I'm so sick of snow. I know, I know, I live in New England, my choice, suck it up, etc. But this winter, I must say, I'm over it. A few feet on the ground, with more on the way Saturday, Monday, and Thursday. That's right, three more storms in the next week. Most districts in our state had two days off last week, a day or two the week before, and at least one more is expected this coming week. All this adds up to long days in hot classrooms in June with little extra learning going on.
There is a solution, though. The technology to make virtual classrooms work really well is here. Several platforms already exist to connect students with their teachers and each other in such a way, while physical classrooms are useful in the long term and for younger children, for most secondary students a virtual environment will not only allow them to continue working when weather emergencies (or flu pandemics, for that matter) mean that a physical classroom isn't an option, but can enhance their learning on a daily basis.
Students and teachers can use everything from Google Apps with it's voice and video chat and document collaboration (including synchronous presentation tools that allow teachers to lead slide decks and students to ask questions and chat during the presentation) to Skype to connect when school isn't in session. Even when it is in session, engaging students through virtual classroom technologies (as simple as a Twitter discussion with a basic hash tag or as sophisticated as Adobe Connect Pro) can lead to a variety of interactions that might not otherwise happen in an ordinary classroom.
Many school districts went through several "what-if" scenarios during the H1N1 outbreak two years ago and outlined a variety of tech solutions to continue teaching despite potential school closures. When far fewer schools closed than most people expected, too many schools set these scenarios aside. The Teaching with Technology Wikispace features great suggestions on ways to deal with extended school closures.
The list is quite simple and most of the solutions are freely available (or have free alternatives), so why doesn't every school have at least elements of these solutions in place? Simply combining Moodle with Google Apps is free and easy and gives students and teachers a robust communication and collaboration platform. WizIQ is free for individual teachers and makes creating an actual virtual classroom a snap. Training needs for both of these possible solutions are fairly minimal.
Snow days are all well and good. What student or teacher doesn't like a good snow day once in a while? However, when students are only seeing their teachers once or twice a week, the lack of continuity can wreak havoc on outcomes. It's time for the virtual classroom (however that might look for any given teacher or school) to be ubiquitous. There's no need for every snow day to mean 2 steps back in the classroom anymore.