Workshops outdoor Suzhou

Workshops outdoors: means of coping amidst COVID-19 online mode in Suzhou, China

24. Oct 2022

by Ms Santa Stopniece, PhD of Intercultural Communication, Vice Dean of Foreign Affairs, Suzhou Polytechnic Institute of Agriculture (China)

Working as a lecturer and researcher in China, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant several periods of partial lockdown and lengthy online teaching periods since the beginning of 2020. At the moment, here in Suzhou we have been able to start the term as usual, however in some other cities in China, the beginning of study year is delayed or moved online. For more than three years, I have not been able to travel internationally, which has to do with the complex procedures of return to China involving quarantine as well as flight costs that presently are still very high. Reflecting on own experiences with COVID-19 situation in China, being outdoors in the nature daily in the yard or compound, and weekly at Tai lake or surrounding parks has been very helpful in coping with the online mode and limitations on gathering. When starting to work for Suzhou Polytechnic Institute of Agriculture, I learned about their outdoors workshops and a defining moment when students were especially appreciative of chance to get together and be out in the nature after 2020 lockdown.  An idea for research article was born, realizing that outdoors workshops in small groups could be more widely used not only for COVID-19 coping, but also for online degrees and online work balance in general.  

Amidst global pandemic of COVID-19, online learning and teaching, video conferencing and online meetings are oftentimes treated as the new normal. Students, tutors, employees and supervisors are expected to accept it and perform as effectively as under face to face situation. However, online mode sustained over periods of longer time, e.g. several months, often results in decreased motivation, lesser ability to concentrate, and general fatigue. While exercise programs and other coping methods indoors are being suggested, there is still limited information available on best strategies to alleviate online learning challenges. Learning outdoors, when possible and relevant, would offer more comprehensive experience of inquiry and healing effects of nature that offers deep replenishment. While outdoors workshop method may not be possible to use under complete lockdown measures, in many circumstances, it is still allowed to meet outdoors and in small groups. These opportunities could to be more actively explored and incorporated into learning and work schedule.

Showcasing the experience of Suzhou Polytechnic institute of Agriculture (China), I looked into the experience of outdoors workshops for replenishment amidst lengthy online learning periods. Method of the study was content analysis of reports on outdoor workshops and activities organized as well as interviews with tutors who organized them. Results of the study indicated that different experiences provide renewal of motivation and joy of getting together. The opportunities were sought to offer students with the varying experiences during COVID-19 limitations and online learning, as the following excerpt from the report of foreign affairs office (Suzhou Polytechnic Institute of Agriculture, 18.05.2020.) illustrates:

On May 15, class teacher took the eight international students outdoors for practical teaching in Xiangcheng campus to ease their mental stress. Activity took place with the approval of the COVID-19 Epidemic Control Office of the institute and enthusiastic support and participation by the management. The functional zone of the Sci-Tech Park in the Xiangcheng Campus was explained in detail, and during their tour, the international students had a chance to try the characteristic fruit of Suzhou, loquat. Also, they independently finished replacement of flower pots and cutting propagation of crab cactus and wandering jew plant as a part of their practical training.

Referring to the personal communication with junior tutor at Suzhou Polytechnic Institute of Agriculture on 14.06.2022., learning by doing is very important and facilitates the involvement, strengthening interactions between teachers and students:

Due to lack of sufficient interactions between teachers and students during online learning, both teachers and students are tired of dealing with it for a lengthy time. If it is possible to be outside and practice in the nature, it will definitely help students get involved and master all the skills taught by teachers in a vivid way. While learning outdoors, it will enhance their enthusiasm and interest about the class. When they just read or listen to the teachers online, they can’t create the knowledge by themselves, involving tactile and sensory experience. So I maintain that outdoors workshops are essential.

It is a chance to create milestone memories of achievement together, and the willingness, collaboration and participation of students are good in this setting, as indicates personal communication with institute’s senior tutor on 14.04.2022.:

Last semester, I taught Chinese students a course on culture, and there was one afternoon when I took them to an ancient street that has a lot of history, so it was a long walk about 3.5 km all the way down. It was the beginning of semester, and I felt so close to my students, and they also felt close to me, and everybody enjoyed it. So this was the first time after the pandemic that the students were meeting outdoors. They were very happy, and I was very happy too.

Study results also outlined important aspects to note or possible challenges while organizing workshops outdoors. Task, completion time, and goal needs to be set, and it works better with small groups to keep students focused.  Team work is preferable to get everyone involved and to facilitate mutual co-operation. It can involve additional costs, organization, staff and supporting tutors to make outdoors workshop a success. 

To conclude, I propose outdoors workshop method as an approach of maintaining motivation amidst online learning, for getting together and experiencing the restorative effect of being in the nature. This can be relevant and creatively applied in a variety of settings, learning situations, and disciplines. The paper in progress was presented in a number of international conferences online held in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and India on the topics of education, youth, pandemic, and social sciences, and suitable publication opportunities are sought for the completed full paper at the moment.

Outdoors cultural activity in traditional Suzhou gardens with international students

(Source of picture: personal communication with senior tutor at Suzhou Polytechnic Institute of Agriculture, used with permission)