From BBC News

The coldest snap for 20 years shows no sign of letting up, with the freezing weather expected to last all weekend and into next week.

Then we read this

Thousands of children are affected by school closures in England, Wales and Scotland after more heavy snowfalls.

Oh these stories are not from last week, but from last February!

Last February we had some of the worst winter weather for twenty years, unprecedented and somewhat unexpected. As a result many schools, colleges and universities closed their doors to learners and students and staff got a “free” holiday.

Sound familiar, well last week we had even worse weather, something not seen since 1963 in some places. Lots of snow, freezing temperatures and once more many more schools, colleges and universities closing due to the snow.

John Popham in his blog does ask the question

Why, in 2010, we are not making more use of the Internet to cope with these conditions. As in many areas of British life, you will probably tell me that the UK has such extreme weather conditions so infrequently that it is not worth the cost of preparing for them, but, as this is now the second consecutive winter where we have had significant snow fall, and it appears likely that climate change may well make this a regular event, surely we should seriously think about how we prepare for such occasions. And, in this context, as we are supposed to be moving increasingly towards both delivering more education online, and adopting more flexible working practices, surely these should come into their own at these times, shouldn’t they?

I agree with him.

Part of the issue in my view is the culture of snow closures.

Look at this tweet from the University of Bath.

Part of a co-ordnated effort as described on Brian Kelly’s blog how the University of Bath used a range of communication channels and technologies to inform their staff and students that they were closed.

Just to note it’s interesting to see that the University is closed, isn’t it just that the physical site is closed? Can’t at least some of the University continue virtually? However by using the language “closed” it implies that no activity will take place, well no formal activity will take place.

Culturally is it because those not involved online can’t see that closing a physical location need not have a significant impact on the business of the University, if that business can be carried out at home or online?

Using the word “closed” also sends the message to staff that the University is closed and that they do not need to go to work, or even do any work – even if they could.

The University of Bath is not alone, many other educational institutions followed a similar line and message to their learners and staff.

The statement from my college initially to all staff was that the college was closed. Obviously the site was closed, but the VLE was still operational. It wasn’t until a few days later that a message about the VLE was put on the website. However I wonder how many staff are “using” the VLE and how many are taking advantage of the closure to have a bit of a break from work.

David Sugden also brings in another institution in his blog post on the snow, he wrote

With no contingency in place, my wife sent texts to her learners and told them that ideas for work would be posted on the Moodle and that she would be there – on chat – during the class time. But no one came. There is no culture amongst the learners (in Sharon’s case full time nursery workers/managers who were probably too busy with extra children anyway) to visit online learning activities at times like these.

He also asks the question

So, how do we change that culture? How do we prepare our colleagues AND our learners for ‘snow time’?

A good question. At the moment staff and learners see snow as an excuse for a break and won’t even think about let alone consider the possibilities that technology allows them to continue despite the snow and site closures.

David also says

I believe that we have to get them all thinking about the use of audio and video for instruction and assessment as a matter of course and to use online collaboration tools as part of their day-to-day college, school (whatever) life.

Last February we recorded a podcast on this topic and it is still relevant this winter.

David continues

We need to wear the technologies and associated techniques like comfortable coats!

This view is also echoed in an Audioboo by Graham Attwell who brings in David White’s excellent Digital Residents and Digital Visitors model. Those of us who are digital residents didn’t see the snow as an issue, those of us who are digital visitors probably didn’t even think about the possibility!

If all staff and learners were familiar with the technologies then snow closures wouldn’t be such an issue. However if the snow in February 2009 and again in January 2010 has shown anything, it has shown that there is there still a long way to go before educational institutions really are making best use of the internet and digital technologies to enhance and enrich learning.

What about those staff who did work from home? Will they get any benefit or overtime for the day that they worked, but others made snowmen and went sledging? Why should I work from home (because I know how and can) when everyone else is not?

Yes snow makes it dangerous to travel, but with the internet and mobile technologies, does it mean that learners need to stop learning just because the decision is taken to close the physical location?

So what if this snow is unprecedented? What if we are now not going to have bad snow for another twenty years? Well even if you ignore the possible impact that climate change can have on our winters, making them colder and with more snow, institutions can still close for other reasons. My own college was closed in 2007 because of the floods in Gloucestershire. Schools in 2009 were closed because of swine flu. Closures happen a lot, time to start thinking about how an educational institution can make best use of the fantastic tools that are available to it for learning. Though the first thing to do will be to change the culture. It’s not just about contingency planning, it’s about changing the way people work when there isn’t snow and changing the way people think when there is.

Last year we had the “worst snow” for twenty years, here we are less than twelve months later and the snow is not only back it’s even worse! Culturally we have some way to go I think before snow only closes the physical location and doesn’t close the institution.

23 thoughts on “Snow”

  1. In the email & on the website that told us we were closed, they did tell staff that they were expected to work from home if they could – it included a link to the webmail server (which subsequently got overloaded!) & also to the information on how to access files saved on the network.

    It wasn’t, however, for a couple of days that they reminded us about the VLE … though looking at the “who’s online” section in it, there was a range of staff/students using it anyway.

  2. Many points are raised in this blog. Although I am not sure where to begin, I might just list some thoughts:

    Primary Schools are way ahead of Secondary Schools when it comes to engaging learning and embracing new technologies. Secondary really needs to revise its model for educating post 11 children. (This would need Government support – but will we ever get a Government with the right people in the right educational placements?)

    The Secondary School timetable is so packed full that there is no latitude or flexibility for changing timetables or the school day to encompass extra-curricular events or make a temporary diversion.

    The focus on assessment and reporting has destroyed Secondary teaching and learning. Failure is camouflaged in a lot of meaningless subsiduary qualifications to make poor attainers look better in a politically correct world – not, I hasten to add, entirely their fault that they underachieve in an exam-success-driven system perpetuated by a media-activity-driven society.

    I have spent the past 5 years working with teaching colleagues to encourage the use of online learning in Secondary Schools but the commitment and need for cultural change is being firmly resisted by over-stretched individuals with too many school timetable commitments.

    I’ll leave it there for now.

  3. I don’t think there will be many staff who didn’t spend their snow break catching up with work,even those with children at home.
    I agree that the way the message about college closures came out certainly lacked thought in my own college.Lets have everything email,twitter,website VLE,text radio and old fashioned phone ring around.
    I used our VLE (first time since the term began)- It was a good opportunity to upload resources and Keith Burnett was at the end of an email to answer queries.

  4. Even amongst educators, there exists a bi/polarity that divides us. As a school principal, my first instinct is to stay open, but the reality is that being half open is precisely twice much work asbeing one or the other. For example onThursday it took me personally 5 hours of new work to ensue we could open Friday for a-level teaching , plus some 2 hours negotiating with teachers and parents why we were opening on Monday fir the rest of the school. I got none of the planned work achieved for Thursday, and spent most of Sunday playing catch up! The two main visits planned for last week (southsea & tonbridge) will have to happen next week or so in addition to the visits planned then! Those due at work.but left at home finds their work expands to fill the time available, worried about parents, pipes and other practicalities!

  5. The biggest problem beyond a doubt for workers, whether digitally resident or visitor, was the school closures. I happened to be on annual leave this week anyway but if I was not, there would be no way I could get a proper day’s work done with a 5 year old at home. Luckily a lot of us within education have employers who understand the difficulties – I feel more sorry for those who were docked pay for being forced to stay at home to look after children, a real catch 22 situation particularly where you can travel but schools are being over cautious.

    I did see some examples of schools using technology to its best advantage whilst they were closed – my nephew’s school posted a lot of different suggestions for learning activities based around the snow. All very good – but doesn’t help the workers who are needed at home to help fulfil this learning opportunity.

  6. Hi James,

    Thanks for this, and for the references.

    It has surprised me this week just how unprepared we are for school closures [by school I mean ANY educational/training establishment]. As you suggest, the bricks and mortar may close but learning shouldn’t shut down too.

    Like you, I’ve been working with colleagues for many years and have striven to increase awareness, undersatnding and confidence in the use of ‘e’ (I should say ‘the many uses of ..’) but it has been a slow journey.

    In the Eduvel copy of my blog post (one not propted too widely because WordPress seems broken to me this week), my sister in law in America makes the following obersvation:

    “Over here where snow days are much more common each one is embraced as a holiday if school is canceled.

    Here, snow days are added on to the end of the term so if school would normally let out on say, June 30th and there were 3 snow days, it would end on July 3rd.

    I do know of some professors here who have snow day learning built into the syllabus. That way, students know ahead of time that if classes are canceled for snow, that they have to do an alternate assignment or go the classes website or whatever.”

    … which is the point I was trying to make in my own post. The institution, the teacher AND the learner all need to be prepared for the disruption of day to day activities and the use of modern technlogy makes this much more achievable.

    It’s not that the foundations of ‘e’ use haven’t been laid – they are just not implemented.


  7. Ha closed for snow hmm!!! Well it’s more likely to mean emergency management, health and safety and a bag of trouble trying to find baby sitters on the day resulting in stress and work to catch up on
    We are very lucky that we can work from home and we have the tools and the support to do this, however this may not be the same for the average learner or teacher.
    Yes technology can be used however it’s not being used enough for the technology to take over seamlessly when the going gets rough. This really just shows you how e- mature we really are when you have to remind people that it’s there to use.

    However thinking that we are all having a holiday because we have snow is really very naive!!

  8. Very interesting blog. I did a check on the college’s Moodle site and it was not highly used by teachers or students during the snow closure. Also, I gave out some online homework for my students before the closure and they still haven’t uploaded it. It seems that indeed closure = no work to do. Like you say, encouragement to use the VLE on the website is needed in future.

  9. Very interesting post James, I’m forwarding it to our eLearning Team for comments.
    I agree that what is needed is a culture change, on a number of levels. On the part of learners who feel, understandably, that a ‘snow day’ represents an escape from what for many is alienated work in the form of lectures and lessons. On the part of human resources departments who still see ‘working from home’ as something only managers can do responsibly. And on the part of teachers and lecturers many of whom still see learning as only taking place within the four walls of the classroom.

  10. I taught a smaller class size (2) and a younger age group (3-5 yrs)and the only sites I managed to visit on the computer were the Ceebebies web site and some maths games on my son’s school VLE.

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