A new classroom at Royal Roads University relies more on fresh air than an audiovisual system to keep its students focused and attentive. The Terry Power Strategic and Advanced International Studies Outdoor Classroom was officially opened on October 12 and can accommodate up to 50 students in an open-air learning space on campus surrounded by trees.
Terry Power, one of Royal Roads’ longest-serving professors in the school of business and after whom the classroom is named, donated $100,000 to the project. This was subsequently matched by university funds and alumni donations. Dr. Power has often taken his students outdoors over the years, saying they would “have a running dialogue back and forth, sort of Socratic.” He says he hopes the new space serves to encourage open dialogue on the challenging issues of today. “I would like to see this place as a safe place where people can come talk in an academic environment about any topic.”
Business may seem an unlikely discipline for outdoor learning, but David Black, an associate professor in Royal Road’s school of communication and culture, says “nature is written into every curriculum,” adding that the new classroom is “not just for environmental education or biology classes.”
Dr. Black recently used the classroom for a class in communication theory and media history. “I’ve always asked students to look at their own life as a laboratory,” he says. “What the outdoor classroom does is it just makes that point less abstract.”
Royal Roads student Annie Do had never taken a class in an outdoor classroom before Dr. Black’s course. “I feel like everyone was a lot more focused,” says Ms. Do. “It eliminates distractions, almost because you’re so immersed in nature. You know that it’s there, but you are just totally focused on the voice of the instructor.”
While outdoor classrooms are gaining in popularity at the elementary school level, it is still fairly rare at universities, at least outside of outdoor-related disciplines. McMaster University opened an outdoor learning space in 2016. The Indigenous Circle was created in collaboration with McMaster’s Indigenous Education Council and is managed by the Indigenous studies program.
At McMaster, the “goals of the space are to encourage learning outside of the classroom, to encourage the indigenous community to have a space that we can call our own within the university, but that is also available to all faculty members, all students on campus,” says Vanessa Watts, director of McMaster’s Indigenous studies program.
Dr. Watts says she thinks outdoor-based learning is increasing at the university level. “This idea of experiential education is gaining traction,” she says. “It’s always been an embedded part of how we access knowledge as Indigenous people and communities, and so, in a way, this is a recognition and an affirmation of that way of knowing, of that way of learning.”
She adds: “What this structure says to me is that there’s a certain authority that nature has, that nature bestows knowledge, that nature is generous with that knowledge and that it’s to be respected.”
However, nature can also present challenges to an outdoor classroom. Dr. Black jokes that “much depends on the students’ vulnerability to frostbite.” More seriously, he anticipates that the classroom will be used much less frequently during the winter (which, thankfully, is shorter in Victoria than in most of the rest of Canada). In any event, he says that “you wouldn’t want to be out every day because then it loses its novelty and becomes a chore.”
For Dr. Power, he takes his lesson from history: “Socrates did his best teaching without a classroom, without bricks and mortars, without PowerPoint. He did it by taking a small cluster and walking along the shoreline, having a conversation with his students.”