distance learning approached.

In May 2016, Cody acknowledged to airmen that Course 15 materials were riddled with an unacceptable number of errors, and some airmen may not have been notified they were supposed to start distance learning.

There were also testing backlogs, and not enough facilities to test airmen, meaning some airmen had finished the course but didn’t have the opportunity to take the test.

As a result, the Air Force that month delayed its NCO deadline ― which would have left NCOs ineligible for promotion or re-enlistment if they didn’t finish their distance learning in time ― from June 2016 to January 2017.

SNCOs also had their deadlines extended, and officials repeatedly warned that failing to finish their PME distance learning could be a career killer.

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright talks to Air Force Times and Defense News in a March 8, 2018 roundtable at the Pentagon. (Jeff Martin/Staff)
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright talks to Air Force Times and Defense News in a March 8, 2018 roundtable at the Pentagon. (Jeff Martin/Staff)

About 9,300 airmen missed that January 2017 deadline, initially meaning they’d be ineligible to re-enlist or be considered for promotion, although the Air Force Personnel Center said some of those may have already decided to separate and chose not to take the distance learning course on purpose.

In March 2017, the Air Force softened its stance and decided to allow those airmen to re-enlist or extend their service if they wanted to and if their squadron commander approved, although they were still ineligible for promotion.

AFPC said later in 2017 that 5,489 enlisted airmen ended up being ineligible for consideration for promotion to technical sergeant due to their failure to complete the distance learning course.

This was a key factor driving the 8,000-airman drop in eligibility for E-6 promotion that year.

Another 115 senior airmen were left ineligible for promotion to staff sergeant as well, AFPC said.

In May 2017, the Air Force phased out its old Course 15 distance learning program and replaced it with a new NCO Distance Learning Course that was intended to make studying easier for airmen, by dividing the course into three modules with more practice questions and more “summative tests” to help them absorb the material.

Last July, Wright announced a new program called EPME 21, or Enlisted Professional Military Education for the 21st Century, designed to broaden eligibility for EPME.

Under this program, all active, Guard and Reserve airmen are allowed to attend Airman Leadership School, the NCO Academy, and the SNCO Academy prior to promotion.

Previously, some airmen who fell out of specific time-in-service windows wouldn’t be able to attend those academies after taking Course 14 or 15.

The Air Force said in Thursday’s release that it based its decision on feedback gathered during the 2017 EPME Triennial Review Committee, EPME working groups, and students and instructors.

“We are working with our teammates at Air Education and Training Command and Air University to enhance our EPME and ensure it meets the intent of our most senior leaders,” Wright said. “We need to ensure that our EPME can evolve over time as technology changes, so to that end, we’re working to ensure our content and delivery evolves too.”