Guest Post: On the Merits and Shortcomings of Course 15

During a 23 May "All Call" at the Pentagon, CMSAF James Cody struggles to rationalize a decision to delay implementation of key Course 15 policies without admitting the Air Force made a mistake in its rollout of the program.  The unwillingness of senior leaders to admit error is a source of frustration among the service's NCO, and is injuring CMSAF's credibility.
During a 23 May “All Call” at the Pentagon, CMSAF James Cody struggles to rationalize a decision to delay implementation of key Course 15 policies without admitting the Air Force made a mistake in its rollout of the program. The unwillingness of senior leaders to admit error is a source of frustration among the service’s NCO, and is injuring CMSAF’s credibility.

Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Caius “Guy” Smith for JQP, and represents its author’s individual view. It’s a timely perspective given the huge implementation problems with the Air Force’s new “blended” NCO professional development model — issues severe enough that the Chief of Staff saw fit to delay until next year the adverse consequences for NCOs who don’t complete Course 15 within the prescribed one-year timeline. It’s a program riven with unintended consequences, perverse incentives, and institutional potholes. This meditation provides a matter-of-fact rundown of some of the more fundamental problems with the course that would be at issue even if it had been implemented perfectly. The author will be watching comment threads here and elsewhere and invites you to join a JQP discussion that has already influenced Air Force policy.

Across the Air Force’s Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) Corps, the subject of the newly implemented NCO Academy Distance Learning (NCOADL) Course 15 permeates conversations.  Everything from its material and distribution to evaluation and career ramifications hover on the lips of the program’s recipients. All Air Force personnel, whether enlisted or commissioned, will be impacted in one way or another. As such, a comprehensive review of the program is in order.

For those not familiar, Course 15 is part of the answer to the Air Force’s need to reduce costs across the board.  Instead of all Technical Sergeants attending NCOA, only those who are promoted prior to their 12 year mark will attend (AFI 36-2301, Table A2.1).  To compensate for the loss of in-classroom learning, the material from the class was ported into 5 volumes and it was mandated that all Technical Sergeants who had not yet attended NCOA and all Staff Sergeants with 7 years Time-In-Service (TIS) be automatically enrolled in the DL course (AFI 36-2301, Table A2.1). Enrolled students have one year to complete the coursework, or be rendered ineligible for promotion and re-enlistment until the course is complete (AFI 36-2301, para A2.2.1.2).

On the surface, the program is a good idea: those who have been in longer are more inclined to understand the principles of leadership. Fast burners may not have the same experience in dealing with various workplace problems and supervisor-subordinate relations.  Removing the NCO Academy requirement for those who have been in longer means less dollars spent on TDY while achieving the same overall effectiveness.  Adding in an NCO equivalent of Course 14 allows for the promotion of the same ideals as NCOA without the overhead.

But these advantages have been almost fully negated by the rushed and poorly handled Course 15 that is currently being mandated to our NCO Corps.

First and foremost, let us look at how not to implement a program. Testing of the program was initially restricted to Technical Sergeants meeting a minimum requirement.  In 2015, the Course 15 program was upgraded to version one (1) and AFI 36-2301 was updated to include all Staff Sergeants meeting the minimum TIS. At the same time, bases began briefing personnel to be aware of enrollment and completion requirements.

Herein lies the first misstep: enrollment is handled automatically through AFPC via MyPERS and notification sent via email to the individual.  Individuals are then required to access the MyPERS page and accept notification of enrollment (AFI 36-2301, para A2.5.4). Failure to accept notification after a certain period warrants notification to the installation Command Chief Master Sergeant, who then disseminates that to the unit CEM’s.  This removes the Unit Training Manager (UTM) from the entire process and flies in the face of AFI 1-1, paragraph 1.7.1:

“The key principle is to resolve problems and seek answers at the lowest possible level.”

By removing the unit from involvement with the individual’s training, any hiccup in training is automatically elevated to both the host unit and the enrolling institution.  Assistance may be sought through MyPERS, although any question not directly answered by a help page and any unique situation mean that this is not a viable source for assistance.  This does nothing but reenforce the negative view held by many Air Force personnel of the AFPC cluster that brought us the ineligible for voluntary separation debacle two Aprils ago.

Another problem with this method of notification should be immediately present: If a member is deployed, on leave, or if their mailbox is full from the barrage of emails one receives, this notification will not be received. The individual’s supervisor does not also receive the notification.  In fact, no one is notified until it is tripped to the Wing or equivalent host unit’s Command Chief!  How this made it past the first review is a mystery matched only by the stories of Jules Verne.

Not to worry, as this was foreseen by AFPC (sarcasm) and all Staff and Technical Sergeants with 7 years TIS were automatically mandatory enrolled as of July 2015. In doing so, the education centers responsible for administering tests have been bogged down with bunched testing appointment requests from similarly timed groups, causing a logistical nightmare toward the end of the one year window.  As the test is computer based and centrally hosted, each test center is limited to the bandwidth of the base, the number of computers in their lab, and the other testing requirements already in place. Although AFPC has failed to note this, the individual units have foreseen this issue and are actively encouraging their airmen to schedule early and not wait until the last moment.  From this, we see the attempt of the Air Force in adapting to a poorly thought-out policy. (Ed. Note: some of these unit policies have the effect of coercing airmen into completing the requirement in less than their allocated time).

Although there is much more to discuss on the tests, a look at the course content and material distribution is in order and will provide a greater understanding of the problems plaguing our force.

Keeping in tune with the principle of reducing costs, distribution of materials is handled electronically via the Air University (AU) website ( In contrast with upgrade training, the volumes are available to all via public access and the page is configured for Search Engine Optimization (Google searches). Unfortunately, this also creates an unaddressed problem: there is no control for material versions versus tests. Personnel must continually refer to the website to ensure that they are not using outdated material.  New revisions do not post what content has been modified, although the edition and date updated (as titled on the AU page) are listed next to the course volume.

Content is broken into 5 volumes, each delivered via PDF.  Each volume builds off the previous; personnel will need to read in sequence to keep pace with the requirements.  Out of the volumes, the last four (4) are considered decent and are primarily a re-hash of standards and knowledge found in the PDG and every other upgrade training/PME course.  In stark contrast is the first volume, titled “Course Introduction.” This volume sets the framework for the course as well as how personnel will be evaluated on the tests, and inspires frustration among those who are unfortunate enough to have to read from it.  I highly encourage anyone reading this to pause and open the volume for themselves prior to continuing.

From the beginning, NCOs are greeted by the author with a tone of negativity.  For example, page 6 of the PDF (Chapter One: Student Orientation) contains this wonderful gem:

“Not only will you find it challenging to complete the reading assignments and activities, you will need to carve out time to think about how this course relates to you and to your subordinates.”

Although it may seem innocuous in and of itself (ignoring the quip about time management), this phrase instills the belief that the material must be difficult, therefore the reader should have difficulty with the material.  Plentiful examples of this negative reinforcement may be found throughout the volume, which may contribute to the failures experienced on the two tests.  Another issue may in fact be the following:

“To be truly successful, you must learn all of the elements of all of the concepts, know how they are supposed to be used and why, and know what happens when concepts are and are not applied appropriately and/or effectively.” (NCOADL Set A Volume 1, page 57)

Of concern should be the application of concepts. By reading through the material and performing the formative exercises, one will note that the students are expected to review a scenario, evaluate the scenario, and then apply the material to determine the most likely outcome.  This is fine and dandy in a classroom environment, where hearty discussion and guided lessons can help future leaders build the foundation of knowledge required, but is not conducive to individual studying solo with no teamwork efforts. Additionally, it fails to account for the multiple possible outcomes foreseen by individuals and expects a singular resolution.  If everyone is to think the exact same, how can we expect the course will trigger anyone to strive for innovation as stated in AFI 1-1, paragraph 1.3?

Beneficial information may also be found in volume 1.  Of primary benefit to newer NCO’s is the critical analysis of information (chapter 4).  With this in mind, much of the material presented throughout the entire volume is mainly common sense and rhetoric spun into word association games with a heavy coating of “Bluing” so familiar to EPME. As stated previously, this is applied thoroughly to the formative exercises in all 5 volumes and is indicative to the material that one can expect on the two evaluations.

Interesting enough is the lack of quality control in the materials. An excellent example comes from volume 1, page 169:


This is one of many such instances contained within the volume. If mistakes as obvious as this are not caught following several published updates, how can we say for certain that a proper review was even given to the course?

Once an individual has completed studying and feels confident to test, they need to log in to Air University and request the appropriate test.  AUSIS sends a notification to the individual and their education center, which allows the individual to log in to AFVEC and request a test.  At no point in this process has the unit or the UTM been involved.  On the day of the test, the individual arrives at their test location and follows a similar process to other electronic tests.

As part of the briefing, testers are reminded that test compromise is a violation of the UCMJ.  While understandable for tests (especially promotion tests), I personally take issue with this for developmental education testing as it prevents the reasonable attempt to study to the test style.  Additionally, it prevents discussion amongst individuals and their supervisors, as well as commanding officers, on the types of questions asked and their meaning in context of unit operations — which is the whole point of development. It also disrupts the possibility of external review for potential bias.  Instead, individuals are expected to identify an incorrect question and report it through the platform. This practice is common throughout military testing, however, and is not necessarily an issue solely of Course 15.

Some thought was given to the “Enhancement” portion of the EPME tests, mainly in the fact that a breakdown of the sections that the missed questions were derived from is provided after each test.  This does not extend to telling you what the correct answer was in any of the 17 (set A) or 23 (set B) questions on the test.  With such a small pool of questions, the impact of each incorrect answer carries considerably larger impact than on other evaluations, such as the infamous Weighted Airman Promotion System (WAPS) tests.

Should you pass the first test, you may take the second once your results have posted. If you fail, the results are still posted and you may take the test again.  A second failure means a 3 month dis-enrollment as stated by the AU NCOADL page (CAC-restricted). Re-enrollment requires a letter from your supervisor — the first time that the unit is involved in any step of the process.  There is no command waiver for Course 15, mainly due to the AU page lacking a reference for their policy (such as a supplement for AFI 36-2301).  From this, a peculiar intent may be inferred: either think in the manner the content preparers say you should or get out of the military.

But wait! AFI 36-2301 (para A2.2.2.1) requires that unit commanders must establish guidance that supports force development. That’s great, but completely useless since the unit is completely detached from Course 15 unless the member fails more than 2 times (4th enrollment requires squadron commander endorsement).  Short of a majority of members failing their tests, there is no feedback to leadership that there may in fact be a problem with the requirements faced or the material presented.

In short, by attempting to save money the Air Force has acted contrary to the cultivation of EPME promoted by CMSAFs Binnicker and Barnes. While there is some promising content within the Course 15 material, a comprehensive review and a thorough overhaul are needed to bring this flailing program within acceptable standards that the Air Force has set for all other areas of operations.

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