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Outdoor college courses are a tool for safe and effective learning in San Antonio


As I dropped off my youngest child at the end of August to join the in-person but heavily masked freshman experience at Trinity University, I felt a wave of disappointment when I realized the school was not fully open. I’m also concerned about what’s going on at the University of Texas at San Antonio, which has gone virtual for its first three weeks.

Of course, we have to ensure the safety of students and staff, but universities have another option – one that is hidden, as they say, in plain sight: their campuses. Trinity and UTSA (and the rest of San Antonio colleges) have lush campuses perfect for outdoor learning.

Now before you tell me how utterly impossible it is in the heat of Texas, I want you to know that I just finished teaching a year of college in scorching heat and snow. upright. And I’m here to tell you that it can be done.

To get started, look at the temperatures in the town of Alamo. Even on a 100-degree day, mercury usually doesn’t reach this level until late in the afternoon. In contrast, prime time for college classes are the morning hours when temperatures can be in the ’80s or’ 90s. Plus, when learning outdoors, casual outfits and frozen drinks are welcome. .

And college courses can be short. In the tutoring or seminar system practiced at Oxford and Cambridge, students must read the material before each lesson. This system is also increasingly accepted in K-12 schools in the United States, where it is referred to as a “flipped classroom.” This means that students receive the “lectures” in advance via videos, podcasts, screencasts and / or readings. These media pieces give students time to absorb the material on their own schedule and at their own pace. They can review or listen again for a better understanding.

The benefits of the flipped classroom include a more student-centered experience, but their biggest benefit seems to be how they make better use of class time. This system takes class time away from long lectures and creates space for more dynamic things such as Socratic question-and-answer sessions, lively discussions, team workshops, and even guest speakers. This system also helps to shorten class time, which is especially useful when the weather is not perfect.

Students aren’t just brains on sticks, as Columbus State University professor Susan Hrach argues in her new book Oversight bodies. She reminds us that student bodies need to move for their mental and physical health, and trapping students behind desks is awful.

The same goes for trapping them behind masks, which schools like Trinity do.

Last year at James Madison University in Virginia, where I taught journalism, I could sometimes stand in front of an indoor classroom, but behind a mask and a plexiglass partition. Now I happen to have the vocal diaphragm and stage presence to project my voice through a mask, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to ask, “Who was the one that just did. this good comment? Masks muffle voices and tend to silence students even quieter, depriving them of educational opportunities.

At the same time as I was teaching outside, I also broadcast my lessons to students who, due to work, family or illness, chose to attend remotely. In-person students ended up averaging a higher alphabetical grade and sprinkled class reviews with gratitude for the outdoor experience.

Science says person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 outdoors is rare. With that in mind, we’ve seen restaurants across the country relocate. Yet San Antonio colleges haven’t done anything as daring as Rice University in Houston, which erected outdoor learning tents last year.

Unlike K-12 schools which pride themselves on student-centered learning, colleges encourage scholarships and generally let professors set up their courses as they see fit. And that means the inertia of continuing to lecture, whether on Zoom or under a mask.

Hopefully UTSA’s decision to start the semester virtually will whet students’ appetites for in-person teaching after a year of cabin fever and Zoom burnout. As for Trinity, there are a few teachers who do outdoor lessons, and I congratulate them.

Outdoor learning may not work for all classes in all weather. But in San Antonio, where pleasant days abound, it can be a welcome tool to provide an educational and emotional ointment.

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