Outdoor Classrooms

I love being outdoors. I spend as much time outdoors as I possibly can; some of you may have even noticed from our Zoom class sessions that I tend to be outdoors more often than not even during those meetings (no, those are not Zoom backgrounds). Generally, if I can be outdoors, I am. Thus, it should come as no surprise that I have always been interested in the idea of holding classes outdoors. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “To the sick the doctors wisely recommend a change of air and scenery.” In light of what has happened in the world with COVID-19 this year, I think this quote takes on new meaning.

When I began thinking about this idea for a blog post, I did a quick search hoping to find an article or two discussing the benefits of having outdoor classes. I know that I learn better, pay attention better, and generally feel better outdoors, and I am sure I am not alone. However, instead, I came across an article written by Tracey Birdwell and Tripp Harris, both from Indiana State University, entitled “Outdoor classes hold promise for in-person learning amid COVID-19”. A link to the article can be found here. This was very interesting to me because it is something I had thought about when this situation first presented itself. However, I never gave the idea much credit. In my field of study (Forestry) I am sure there would be many people interested in the idea of outdoor classes. We already have labs outdoors in many of the classes, and students seem to be more engaged in those labs than they are in the indoor lectures. However, this is in a field about the outdoors. I assumed that the majority of people in other fields of study would not care for outdoor classes, at least long-term. However, this article seems to suggest different.

This article points out that while most colleges are focused on either in-person, online, or hybrid classes this fall, that outdoor classes pose a fourth option that is being widely overlooked. There are a few colleges, however, that are giving outdoor classes a go. Rice University in Houston, Texas has added five open-air tents and four temporary buildings for in-person outdoor classes this year. The tents can accommodate classes of 25-30 while the temporary buildings can accommodate classes of up to 50. These tents and buildings have been connected to electricity to support heating, cooling, lighting, and the use of electronics. While they have been constructed for use during the current pandemic, the university plans to use the spaces in the future as well. Similarly, Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts purchased and set up 20 tents for outdoor classes, hoping to have a near-normal fall semester at their small college. Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida encouraged outdoor instruction this fall, creating a map and reservation system for all available outdoor spaces with Wi-Fi access and appropriate shade and wind conditions. Other colleges and universities, including Claremont McKenna College and Arizona State University, have encouraged outdoor meetings and instruction when weather permits, adding outdoor infrastructure to accommodate.

As the article points out, several studies support that being outside helps students learn, and also suggest that there are positive associations between memory function and the emotions students experience while outside. Additionally, the article states that students’ mental health may benefit from more time outdoors. This is especially relevant during these times of COVID. I have always felt that I would enjoy making an effort in the future to host some of my classes outdoors. I believe it would be a nice change for both students and teachers. However, I recognize that there are often logistical issues, such as lack of infrastructure, weather constraints, large class sizes, etc. While these are real constraints, I think the benefits would be well worth the resources spent investigating outdoor instruction. It will be interesting to see the results from colleges like the ones mentioned above that have invested in outdoor instruction during this pandemic. I believe they might provide useful insights into the benefits and logistics of increased outdoor instruction in the future.

Birdwell, T., & Harris, T. (2020, August 21). Outdoor classes hold promise for in-person learning amid COVID-19. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/outdoor-classes-hold-promise-for-in-person-learning-amid-covid-19-144536

The High Costs of Higher Education

For this blog assignment, we were asked to write about one thing that we believe should change in higher education. For me, the first thing that comes to mind are the outrageously high costs that are typically associated with receiving a traditional higher education. According to an article in Forbes, which can be found here, the average student loan debt is $32, 731 dollars. This is the average debt, not even the average cost. Many people pay different amounts during college that are not reflected in the average debt. Additionally, when one considers the opportunity cost from not working over four years, the costs are even higher.

It is no wonder that people find it difficult to justify going to college given the extreme costs associated. While people who receive a college degree do end up making more money on average than those who do not, they have to get over a large financial hurtle of student loan debt. This debt is also expected to be paid at a very financially difficult time in many people’s lives. Many people who attend a four-year college are basically starting their independent lives as soon as they graduate college. At this time in their lives, they often are making several large purchases, such as cars, houses, furnishings, weddings, costs associated with having children, etc. While this is easier for some than others, and everyone has different situations and associated costs, it would be safe to say that people are spending more money than normal at this stage in their lives. Adding high student loans in on top of all of these other financial obligations can make it extremely difficult on these people who are just starting out.

While I understand that there are different options which can be cheaper, and that these colleges and universities must make money, I feel that there could be several ways of cutting costs for many students. One example of this is the student fees many universities charge every semester. At Virginia Tech, these fees total about $1,300 dollars per semester. However, many of these fees that students pay may have nothing to do with them. For example, every semester, I pay an Athletic Fee, a Health Fee, a Rec Sports Fee, a Student Activity Fee, a Technology Fee, Student Cultural Activities fee, and a Transportation Services fee, all of which, to the best of my knowledge, I have never or have rarely reaped the benefits from. I do not use the gyms on campus, have only been to the on-campus health center once, do not play rec sports, do not participate in student activities, have never used the technology help center, don’t really know what the Student Cultural Activities fee is but I assume it has nothing to do with me, and do not use public transportation (and additionally have to pay $315.00 dollars per year for a parking permit). These fees total $1,115 dollars per semester (or 80% of the total fees that I have to pay in addition to tuition). This comes to $8,920.00 dollars over the four years that I will have been here that I have paid with no perceivable benefit to me. Not to mention the four years at my undergraduate college where I paid similar inapplicable fees.

$8,920.00 dollars (double that if you count undergrad) would go a long ways towards getting me started in life after college, and I am sure it would help other students as well. However, we are forced to hand that money over to the university, even though the fees have nothing to do with us. I believe that this should be changed. If I am paying that much money for something, I need to be receiving some perceivable benefits in return, because I am already paying an extremely high tuition just to be able to attend college (which is another topic for another day). The costs of attending college should be more transparent, and we should only have to pay for the services that are relevant to us. Making students pay these unnecessary outrageous sums just makes it that much more difficult on us during a financially vulnerable stage of our lives.


Friedman, Z. (2020, February 3). Student Loan Debt Statistics In 2020: A Record $1.6 Trillion. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackfriedman/2020/02/03/student-loan-debt-statistics/?sh=622987b1281f

Disruptive Technologies: Online Learning

For this blog post, I decided to read the article “The top 5 disruptive technologies in higher ed” found on eCampus News. A link to the article can be found here. First on that list of disruptive technologies was online learning. Since online learning has become the method of choice during the pandemic, I thought this would be interesting to discuss.

The article points out that online learning allows people who previously were unable to attend classes at colleges or universities to do so. I believe that this is an incredibly important benefit of online education. All throughout high school I was warned that it is better to continue straight into college, because people who “took a break” and/or went into the workforce for a while tended not to go back to school. People graduate high school, get a job, start making a little bit of money, establish roots, start lives, and afterwards either do not want to or cannot go back and get a higher education. Then, several years down the road, they often wish they had went to college, because it can be hard to rise through the ranks of the workforce or develop a meaningful career without a college degree. Online higher education is able to reach these people who previously would have had to put their entire lives on hold to receive an education. The flexibility of online classes allows these people to work their education around their already-established life, and often even continue working. This also allows more people who may have struggled financially to attend college before to do so while still having an income. Online learning also allows people who are in the same type of situation, where they received an associate’s or bachelor’s degree but now realize they need to receive a higher degree, to do so.

Another advantage of online learning is the drastically lower cost. With online learning, similar to an online business vs. a business with physical stores, there are much fewer associated overhead costs. There is no campus that needs to be built or maintained, buildings to be furnished, much less equipment to be bought and maintained, fewer staff members required to keep everything running, etc. This translates to drastically lower costs for the education overall. With the prices of a traditional higher education so high and seemingly continuing to rise, this is a large advantage to students. Not only this, but a hot-button issue lately has been whether student loans should be reduced, forgiven, or whether college should be free of cost all together. Online education may play an important role in the feasibility of any of these options being discussed. While it is probably pretty unrealistic for the US government to send everyone to a four-year university for free, it is easier to envision some degree of financial support for cheaper online alternatives.

Not only is online leaning important in these types of situations, but it is especially important during the current pandemic. It is hard to imagine what would have happened with higher education without the ability for everything to be online. Without this option, colleges and universities would have had to decide between having in-person classes anyway, or canceling classes all together. That would have been an extremely large decision to make, because this pandemic is beginning to look like a multiple-year ordeal. What would these colleges and universities have done? Could they realistically go one or two years without revenue? Alternatively, could they really expect everyone to come to class and risk exposure to a deadly disease? Even if they did expect this, would enough students register to make it worth it? There are endless what-if scenarios one could think through, but one thing is clear: the ability for higher education to move online during this pandemic was a life-saver (no pun intended.)

It is hard to imagine the world today without online learning. Even before the pandemic, online higher education was becoming incredibly popular. Now, with the pandemic, the increased need for a degree to remain competitive in the workforce, the high costs of an in-person education, and countless other reasons, online education is more popular than ever before, and likely is the way of the future. Thus, it is becoming increasingly important that higher education adapt to this disruptive technology.

M. Leigh, & Goldrick, Thomas. (2017, June 5). The top 5 disruptive technologies in higher ed. eCampus News. https://www.ecampusnews.com/2017/06/05/disruptive-technologies-higher-ed/

Blog Post 3: Open Access Journals

For this blog post I chose to focus on the Journal Forests.  A link to the homepage can be found here. This is the journal that published my master’s paper on tethered (cable-assisted) logging in Brazil. A link to that journal article can be found here. Forests is a peer-reviewed open access journal for forestry-related research. It is among a wide range of journals under the umbrella of MDPI, who claims to be a pioneer in scholarly open access publishing. The editorial office for this journal is in Switzerland. Since the journal is open access, the articles are free to readers. The authors or their institutions pay article processing charges to publish their articles in this journal.

Forests‘ aim is to “encourage scientists to publish their experimental and theoretical research in as much detail as possible.” They do this by having no length restrictions on the articles. In addition, the journal encourages authors to provide “supplementary material” which includes things such as data sets, pictures, figures, and other files. All of this is to provide as much detail on the research as possible to the readers. They also pride themselves on their high visibility and rapid publication rate. The median time from receipt to peer review and first decision is 15.2 days, and the median time from acceptance till publication is 2.6 days. The scope of the journal encompasses a wide range of aspects of forestry and forest ecology, such as forest management, silviculture, entomology and pathology, genetics, forest engineering, environmental impacts, economics, etc.

The website for Forests doesn’t say a whole lot about their status as open access. However, the parent website for MDPI has a page explaining open access journals and their advantages. They define open access as being free to use/access, immediately released, and that the material can be re-used without obtaining permission as long as the material is cited. Some advantages of open-access journals listed are high availability and visibility of research, more resulting citations, lower publishing costs, and faster publication. They say “open access publishing fosters the exchange of research results amongst scientists from different disciplines, thus facilitating interdisciplinary research. Open access publishing also provides access to research results to researchers worldwide, including those from developing countries, and to an interested general public. Although MDPI publishes all of its journals under the open access model, we believe that open access is an enriching part of the scholarly communication process that can and should co-exist with other forms of communication and publication, such as society-based publishing and conferencing activities.”

These statements about open-access journals make sense to me. We conduct research to further knowledge on various topics. This research is supposed to build on research conducted by others, and is supposed to benefit society as a whole. However, if journals limit access to the research, it can hinder these efforts. I also see the value in providing access to research for “researchers worldwide, including those from developing countries”. Forests are a natural resource, and natural resources tend to be abused in developing countries. Countries need industry and resources to grow, and they need to be able to use their natural resources. Open access research allows researchers in these developing countries to see the most current research, which may allow them to use the resources in a more sustainable and efficient way. This in turn helps the rest of the world. If access to this research is limited, then people in developing countries may have to resort to less-than-ideal management and use. MDPI seems to recognize that there is a place for both types of journals, and they seem to fill their role as an open access publisher well.

MDPI. (2020, October 12). Forests — Open Access Journal. MDPI. https://www.mdpi.com/journal/forests

MDPI. (2020, October 12). MDPI Open Access Information and Policy. MDPI. https://www.mdpi.com/openaccess

Ethics Blog Post: Case Summary From Texas Tech University Health Science Center

For this blog post, I decided to discuss a case summary from the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) of research misconduct that happened at Texas Tech University Health Science Center. The case summary can be found here. In short, Rahul Dev Jayant, Ph.D., who was an Assistant Professor in Pharmaceutical Sciences, intentionally plagiarized, falsified, and/or fabricated several images, graphs, figures, and data that were used in several grant applications. As a result of this, Dr. Jayant entered into a Voluntary Settlement Agreement where his research will have to be supervised by a committee of 2-3 senior faculty members familiar with his field. This supervision includes reviewing data, preparing reports, reviewing grant applications and manuscripts, etc. The institution employing him will also have to submit certifications to ORI for basically anything he does saying that it is legitimate. Finally, he is not allowed to serve in any advisory capacity to the Public Health Service. All of this is required for a period of three years. These case summaries only provide what happened and what was done about it. They do not provide any background on the reasons why, or what happened after the fact. I skimmed through a few other summaries, and they are all the same.

This makes me curious about several things. First, why would an assistant professor, someone who has done research presumably for several years, plagiarize images and graphs intentionally? I feel as though that is something that would be relatively easy to check out, especially for someone with knowledge of the current research in that field. The consequences seem pretty severe to take that kind of risk. This person likely now is pretty unattractive to employers, and his reputation is stained for the rest of his career. Was it something he considered to be unimportant, and didn’t want to spend time on?

Also, how do they know for sure that he did that all of these things intentionally? I read through the report carefully but could find nothing saying he admitted to doing it intentionally. It just says that he settled, but this could just be because he didn’t want to put in the time or resources to fight the charges. Is it possible, using the plagiarism as an example, that he just accidently left off the citation, or cited it wrong? I don’t know these answers, and I am not saying I think he is innocent. I am just curious how they came to the conclusion that everything was intentional. I assume if someone was really curious, there is a full report available somewhere. However, it would be nice to have a little context from these reports.

Regardless, it demonstrates the high price to be paid for dishonest or even careless actions such as these. Someone’s entire career could be ended because of one case such as this. It highlights how important it is to always provide clean and honest work, even if it takes longer to do. It also highlights how important it is to be diligent when citing other’s work, as carelessness can lead to severe consequences as well. It is, however, nice to see that there is a group watching for things like this, especially in the medical field. With much of the research in the medical field, people’s lives depend on the accuracy and integrity of that research. However, regardless of the consequences, there will always be people who break the rules or are too careless with their work. With a group such as this watching out for cases like those, I feel we can put much more trust in the research findings. After all, that is the purpose of doing the research in the first place.

Austin Garren