2020 has pushed everyone to rethink “normal” activities, including the setting in which students learn. Universities and colleges looked outside the classroom for inspiration and ultimately landed on tents—think the white, open-sided ones used at weddings—to continue in-person learning.

Philosophy professor Justin McBrayer eagerly joined the trend. He taught three classes at Fort Lewis College in a tent with a whiteboard, a karaoke machine, and a microphone. “It was a total blast,” he says, adding that students rolled with the punches. He wrapped up in-person learning on November 20.

McBrayer, who’s also the associate dean for Fort Lewis’ School of Arts and Sciences, says a traditional classroom holds 40 students. With social distancing requirements in place, that number dropped to 14 students. A tent, however, fits 38 students socially distanced. “Our options were either to go online or to figure out some kind of plan. And from our perspective, going online was not an ideal solution,” he says. So, Fort Lewis created nine outdoor learning spaces by renting six tents and converting a park, an amphitheater, and breezeway into classrooms. “I’m not sure that it’s better than indoor spaces, but it’s definitely better than being online for a whole semester,” McBrayer says.

tent classroom
Courtesy of Fort Lewis College

Colorado College (CC) in Colorado Springs also sought to transform outdoor spaces into classrooms by placing three tents on campus. The tents fit 15 to 24 students and chairs, a head table for the professor, a dry erase board, and an easel.

CC lecturer and bluegrass ensembles director Keith Reed, who taught two classes in the tents, says it was nice to see students interact and connect in a time when in-person gatherings are limited. “The students were really excited to get together and play and so was I,” he says. “One of the things that was a real benefit is that some of the shyer students who maybe don’t sing out were forced to sing out in the sense that we all need to be heard because we’re social distancing.” Because his classes were in the evenings, Reed often brought lanterns and pizza, adding to the experience.

The University of Colorado Boulder also had about a dozen tents throughout campus, but they were not used for teaching. “Given reduced density in our buildings due to physical distancing, we placed the tents around campus primarily to provide students with additional spaces they could use for studying in between in-person classes,” says CU Boulder spokesperson Josh Lindenstein. “The tents also provided a place for students to log in to their remote courses if they were on campus and in between in-person courses.” Several tents, equipped with wireless internet and power, are still on campus but will be taken down later this month as the university transitions to virtual classes until spring.

The tents didn’t solve all COVID-19 challenges. Lisa Hughes, associate professor of literature at CC, cut her tent class short when several of her freshman students had to quarantine after some students living in the dorms tested positive for coronavirus. After one week in the tent, Hughes opted to move the class online. Hughes says she will happily teach in the tents again in the spring or fall, even when COVID-19 and social distancing are things of the past.

Weather was another challenge. Fort Lewis had two snowstorms during the fall semester, and with more winter weather on the way, teaching in tents is no longer feasible. As the tents are taken down, their uses are left unknown. “Everything is up in the air,” says Claire Garcia, CC’s acting provost and dean of faculty. Garcia anticipates using the tents at some point during the spring semester but no decisions have been made.

Fort Lewis College is considering a more drastic measure—adding permanent outdoor classroom structures to its campus. “Ideally, we could build a couple of permanent outdoor classrooms where we could assign classes there every fall,” he says. The college is also looking at ways to alter outdoor spaces already on campus, such as the amphitheater that has no shade and weak wifi.

Discussions are in the early stages, but McBrayer says tents will likely be back in the summer and next fall with permanent structures in place by fall 2022. “Maybe I’m optimistic. That’s what I’d like to happen,” he says.