Common Calendar to be implemented Fall 2016

Regents approve Common Calendar Policy - April 2014
In April 2014, the University of Alaska Board of Regents created a new policy to coordinate calendaring across the entire UA system. They were compelled into this action from student testimony about the negative effects of juggling different deadlines at different universities. 

“With increased eLearning options, we have more students taking courses from two or three of the universities within the UA system,” said Mike Earnest, registrar and director of student enrollment at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “We want to encourage mobility and fluidity among the campuses. It serves the students better to have common start and end dates, deadlines and holidays.”

The University of Alaska has seen more students than ever enroll in courses outside their campus of record, and those students are challenged to keep track of multiple add/drop dates, different payment deadlines and different withdrawal dates. The alignment will eliminate confusion, conflicts and blocks to student success, and will improve the student-service experience.

Recommendations to President Johnsen Oct. 2016
The Common Calendar Committee has prepared final recommendations for President Jim Johnsen with important first steps for aligning dates, deadlines and breaks across the university system. This is a sweeping change that will impact students, faculty and staff. It will also affect university constituents including school districts, state agencies and other partners and businesses.

“We hope that, after a short adjustment period, all campuses will feel positively impacted by a unified calendar: less mistakes by students in terms of adding/dropping classes, for instance, and clear understanding of when college starts and ends,” said Sarah Kirk, Professor of Developmental Education/English at UAA.

Such a change required a great deal of collaboration and effort from all involved. The Common Calendar Task Force, created in fall 2014, was a group of faculty, staff and students from across the system who spent months discussing and debating elements of scheduling and calendaring. They provided an initial report to then President Pat Gamble in February 2015. In it they presented recommendations for eight items that once aligned, would resolve the most pressing issues for UA students that cross-enroll. Those elements include term start date, add/drop deadline, fee payment, withdrawal deadline, term end, finals week, spring break and common course blocks.

Six elements to be implemented Fall 2016
Of eight calendar elements identified for alignment, six are being recommended for implementation in the 2017 academic year, beginning Fall 2016. In addition a common course withdrawal date, March 25, 2016, will be implemented Spring 2016. 

“The changes will mean for some campuses starting on a different day of the week or having a slightly shorter winter break. For UAF in particular, it might mean that Commencement is not held on Mother’s Day,” explains Earnest. 

The two elements that will not yet be fully aligned are common course blocks and common fee payment deadline. The coordination of fee payment schedules will be addressed as part of a larger effort to overhaul payment processes and align administrative policies across the system.

“Persons involved in the financial aspect were not represented on the committee. They need to be brought into the conversation and allowed to go through same process as the committee did for academic issues. I’m hopeful they will have the same positive results,” said Lora Volden, registrar at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

In order to achieve full course block alignment between universities it requires the universities adhere to a single credit-hour definition. Instead of full alignment in that area, the three Provosts are working on a schedule that will align a percentage of course block times during the week, but its more complicated than one might think.

“Part of the work was complicated because UAA offers a 50-minute credit hour where UAF and UAS offer 60-minute credit hours. UAA has most 3-credit classes two days per week for 75 minutes; whereas UAF and UAS offer these same classes either three days per week for an hour, or two days for 90 minutes,” explained Kirk. "UAF and UAS have many classes meeting on Fridays, whereas UAA has few Friday classes. If all three universities had either 50-minute or 60-minute credit hours, aligning time blocks for course start and end times would be much easier, yet the universities would still need to figure out whether to offer primarily Monday-Wednesday and Tuesday-Thursday classes, or Monday-Wednesday-Friday and Tuesday-Thursday classes."

Certain programs, particularly those that are industry-driven, do not operate within the typical academic calendar. It was agreed upon early on that any implementation plan would accommodate unique and specialized needs of certain course offerings.

A complicated process
The goal may seem simple, but the actual work to make changes to processes and priorities at each campus in order to coordinate the three separately-accredited universities is more complex than just choosing dates.

“The academic calendar is not simply a selection of dates and deadlines but rather the manifestation of what a university believes helps create the conditions for success for its students,” wrote the committee in their report to Gamble. Variations in traditional start times, course blocks, credit hours and philosophies around deadlines required the members of the committee to work hard to set aside differences in order to implement the new policy.

“There are several issues that complicate the process of calendar alignment. First, the universities tend to prioritize local alignment over alignment with each other. For many students, it is far more convenient for the university schedule to be closely aligned with the local school district schedule than with the other universities,” said Stacey Lucason, USUAA Student Body President, and current Student Regent.

Defining key elements
The key element of the common calendar is an aligned start date: a key period from which all other dates are set. The semester start date also impacts residence hall openings, orientation dates, faculty contracts, athletic schedules and summer student employment. The proposed term start for Fall 2016 is August 29. For UAF, that will mean starting before Labor Day weekend instead of after, in alignment with UAA’s standard practice. UAS had traditionally started both prior to and after the Labor Day holiday.

From there, the task force made recommendations for related dates, such as an add/drop deadline to be the second Friday after term start, fee payment the third Friday, term end after the 14th week, finals the week immediately following the 14th week of instruction, a fixed withdrawal date, and a coordinated Spring Break.

“Students are concerned with ensuring that things like add-drop deadlines and payment due dates be aligned, class alignment has not been of primary concern,” said Lucason.

Establishing a common Spring Break, one that aligns with local school districts, was a major concern of the task force and of faculty and staff who participated in a survey which advised the process.

“Many students are concerned that they will not be able to get flights out of Alaska over spring break if all campuses align,” said Lucason.

Coordinating with community partners
After outreach to the major school districts and airlines, it was discovered that school districts work to match the university schedule as part of their calendar development process already. As for flights outside, airlines can and often do anticipate heavy travel periods and could capitalize by offering larger planes and/or more frequent flights.

A continuing process
The Common Calendar Standing Committee, facilitated by Associate Vice President of Student and Enrollment Services Saichi Oba, was created in Spring 2015 to oversee the implementation of the Task Force recommendations, to continue to address remaining scheduling conflicts and process alignment, and to coordinate the development of a common calendar in subsequent years.

“The members of the Taskforce, and later the Steering Committee, have been eager to tackle every element of this Common Calendar. All members have been considerate and respectful towards each other and their respective campuses or organizations. Truly, there were few, if any, disagreements,” said Kirk. “Once issues were understood and clarified, we were able to make decisions based on what positively impacts the most students.”

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