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    Army bounds over COVID-19 hurdles, vBLC exceeds expectations



    Story by Christy Graham 

    Fort Polk Public Affairs Office

    FORT POLK, La. — Last spring, the COVID-19 pandemic altered numerous trajectories. High school seniors had to find creative ways to celebrate their achievements, school boards devised plans to feed and educate school-aged kids and the Army found safe ways to continue necessary professional and leadership education.
    In many cases, military training exercises halted due to safety concerns, but education was a different yet equally important area of focus. Distance learning options allowed Soldiers to maneuver around COVID-19 lock downs and still receive the necessary education to supplement their previous training, nurturing their leadership skills in different ways.
    One such example is the Army’s Basic Leader’s Course, which is intended for junior enlisted personnel that are preparing for team leader positions. According to the Noncommissioned Officer Leadership Center of Excellence (NCOLCoE) webpage, BLC students develop skills relating to written and oral communication, critical and creative thinking, problem solving, leadership and counseling, drill and ceremonies, training, character development, nutrition and fitness, troop leading procedures and mission orders.
    During the initial months of the pandemic, the BLC curriculum had to reconfigure to fit into an online format using (BB) — it transitioned into the virtual Basic Leader Course (vBLC).
    “We ensured that the curriculum was not compromised,” said Juan Ortiz, director of the Noncommissioned Officer Professional Directorate.
    “At the start of the pandemic, the NCOLCoE team drafted guidance, which wasn’t cookie-cutter, and sent it across the Noncommissioned Officer Academies. We gave commandants the latitude to operate within their limits,” Ortiz said.
    “You would be surprised at the intuition and creativity these commandants and their staffs displayed. All across the Army, we’ve had different types of virtual BLCs being administered in various formats — some were fully online and others were blended — but each one responded with innovative ideas that maintained the curriculum.”
    The vBLC curriculum delivers the same essential lessons to upcoming Army leaders. Specialists and corporals begin their professional military education with BLC, so it’s a crucial juncture for future leaders. Adhering to its content was paramount for Sgt. Maj. Christopher A. West, NCOLCoE BLC course manager.
    “Sergeant Major West has been the catalyst behind this whole curriculum operation,” said Ortiz.
    West was able to use an emergency BLC model earlier in the year to pilot what became vBLC.
    “In December and January I had time to look at BB and work on the redesign for the course. We went into testing that platform at the Fort Bliss, Texas NCOA,” said West. “We also benefitted from early testing in Korea, which went into a lock-down phase before the United States. It paid out big for us; it led the way forward with the virtual format and BB platform.”
    For Fort Polk Soldiers, BLC is a course received through Camp Cook, Louisiana. That NCOA’s Commandant, Command Sgt. Maj. Troy Barron, is just one of many that met the challenges of COVID-19 directly.
    “There are definitely some challenges in the virtual realm; but overall, I think it’s been a success,” said Barron. “We had to cancel two iterations of BLC at the start of the pandemic. We did it to make sure we could get everything set the way we wanted for an effective vBLC experience.”
    To prepare for the inevitable hindrances of switching to a fully distance learning environment, Barron said that his NCOA conducted mock classes, given and received by the schoolhouses’ facilitators.
    “We did a virtual class for ourselves. Some facilitators played the role of student and others still functioned as the instructor. It took us three weeks to develop a good plan and setup. Then, as we went through the first class, we annotated what did or didn’t work and adjusted fire.”
    One of the biggest difficulties has been working around instances when the BB platform goes down. “That’s one reason we videotaped lessons: we wanted to still be able to get the lessons to the students via email or YouTube, even when there are technical difficulties,” said Barron. “It’s been a learning experience: Each class builds up the next one, making the vBLC experience more successful.”
    Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Bouyea and Staff Sgt. Steven Ranel are both facilitators at Camp Cook’s NCOA, and they believe that the vBLC model continues to benefit and challenge the Army’s future leaders.
    “Each day we log on with our Soldiers through Skype and we go over that day’s training schedule. Students watch the prerecorded video lessons, answer questions regarding that topic and then they participate in a group discussion using the online forum,” Ranel said. “We also do an evening call to go over what the Soldiers learned that day and follow up with any remaining questions.”
    The group discussions still function in much the same way they did in the resident course — facilitators bring up the topics and Soldiers are left to carry the conversation forward using the discussion posts, said Ranel.
    If a student has a question, then they can contact their facilitator through the GroupMe application or a Skype call.
    “At the end of each phase of learning, students are graded and counseled. This helps facilitators acknowledge when Soldiers have done really well during a phase or if there were some issues that need to be addressed,” said Bouyea. “We are still getting the future Army leaders in for training; they are still getting the knowledge and information they need to be successful.”
    A Fort Polk Soldier and recent graduate of vBLC, Sgt. Stephan Cavanaugh, 2nd Battalion, 4th Inf Reg, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, said he appreciated the flexibility of vBLC.
    “The virtual course was helpful in that I was able to work and complete the course from home. Some Army units can’t handle not having their Soldiers completing tasks, so it was nice having the option to do coursework and telework simultaneously, as opposed to being away from the unit completely.”
    Although the virtual model has proven successful in the face of adversity, the Army plans to move BLC back to a resident course.
    “The Army wants BLC to remain a resident course; due to the current circumstance, we have been pushing forward with virtual training. We have this ability to do it and, just in case the need arises again, we have this plan on the shelf, waiting to be dusted off and implemented even more seamlessly than this experience,” said West. “Some academies are already returning to resident courses, depending on their local community’s and commander’s instructions.”
    In the meantime, leaders at the highest levels are stressing the importance of professional military education, like BLC, to young Soldiers, even in the face of COVID-19.
    “There’s a difference between education and training. In training, there is a lockstep of how to do a specific task, without really knowing the theory behind it. The importance of education in a Soldier’s career is learning that theory behind the things we do in the Army. It’s the difference between being a trained robot and being able to think outside the box,” Ortiz said.
    Having the skills to think outside the box, as Ortiz highlighted, are critical in times like these, when creative solutions drive missions forward.



    Date Taken: 08.14.2020
    Date Posted: 08.17.2020 09:11
    Story ID: 376130
    Location: FORT POLK, LA, US 

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