Due to #JonasBlizzard, VCU closed on Friday and is closed again today. We got bunches of snow in a city not well equipped to handle it all. There’s no question that much of the city has had to shut down because it’s just too dangerous to be driving around Richmond. But, I do wonder about closing down business altogether…

Last semester, when Richmond hosted the UCI Cycling World Championships, the university cancelled classes for a whole week. But, the university wasn’t closed. For students, those days were considered “reading days.” Here’s the official statement of the university:

The university has established special courses with assignments that occur during the bike race. Though these days are university “reading” days; due to the extended length of the reading days and the timing of the bike race near the beginning of the semester, assignments can be set during these reading days. We encourage faculty to develop course-related assignments thematically related to the bike race to encourage student engagement.

Those special courses were pretty special and they were coded as “online” even though much of the work for the courses occurred in and around Richmond during the bike race.  For other classes, per the statement above, professors could give students assignments to work on during the week. For employees, the university administration encouraged a “liberal telecommunications policy” for all departments and employees.

So, why is a snow day different? What if:

  • Teaching faculty were encouraged to consider how the modern Web affords possibilities for the continuity of learning? Truth is, many (most?) of the classes that were cancelled would have involved a faculty member lecturing or delivering information to students. Recording lectures and posting them as videos is the low hanging fruit of educational technology. For smaller, seminar-style classes, there are many possibilities for engaging students in discussion online. Seminar-style discussions could even be held synchronously on any number of platforms. The university just invested a significant amount of money to add Zoom videoconferencing to a few other related videoconferencing technologies.
  • The same liberal telecommuting policy was in effect and faculty, staff and administrators were encouraged to not cancel the meetings that were on their calendar, but to use those same videoconferencing technologies?
  • Faculty, staff and administrators were encouraged to use other synchronous and asynchronous communications technologies to carry out the business of the programs, departments, units, etc.? In VCU’s ALT Lab, we use Slack for all internal communications. Am I not supposed to communicate with my teammates today because the university is closed?

Clearly, not every aspect of the operations of a university can be done virtually. But, that doesn’t mean that a weather event should shut down the whole university.

In part, I’m being intentionally provocative here. I do believe, though, that this may be an opportunity to cause university personnel to examine what modern forms of computer-mediated communication and new media afford for an institution of higher learning. Changing our approach to snow days might cause personnel to learn new technologies that, in the long run, might ultimately allow them to work smarter and not harder. Teaching faculty would be given an opportunity to explore what it’s like to teach online in a short, low-risk situation. Students can continue to be learners.

Again, this is a provocation, and maybe I’m missing some reasons for closing down completely. But, I don’t think so.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get ready for a videoconference meeting with colleagues from other universities across Virginia. But, wait, am I not supposed to participate in that meeting? My university is closed, right?…

"Egyptian Building in Snow" courtesy of VCU Libraries.

“Egyptian Building in Snow” courtesy of VCU Libraries.