Spring has officially sprung, which means it’s time to step outside and enjoy the fresh blooms of the season, especially on our campuses. I’m outdoors more often across our seven Indiana University campuses, as I’m sure you are too! When I’m outside, I’m not just enjoying the sun, I’m also thinking about how outdoor campus spaces could better support use by faculty and students for teaching and learning. Higher ed folks who work in learning spaces tend to focus on indoor environments, such as our classrooms and study spaces. As a community, we don’t often look outside to consider how the spaces in between our buildings might also support student learning.
Outdoor Learning Environments
More recently, many higher ed institutions have turned their attention to building outdoor learning environments. For the last few years, I have been collecting examples of outdoor classrooms and other outdoor learning spaces from institutions all over the world. In today’s blog I explore outdoor campus spaces in higher ed, their potential as learning and gathering spaces for students and instructors, and possible outcomes of an increased focus on outdoor spaces. I conclude by calling for members of higher ed communities to take part in intentional conversations with colleagues about reimagining how we could use outdoor spaces on our own campuses.
In 2019, I started to pay serious attention to outdoor learning spaces during tours of university campuses in Sydney, Australia. At the University New South Wales, the abundance of informal study spaces outdoors especially inspired my new interest. There were more outdoor spaces than I had seen on a college campus previously. I also saw an important feature that I had not seen before: power outlets (a feature that supports learning outside with devices!).
Noticeably, several were positioned in shaded areas, under building overhangs or under trees to take advantage of the coolness away from the sun, many of them adorned with outlets where users can plug in their personal devices (circled in the images below). The shade over these spaces also served to protect device screens from glare.
Outdoor Learning Spaces in the United States
When I returned from Oz, I started looking for similar examples in the United States and realized that not only were there many creative outdoor study spaces (informal learning spaces) at American universities, but there were also some remarkable outdoor classrooms (formal learning spaces). What constitutes a study space vs. an outdoor classroom is an important distinction since there are numerous additional design concerns for space used for formal learning and instruction, such as issues concerning accessible audio, visibility of instructor and course content, and comfort against the elements.
In my search, two outdoor spaces stood out to me.
One was Tulane University’s outdoor classroom, a formal learning space, built in 2018. It was a student-led (and funded) project to create an “unplugged classroom” that eschewed modes of electronic presentation.
Another standout outdoor learning space is Wheaton College’s (in Massachusetts) outdoor classroom built like an outdoor lecture hall, with a front facing blackboard and stone benches in rows.
Both recreated a classroom environment outside, near campus buildings. Both highlighted low-tech solutions in a natural environment. Both are set in visible locations on their campuses.
Months into my search for examples of outdoor classrooms, the Coronavirus Pandemic struck. In response, higher ed institutions moved learning online to salvage the semester. Spring of 2020 ended with students online. All conversations for those early months of the pivot were about online learning.
Pivot to a New Learning Landscape
Over that summer, colleges and universities looked for solutions to continue normal operations. In many cases, we remained online; in others, we began to socially distance ourselves in our classrooms, by reducing seat count and wearing masks to make it work. As a less acknowledged stop-gap solution, many schools moved instruction outside to allow their students to safely learn while on campus.
Several universities constructed temporary classroom spaces (both Tripp Harris and I have written about this phenomenon: here, here, and here). Some novel outdoor learning spaces were designed as classrooms, others, as study spaces or dining areas, and still others creative social spaces. Such provisional spaces functioned to support outdoor teaching while also allowing for fewer people to be required to be inside campus buildings at any given time. Outdoor instruction and this ‘de-densification’ of indoor spaces helped schools stay open while remaining as Covid-safe as possible. But outdoor classrooms could allow more students to congregate too.
When creating their pandemic pivot outdoor classrooms, most schools took one of two approaches to outdoor instruction: Embrace the outdoors and unplug, or create a standard classroom, but outside.
An Outdoor Experiment Wanes
Outdoor spaces were popular in the fall of 2020, some even continued through the winter. But by 2021, they began to disappear. Though often successful at gathering students together, even as we socially distanced, perhaps they reminded us too much of their pandemic inspiration. As we moved indoors, our temporary outdoor spaces (the classrooms, the study spaces, the dining spaces, and the gathering spaces) disappeared. There were so many examples, I collected links of the many spaces across the United States.
After higher ed returned to in-person classes, the widespread conversation surrounding lessons learned from emergency online learning continues to evolve. But we stopped talking about going outside. Universities quickly ended their necessary efforts to learn outside.
As we went back inside and expanded our notions of online learning, and stopped thinking about our outdoor campus spaces, I started my own conversation about outdoor learning spaces through the Mosaic Initiative.
Continuing the Outdoor Learning Spaces Thread
First, I held a design symposium for outdoor learning spaces, written about here. We explored with faculty different possibilities for outdoor learning and gave them spaces to pose important questions, voice their perspectives, and explore pathways for using outdoor space for teaching and learning.
Next, I worked with a colleague to explore where we could develop outdoor learning spaces for our Indianapolis campus. After a presentation on outdoor learning spaces, Nathan Bryer, Executive Director of Operations, Division of Undergraduate Studies at IUPUI, approached me and wanted to talk about outdoor spaces at IUPUI. Working with Nathan, we spent an afternoon exploring different spaces on the IUPUI campus.
On our campus walk, we discovered four areas that could, with limited additions, readily support student learning and public engagement. To share our ideas, we created a proposal highlighting the four outdoor locations at IUPUI. The locations are all situated in the central corridor of campus. Our goal with this proposal was to generate conversation among campus stakeholders about the possibilities that small but transformational additions to these spaces could bring to their IUPUI campus community.
Outdoor learning spaces hold a lot of possibilities for benefiting campus environments. There is so much untapped potential. So, as the weather warms, consider walking around campus with your colleagues and discuss how YOU see things anew.
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