Today we welcome to the Mosaic Blog our Mosaic Research Intern, Tripp Harris. Tripp is currently a Learning Sciences PhD student at Indiana University. In this blog, Tripp shares his take on the future outdoor learning spaces in Higher Ed.
“Over the past twelve months, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a range of challenges to institutions of higher education across the world. From cancelling time-honored traditions, to opening quarantine dorms, to holding classes outside, life on most college campuses this school year has looked starkly different than it has in recent history. In response to public health concerns, many universities swiftly created temporary outdoor learning spaces to encourage outdoor instruction. In some cases, these temporary arrangements may lead to permanent change.
Over the summer and into the early fall, we saw a handful of colleges and universities build temporary outdoor structures to provide face-to-face class settings for the 2020-2021 school year. Rice University was a national leader in outdoor classroom innovation, installing several large tents to hold classes outdoors. Here in Bloomington, IU is maintaining a collection of open-air venues around campus to serve a variety of purposes, including opportunities for outdoor learning. Numerous other schools made similar moves to bring their students back to campus, with the main goal of providing face-to-face instruction in safer open-air environments while de-densifying indoor classrooms to allow for social distancing.
Ft. Lewis College in Colorado also gave instructors the chance to teach in outdoor tents during the fall. Following growing enthusiasm among faculty members, the small liberal arts school is considering breaking ground on more permanent outdoor classroom structures in the near future. While building permanent outdoor classrooms is more of a long-term project, Ft. Lewis is also planning to re-conceptualize existing outdoor spaces to serve similar purposes by establishing stronger internet connection and adding shading mechanisms.
Teaching outside this year has, of course, not been without challenges. Climate control, stable Wi-Fi connection, and accessibility needs are just a few of the factors that designers and faculty members will need to confront before turning to outdoor classrooms as permanent fixtures on college campuses. Students and faculty at Tulane University voiced concerns over audio issues in outdoor classrooms in particular, citing the need for instructor microphones to combat noisy ventilation and AC systems. Tulane was also forced to shutter its outdoor classrooms for an extended period due to Hurricane Laura at the beginning of the semester.
A Permanent Change
Nonetheless, the need to make rapid adjustments in the face of COVID-19 has encouraged schools to reimagine outdoor campus spaces as environments where learning can take place effectively. Despite the logistical challenges of moving classes outdoors in the short term, some schools are using this momentum as a chance to add to their campuses’ repertoires of outdoor study spaces. William & Mary in Virginia, for instance, recently announced plans to build a new patio adjoining the campus’s main library, which will feature moveable seating arrangements, electrical outlets, and a passive water stream feature designed with ecotherapy in mind. The plans formed in large part as a response to the sudden need for more outdoor study spaces this past fall.
Another Virginia school, Virginia Tech, has also made significant investments in revitalizing outdoor space on its campus to encourage outdoor learning. Since early in the fall, the university has continued to add permanent outdoor furniture around campus to encourage students to hold study meetings and casual gatherings outdoors rather than indoors. Virginia Tech’s focus has been on “activating” existing outdoor spaces around campus by adding overhead exterior lighting, electrical outlets for charging devices, and stronger Wi-Fi connection.
Both Virginia Tech and William & Mary are relatively early adopters of the movement to provide more permanent outdoor learning spaces in the wake of the pandemic. Many other schools, like Ft. Lewis, are in the beginning stages of such initiatives. Rather than allocating large sums of money towards building or amending outdoor study spaces, a growing number of schools have developed software to help students and faculty members access suitable outdoor learning arrangements. Eckerd College in Florida, for example, was one of the first schools to offer an interactive map that allows faculty to reserve outdoor spaces for teaching purposes. The University of Tennessee is among other schools who have led similar initiatives, offering a digitized platform for viewing available outdoor study space.
While designing permanent outdoor classrooms that are sustainable and foster a range of teaching approaches may be a year or so in the future, the recent excitement surrounding the use of outdoor campus space for learning is energizing for nature lovers and instructional designers alike. Given the recent widespread developments and well-documented benefits of spending time outside, this movement could revolutionize how institutions of higher education come to understand the role of outdoor campus
settings in college teaching and learning. Rather than a scar from a troublesome year, the emergence of sustainable outdoor learning spaces could represent a collective effort towards adaptation and innovation.” — Tripp Harris
For more from Tripp, follow him on Twitter:@t_harris0
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