Snow day?


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.

7 thoughts on “Snow day?”

  1. Meredith Stewart says:

    I teach at an independent 6-12 school. For us, the first day out for snow is always a “do nothing, wear your PJs, go sledding, drink hot chocolate” day. After that teachers are expected to provide assignments to students to continue the learning even though school is “out”. That’s always struck me as a reasonable way to handle things. It also means that we don’t “make up” snow days unless we’re out for an exceptional amount of time. We’re a 1:1 school, so assuming the power’s on, which it usually is for most people after the first day of a storm, there aren’t huge access issues. I usually do my best to be available to students via email or Yammer if they have questions.

  2. Laura Gogia says:

    Coming from a medical background, this idea of shutting down entirely for inclement weather blows my mind. Life and time go on regardless of weather. It does not mean business as usual – even in hospitals, elective surgeries and clinics are being cancelled, workers already there are pulling double shifts, and workers who absolutely need to get in to help their colleagues are figuring it out – calling first responders for rides, digging out, walking in, etc. Why? Because the work is important and people have a passion for their work and their team so they make it happen. There is no reason universities can’t do the same, in a manner of speaking. So much of what educators and students do (learning, writing, collaborating, creating, thinking, communicating) can take place in a digital space. It may not be business as usual (it’s not always possible, particularly in the face of electricity outages and accessibility issues), but why should we leave all the passion for work to the medical professionals and first responders? I guess I’m being provocative along with you – probably more so… but does it say something about the work if you are unwilling to put a little effort into figuring out how to make it happen, even if you need to stay physically put?

  3. Uh oh…am I in trouble? I am teaching an online course for VCU and did my regular Monday checkin for my students, who are all on snow days themselves. Should I have waited until the university and the schools reopened to continue to learning?

    More seriously, I’ve been an “independent worker” for nearly 15 years, and there is no such thing as a snow day in my world. Assuming power and Internet access, work goes on as usual. The only difference may be that since my clients are mostly closed, I may use the free time to do some personal learning such as playing with the Raspberry Pi I set up but other than that, life and work goes on.

  4. Laura Gibbs says:

    I shamelessly urge my students (I teach fully online) to take advantage of snow days in Oklahoma to GET AHEAD in my classes while they are stuck at home. They could binge-watch Netflix OR they could binge-read folklore and mythology! Admittedly, when the power is out (as happens with ice storms in Oklahoma), that’s a totally different story. But if students are at home and online, I consider my course open for business as usual.

    When there are snow days, our D2L administrator tries to get a discussion going about how it is possible to do all kinds of coursework remotely. The sun comes out, though, the snow melts, and faculty continue not to use the LMS.

    Now if only we could make the LMS more fun and useful so that it would be IRRESISTIBLE to faculty and students alike! 🙂

  5. Laura Gibbs says:

    P.S. For your viewing pleasure:

    My students make memes, and one student made this one during a year with lots of snow days. The president of our university is David Boren, and the students call him DBo. #MakeTheCallDBo is the hashtag students use to make their feelings known in this regard. 🙂

  6. Cheryl says:

    A few years back, an earthquake took out our main instruction/services/labs/faculty offices building on our main campus on the second day of fall classes. We learned pretty fast how to work remotely, instruct virtually, collaborate off campus and get everything done without being in a building together. Once the building was sorted out over a year later, we continued many of our well-learned practices. Maybe necessity is the mother, and we need more necessity…

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