Thinking outside the classroom: Popular spaces repurposed for socially distanced classes

Zing Meng was a bit puzzled when she looked at her list of fall courses and realized one of them would be taught in the Indiana Memorial Union.

A masked professor teaches a class of masked, socially distanced studentsView print quality image
Brad Fulton teaches his diversity and inequality class in the Frangipani Room in the Indiana Memorial Union, a space being used to help with physical distancing needs on campus. Photo by Chris Howell, Division of Student Affairs

"That's odd. I don't ever remember anyone ever having class at the IMU," Meng said of her initial reaction. "I was really curious to see where the class would be located in the building."

Meng, a senior and human resources management major, is taking a class on diversity and inequality. This semester, it's being taught in the Frangipani Room, which has a large stage and hardwood floors, and is typically used for banquets, performances and meetings.

In fact, six spaces in the IMU are being used this semester to help with physical-distancing needs for in-person classes on the Indiana University Bloomington campus:

Additionally, four other auxiliary spaces are being used for classes:

"These spaces were instrumental in ensuring all classes were placed for fall 2020 and spring 2021," said Jenni Kirby, assistant registrar and manager of scheduling services in the Office of the Registrar. "Without them, we would have classes with no place to meet."

With physical distancing requirements in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer seats were available in general inventory classrooms. Mark McConahay, associate provost and registrar, identified nontraditional spaces that could be used for classroom instruction, Kirby said. He was assisted by a technical review from Mark Russell, manager of learning spaces and technology services, and his team,

When McConahay reached out to the campus partners who control the spaces, they generously agreed to make them available. Capital Planning, Facility Operations and UITS assisted in securing furniture, ensuring appropriate physical-distancing measures and outfitting the rooms with the standard classroom technology, Kirby added.

"It has exceeded my expectations in light of the challenges of teaching this semester," said Brad Fulton, an associate professor in the Paul H. O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, who is teaching the diversity and inequality class in the Frangipani Room. "Teaching in the IMU has been a bright spot."

Fulton said the wood paneling and the lighting make the space feel like a classic, historic classroom.

"I feel like it gives a sense of solemnness in class versus a lecture hall or a box room with four walls," Fulton said.

A professor shows a class slides of paintings in a darkened classroomView print quality image
Professors say teaching in the IMU has been enjoyable because of good technical support and room features such as varying light levels that aid with visual images, such as Giles Knox's class on Italian Renaissance Art. Photo by Chris Howell, Division of Student Affairs

Meng said the Frangipani Room addresses students' needs.

"I like that we are given sufficient space to be able to social distance," she said. "We also have more space to take notes on the desks, which I really appreciate."

Ore Koren, an assistant professor of political science in the College of Arts and Sciences, is teaching his class on civil war and political violence in Whittenberger Auditorium.

"It has been a very pleasant experience," he said. "The venue works very well."

Koren uses screens to present slides from his laptop, and with students sitting in the front with proper spacing, he's able to talk and interact with the students easily.

"There is always a tech person present at the beginning of each class, which I think is very helpful," he added.

Giles Knox, an associate professor of art history in the College of Arts and Sciences, is teaching a class on Italian Renaissance art in the Frangipani Room. He said the room has about 30 options for lighting, which is ideal for showing slides of paintings.

Because the Frangipani Room is large and well-suited for physical distancing, Knox said it makes him feel comfortable about teaching in person.

"I'd love to teach in there again," he said.

IU Cinema is home to 14 classes this semester, including principles of chemistry and biochemistry, financial accounting and studies in Japanese film. IU Cinema typically hosts only one or two academic classes each year, said Brittany Friesner, IU Cinema's interim director.

"We're excited to know that while we're focusing on presenting virtual film events, the physical space of IU Cinema can continue to be used to educate and engage IU students in profound and transformative ways," Friesner said.

Dina Kellams, director of University Archives, said the use of nontraditional classroom spaces is rare in campus history. Surplus Quonset huts and barracks were brought to campus after World War II to alleviate overcrowding in classrooms and offices. Many of the barracks were used for housing, but some were used as classrooms. Most Quonset huts were used for offices or lab spaces.

The Office of the Registrar has in the past relocated a few classes to the IMU for a day or two when there was a maintenance problem with the original assigned class location, said Hollie Lutz, IMU assistant director for meeting and event services.

"We have not historically had classes in the IMU, but this is a unique and historic situation," IMU Executive Director Hank Walter said. "So, when the university asked about using some meeting rooms for this purpose, it was an easy decision to support that need."