About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving policies, technology, and higher education

This week is Thanksgiving in the US. In the past, Thanksgiving had a special place in the hearts of Americans, especially as we became a mobile nation. It was the day when people would go back to their hometowns, families, and communities. But last year, the envelope was pressed and Thanksgiving became a day when retail establishments decided they could force workers to report to work. This year there are even more. However, for college students, higher education policies over the last decade has slowly been disintegrating the importance of the holiday also.

Higher Education and Thanksgiving in the Past

Some might contend that there has been no change in the policy for attending classes the week of Thanksgiving. Yes, as an undergraduate, I had classes until Tuesday (although it was usually Tuesday at noon). But to understand the current issues, it is important to understand the changes to Higher Education since the 1980's.

During the 1990's two things changed in Higher Education: the merging of "continuing education" or "night school" with the traditional undergraduate schedule and the "nationalization" of higher education. The impact of allowing traditional students to take courses at night and soon the desolving of two different systems (one for "working" students and one for "full-time students" meant that now there were night classes ending at 10:00 PM. In the past "commuter" or local "continuing education" students would be available for Tuesday night classes while traditional students who may not be local would have travel time.

Another thing that impacted the educational system was the recruiting of students from outside of the local market. This happened in the 1990's when the demographics of college age students changed to a smaller population to draw from. In addition, US News and World Report changed the basis for assessing and categorizing colleges. Now smaller colleagues could gain status by drawing students from around the US and internationally, moving from "Regional" to "National" colleges. National colleges continue to have more status than regional. However, nationalizing your student population means that students need more time to get back home for holidays such as Thanksgiving. Many of these colleges, however, have not made adjustments to their policies or schedules that consider the new profile of their students.

Problems and Solutions

How did (does) this affect Thanksgiving? It used to be that classes ended in plenty of time for students to travel back to their home towns. However, when night classes were opened up to traditional students a number of problems resulted.

These problems can be resolved with some simple policy changes:

1. Problem: Tuesday classes that meet once a week. If students miss the class they miss a week's worth of instruction. There is a real problem with accreditors and even some students that want their money's worth.

Solution 1: Schedule classes to end for Thanksgiving on Monday. There are plenty of Monday holidays that this will not result in too many Monday classes if the school year is extended to add a Tuesday class at the end of the schedule.

Solution 2: Allow for alternative instruction. I usually have an online class the week before Thanksgiving. My students who are on a train (and soon on a plane) or waiting for transportation, many of them with G5 mobile phones with access anywhere, can participate live. Those who don't have access during class time can go to a library and participate before or after the class. I have a colleague that has one on one meetings with students during the week of Thanksgiving. If students need to leave earlier, they can make an appointment for that meeting the week BEFORE Thanksgiving during her office hours. There still is the same amount of contact hours, however, it is not in a classroom. These are very useful for her students because they discuss research work they are doing. In both of these cases, it is important that an instructor document (i.e. save online interactions, save sign up sheets for "tutoral") that the same time was spent on instruction.

2. Problem: Students who have to leave early due to travel will miss classes. Other students will take advantage of it and it means the professor is teaching to an empty classroom.

Solution 1: Allow for alternative instruction (see above). Online classes that are set up well can have just as much of an impact as face to face and requires the same effort by an instructor.

Solution 2: Institute a policy in which students CANNOT be penalized for missing class the week of Thanksgiving. This means no tests can be administered and credit cannot be taken away due to absence. My daughter had a letter grade taken away from her final grade because she had to be picked up early due to the storms this week. My son received a 0 on an oral test which he was not allowed to make up because the only ticket he could be home before dorms closed was during the class where the oral exam was being given. I have heard faculty brag that they had almost full attendance except for the students who lived in the snow belt of upstate New York. It was too bad that they missed the exams, but they made the decision to leave early (despite the closing of roads later that night)so would not be allowed to make it up.

Solution 3: School has a process to get clearance for travel during this week. Students that live far away which requires travel earlier in the week or road conditions that will be unfavorable will be cleared by an administrator.

Solution 4: Students can be rewarded for attending classes the week of Thanksgiving. I know of many teachers who will give the answers to exam questions on the day before Thanksgiving or students get extra credit for the assignments they do in class during the week of Thanksgiving. This puts the responsibility of attending on the student. While the student is not penalized for going home early, the student that stays is rewarded.

3. Problem: Students need to leave less than 24 hours after their last class. This is especially problematic for those who have night classes as they may need to travel during the night when driving difficult or they may not be able to get a ticket for mass transportation because of the demands during Thanksgiving.

Solution 1: My son goes to a Big 10 school (which like all Big 10 schools are in the middle of nowhere with limited transportation options) a 6 hour drive away from our home. He had a choice of leaving before his exam (which he was not allowed to make up) or leave the next day by 10:00 AM. The problem was that would not give us time to pick him up. He also would have to wait outside for 5 hours between the time his bus left and he had to be out of his dorm. Last year the policy changed because there was a football game scheduled. Students had until 5:00 the next day to leave their dorms. The solution then should be to either give students 24 hours after the last class has ended to get picked up or find a common area where students can wait/get food/go to the bathroom before they need to leave.

Solution 2: End classes on Monday or the Friday before Thanksgiving. This makes it possible for families to pick up children without taking time off from work and/or more options for traveling. Likewise, dorms should open on Saturday afternoon to allow for students coming from long distances to return in time for classes on Monday. Giving a small window to return means students may not be able to make it back to campus on time.

Impact on Change of Policy

The goal of these changes are to reconcile the needs of administrators, faculty, students, parents, and accreditors. Colleges and Universities need to stay current to the changes in their environment and demographic make up. Parents don't want to get involved, but they are a factor in many undergraduates' lives. Many help pay the bills, pick up students or make travel arrangements, and need to coordinate their own schedules with that of their children. Likewise, faculty and administrators need to deliver instruction being accountable to accrediting organizations, government, parents, and students. With some tweeking of policies, all stakeholders can be accommedated.

Finally, Thanksgiving, more than any other holiday, has a great impact on students. This is a time to reenergize, reconnect, and prepare for the transition back home for the Winter Break. For many students, it will be the only vacation they have as they will work or study during the 4-5 weeks of Winter Break. For the family, especially those who live a considerable distance from their children's colleges, this is the first time they will have been together as a family. While there are those who would like to minimize the importance of Thanksgiving to just the day before Black Friday, the majority of the country still values Thanksgiving as a day for family, however you define family.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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