This month I had lunch with Sharon Bennett, a veteran of the IT industry and blogger. We discussed a number of topics relating to both technology and community… I asked her a ton of questions, and the one that got me the most intriguing answer was: ‘What would you like to see technology do in the future?’ It is a question I ask all the time, when I feel that people have the experience and insight to provide an interesting answer. Because of the nature and vagueness of the question I always receive something different, but Sharon’s answer intrigued me.
‘End snow days.’
For those of you who live in warmer climes this may require some explanation. Up here in the Great White North we get a lot of snow – depending on the region some more than others. Although this current school year seems to be the exception, every year we seem to have two or three (or more) days every year when either the schools close, or the school busses do not operate because of a snow storm. Below is a picture I took of my house the day after a snow storm a couple of years ago… and our area is nowhere near as bad as where Sharon lives.
When I was a child I had a simple morning ritual during the winter. I would get out of bed and look outside. If it was snowing I would make sure my parents had the radio on, because the announcer was sure to name our school among the list of those closed due to weather. I never liked school, and any opportunity to not go was welcome and anticipated and sought after. There would never be two snow days in a row of course… in Montreal the road clearing teams were far too efficient for that.
We keep hearing statistics that Canada (and the USA) are lagging behind other countries in education, and it is largely agreed that without a proper education our kids are going to have trouble succeeding in the world of tomorrow. So why is it that we are not using every technology available to minimize the number of days off our kids take in a year?
I am not saying that we should change our calendar. True, the school year is based on an agrarian civilization in which kids could not study during the summer because they were too busy tending crops. In today’s world where we are not even supposed to let our children work until they are sixteen our calendar is obviously obsolete, but I do not expect to see it change any time soon. However our education systems are mandate to deliver a minimum number of school days per year, and we should do everything in our power to reach (or exceed) that target.
Snow days may be an unexpected bonus for the students (and, one would suspect, for their teachers as well). For working parents of children not old enough to stay home alone it is a hardship. For those who have an office at least one parent will have to take the day off of work (unpaid). Those who work from home can look forward to an unproductive day of interruptions.
Sharon blogged today that she can envision an end to snow days, using technologies such as Skype. Read her article called Why DO We Still Have Snow Days? for her insightful technical solution to the problem.
Of course, there is a happy medium between the teacher teaching a full day’s curriculum on these snowed-in days; teachers can assign homework using an Intranet portal (such as Microsoft Office 365, a comparable solution to which is offered free to educational institutions) or even simply e-mailing assignments to kids early in the morning, and giving them work or even reading assignments to keep them busy as well as on schedule for their minimum school days. This solution does not address the working parent having to take the day off, but it will keep the student occupied so that the parents who work from home can be somewhat productive.
Unfortunately there is another obstacle to this, one that is less technical and far more difficult: Getting the teachers (and more importantly the teachers unions) to agree to this. My son goes to a private day school in Mississauga, Ontario. Two years ago, after I discovered that in order to e-mail his teachers I had to get their personal e-mail addresses, I used Microsoft’s .edu program to set up a mail server infrastructure for them where they would each have a professional e-mail address at their school’s domain. I spent three hours teaching all of them how to use it, including benefits such as shared calendars and contacts. Three months later I discovered that not a single teacher ever used it, and I had wasted my time.
That was at an independent private school. How much worse would it be in a public school where teachers were unionized and the teachers would not only have to learn a new technology, they would lose those bonus days off?
I do not know if the system is going to change; I do not know who is going to stand up and champion this change. What I do know is that Sharon Bennett is on to something… Weather-related days off, in this day and age where there is an Internet-connected computer in nearly every household, should be a thing of the past. Despite what our children might think, it would be good for them!