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Taking the university experience outside

The COVID-19 pandemic created a new way of learning in higher education: outdoor classes.


Outdoor classes are not often associated with university life. Or rather, they weren’t: last fall, the Université de Sherbrooke (U de S) introduced outdoor classes. The goal of this unusual experiment, which resumed in this past spring with the return of warmer weather, was to provide a significant part of its 41,000 students with a way to attend their classes in person while also respecting COVID-19 health guidelines.

A year later, the Eastern Townships institution sees the experience as a net positive – at least enough to maintain this form of teaching, making it ”an important legacy of the pandemic,” as described on the university’s website. “Although the health context was what initially sparked this project, the return to classes and the end of remote learning this fall doesn’t mean it has to end,” said Christine Hudon, vice-rector of academic affairs at U de S.

The good… and the not-so-good

Lots of feedback was collected in the course of this experiment. One of the most frequent comments from students was that enjoying the fresh air as they learned was a lot more stimulating than being stuck between four walls. “It’s always beneficial if we can find ways to break up the monotony of a university class,” said Dr. Hudon, who is also a history professor at U de S. “Students like to be surprised, and our data seems to confirm that was the case here.”

Despite the positives, some negatives also came to light. The issue of distractions stood out as a major one. “When a class is taking place outdoors, we shouldn’t be mowing the lawn or having a public market nearby,” she explained by way of example. “Small details like that make all the difference.” Another drawback was the somewhat rough nature of the outdoor spaces used for this type of class, where the wind could sometimes put a damper on the experience.

These lessons learned the hard way have forced U de S to identify better locations for outdoor learning, of which there will be three this fall, down from about a dozen last year. “We plan to invest in more comfortable outdoor furniture, as we understand that attending a class while sitting on a rock isn’t ideal. We’re also looking at building covered spaces dedicated to this mode of teaching within the next few years,” Dr. Hudon added.

Strong interest, but…

The professors who took part in this experiment – voluntarily – were not given free reign. In fact, U de S even provided them with a pedagogical guide to support them in this initiative. “At a university, every hour of teaching counts. We can’t afford to waste time fumbling along and learning through trial and error,” explained Jean-Philippe Ayotte-Beaudet, an education professor at U de S and the author of the guide.

In a sign of the increased popularity of outdoor education at higher learning establishments, this free guide, available in both French and English, has been downloaded over 3,500 times to date. Dr. Ayotte-Beaudet, who is also the director of the research centre on science teaching and learning, didn’t expect the guide to be so popular: “I would have been surprised if it had gotten 300 downloads! We didn’t realize there was such a great need for information. It’s surprising.”

Currently, few Quebec universities are following U de S’s lead, according to a quick survey by University Affairs. At Université Laval, a working committee was established in fall 2020 to think about the layout and development of outdoor teaching spaces. However, a spokesperson from the university confirmed by email that “no launch of infrastructures dedicated to this form of teaching is planned for the coming months.”

At Université du Québec à Montréal, some outdoor classes were held during the pandemic to support in-situ projects carried out in the usual way. However, these classes were suspended when the health situation in the city deteriorated. The situation is similar at Concordia University, where the campus’s downtown location makes this type of class difficult, and at Université de Montréal, where administrators are reflecting on the added value this teaching method would generate before implementing it.

Beware of magical thinking!

Dr. Ayotte-Beaudet is very critical on this last point. “We don’t go outside to run a class the same way we would inside. There’s no point to that! Outdoor environments should instead be seen as a pedagogical resource that benefits learning,” he said. According to him, professors at higher learning institutions who are interested in this approach need to first think about their pedagogical goals.

“The topics covered in university classes need to be more than just material that students regurgitate for tests. They relate to real situations that students are likely to encounter in the future, like in their professional lives, for example,” he said. Architecture is best studied outside, while strolling the city streets. And biological sciences are a particularly appropriate choice for teaching outdoors, surrounded by the ecosystems being studied.

The only problem? There’s still very little scientific literature on outdoor teaching in a university context. “Currently, most studies focus on youth at the primary and secondary level. For adults, we’re faced with a complete lack of data to support the potential benefits of this approach,” Dr. Ayotte-Beaudet said. In this sense, the U de S experiment is more than just a marketing tactic – it’s a full-fledged laboratory.

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