Alternatives to the Traditional Classroom

Four Kinds of Unconventional Spaces for Physically Distanced In-Person Classes

by Monique Bouchard, CourseStorm

Educational programs have done an incredible job of finding new ways to connect with their learning communities, including accelerating online education. But what to do in cases when hands-on lessons are critical to what’s being learned? And what do you do when that’s what your students want? 

“Our most popular classes are still what we’re going to offer face to face,” says Liesl Dees, Community Learning Center Director at San Juan College, “and that’s what our customers are wanting more of.”  

One of the ways that programs have accomplished this is by using alternative spaces that meet health guidelines more effectively than traditional classroom spaces. 

We’re sharing some four of the most interesting —and achievable— types of venues your program could use for in-person classes: outdoor areas, event locations, unused commercial properties, and municipal spaces.

1. The Great Outdoors

The outdoor classroom provides opportunities for lower-risk gatherings and plenty of space for physical distancing. With many parks, green spaces, large lawns, and even parking lots available, an outdoor space is, for many, a practical option in temperate weather.  

From gym classes in New Jersey to primary school classes in Denmark, the “great outdoors” is an excellent place to learn. Even Stanford University is considering tents for academic classes.  

Outdoor classes are nothing new for some subjects. Plein Air Painting, foraging, fitness, and nature-based classes have successfully used nature’s classrooms for decades. 

2. Event Spaces

Event spaces are ideal places to hold classes. They provide ample room for physical distancing, often have a sound and presentation system integrated into their rooms, and typically have tables and chairs available for use. 

The event industry has been hard-hit by COVID-19, and many places that were bustling last year are now nearly silent. The owners of event businesses and locations may be willing to partner with your program to help weather the ongoing crisis. 

Spaces to consider include:

  • Banquet halls
  • Restaurant special occasion rooms
  • Movie theatres
  • Concert halls
  • Conference centers
  • Hotels with conference rooms
  • National Guard armories
  • Spaces owned by civic groups (Elk’s, Kiwanis, VFW, Odd Fellows, etc.)
  • Athletic clubs (archery, rod and gun, snowmobile, hunting, fishing clubs, etc.)
  • Camp spaces with large dining halls (YMCA, day camps, scout camps, etc.)
  • Indoor arenas 

Again, many of these spaces have the advantage of being made for people to gather in the first place, so there will be amenities that other locations may not have.

3. Commercial Realty

One of the more unique partnerships available is to work with local commercial realtors and their clients to find new classroom spaces. Brooks Walthall Dean of Workforce and Continuing Education at  South Arkansas Community College, notes that this has been a successful partnership in their community.

“One of the things that we’re doing is talking with our Chamber of Commerce and some Realtors in town, and we’re going to take the classes to the community rather than having the community come to us.” He notes that empty storefronts and warehouses will be used for technical, workforce, and community incorporated classes. 

“For us and for our community, it’s a win-win because we actually get to move some of our classes to where the people are, and they don’t have to come to us necessarily. And it helps the community because it shows people that space. And if a Realtor is trying to rent the space or use it for something commercial, it gets more people in there. So it’s a win for them.” 

While the specific locations may be for short-term use, the partnerships, relationships, and proximity to students are definitely long-term successes for everyone! 

4. Municipal Properties

Every municipality has some space, be it a police station parking bay, a room for town meetings, or maybe even an airplane hangar. (Your outdoor classroom space under a large park gazebo or in a reservable picnic area, may be managed by a municipality.)

It’s worth a call to your city hall to see what options you might have accessing large unused or underused spaces owned by the city. For example, an airplane hangar at the regional airport may have enough space to allow people to have in-person classes that meet all the necessary guidelines. 

Now, while having class in an airplane hangar may sound a little crazy, it’s already happening. The aircraft maintenance program at Cape Cod Community College has access to hangars that will also be used for other classes. Director of Workforce Development and Training Tammi Jacobson notes, “We have three hangers available with really big doors that open nice and wide. So even though you’re covered from the rain outside, you’re getting a lot of fresh air in the building. We’re able to set up seating in there as well and move some of those planes around to accommodate that.”

With that in mind, your local police station may be able to spare the repair bay for a couple of hours a week for a class. The library’s event space may be available for small groups. And the large rooms designed for packed, live town meetings may be the right size to safely seat a distanced class for your community. 

Preparing to Use Unique Spaces

There are many options available for safely gathering for classes that will meet your state guidelines and health recommendations. Except for locations already designed for meetings, each option will vary in its amenities, benefits, and limitations. 

If you’re new to using non-traditional classroom space, you may want to consider the following: 

  • If it’s a public space, check with your municipal office first;
  • If it’s a private space (including parking lots) be sure to ask the owner’s permission;
  • Visit your class site in advance and have indicators, like removable tape or small flags, to mark where students should sit;
  • Make sure you can be seen by all attendees from where they’re seated;
  • Some spaces (like the outdoors) may have challenging acoustics, so plan accordingly. Bring amplification if possible.
  • Ask if the location includes seating; if it doesn’t, ask your students to bring a chair;
  • If you meet outdoors without cover, encourage learners to bring shade umbrellas, water bottles, and sunscreen/insect repellent;
  • Clearly communicate the restroom situation, whatever that may be for the place you’re using, so students can be prepared.
  • Be prepared to give detailed instructions and directions to students before their first class. 

“Let your mind rest just for a minute, to be a little bit more creative,” Jacobson suggests. “That’s one thing I’ve realized through this whole process, you need to think creatively and need those ideas to kind of flow in to think, how could I do this and be a little innovative?” 


Is your program shaking things up in alternative spaces? Please email us at outreach@coursestorm.com. We’d love to hear your stories! 

Want to hear more from Liesl Dees, Tammi Jacobson, and Brooks Walthall? Hear their complete conversation in the Community College Peer to Peer Panel discussion, recorded live, and made available for you.