Residential Learning and Teaching in a pandemic: Finding opportunity and affordances through expanding hybridity

Rainbow over highlands
Image credit: Heidi Smith

In this post, Heidi Smith describes how the Outdoor and Environmental Education team redefined ‘hybridity’ to include the outdoors as a positive learning and teaching space, which saw the return of COVID-safe residentials. Heidi is a Lecturer in Outdoor Environmental Education at Moray House School of Education and Sport. This post is part of the January and February Learning & Teaching Enhancement Theme: Online/hybrid enhancements in teaching practice.

The COVID pandemic has had significant impacts on the management and governance in higher education with a move to predominantly online and hybrid learning, teaching and research across the sector. This hybridity includes learning that occurs indoors on University campus and online across a range of platforms. The outdoors is rarely included in definition(s) of hybridity. Outdoor and Environmental Education, where learning, teaching and researching occurs predominantly outdoors, including residentially, was significantly impacted by the pandemic with residential learning not permitted during 2020/21. This resulted in our own Outdoor and Environmental Education (OEE) Postgraduate programmes in Moray House School of Education and Sport (MHSES) being suspended during the 2020/21 academic year, with research and other academic activities limited to predominantly online spaces.

While suspended, the OEE Team offered personal tutor/tutee and supervision sessions outdoors, worked with MHSES colleagues to support hybrid learning, teaching and research in various ways, including developing and sharing resources and risk management practices to support a redefinition of hybrid learning and teaching to forefront outdoor spaces and places. As we approached the 2021/22 academic year, we were committed to finding ways in which to provide COVID-aware learning, teaching and research that returned to utilising outdoor places and spaces, along with indoor and online.  In preparation for the 2021/22 academic year, we developed new ways of planning, learning and teaching in order to ensure the OEE programmes returned to in-person teaching, including residential courses.

Developing COVID aware learning, teaching and research practices

A thorough revision of the Safety Management Plan for our OEE Programmes in 2021 helped us to identify COVID as one of many hazards/risks that we manage in our work already. By shifting our thinking of COVID from an all-encompassing challenge to one of many other risks we manage in learning and teaching outdoors empowered us to approach the return to residential learning and teaching with confidence. The result was the development of clear COVID-aware practices aligned with the Scottish Government and University of Edinburgh and Field Course Guidelines. These guidelines, along with our own expertise and experience in managing risks, enabled us to clearly communicate these with students and sessional staff on our programmes . This resulted in a highly successful residential learning experience for all where, collectively, we kept COVID out of our ‘bubble’.

Image credit: Heidi Smith

Two main programme ‘bubbles’ were created for our residential courses: Outdoor Education, and Outdoor Environmental and Sustainability Education. Each programme was allocated a two-week residential block, with core courses timetabled to support student learning progression, staffing availability and the incorporation of part time students who would be joining the bubbles from time to time. Regular lateral flow tests (twice weekly, as outlined in University of Edinburgh and Scottish Government Guidelines) were undertaken throughout. Student and staff commitment to ensuring no COVID entered the bubbles resulted in a four-week COVID-free residential block with many positive outcomes, including: interdisciplinary learning and teaching; development of an authentic learning community; and personal tutor/tutee expansion.

Image credit: Heidi Smith

Interdisciplinary learning and teaching: outdoors, indoors, and online

 All three of the courses were informative and meaningful and the time spent together with my classmates was something I’ll never forget. (Student)

The OEE team are committed to extending the collective existing understanding of hybridity. Core academic courses alongside professional practice elements of the two programmes were experienced by students in the Cairngorms and included: Outdoor Environmental Education: Concept-based Practice; Canoeing the Spey; and Hillwalking. These courses adopt a focus on experiential epistemologies, place-based pedagogy, and connection to landscape. All courses within the OEE Programmes have always adopted a ‘hybrid’ approach, however, with a difference. The difference is a focus on the outdoors as the main space and place for learning and teaching, supported by indoor and online spaces. Decisions about where learning happens is determined by the theoretical and experiential expertise of staff and students with a willingness to solve challenges in creative and dynamic ways to enable as authentic a learning experience for students as possible at any time; especially during a pandemic.

Image credit: Heidi Smith

For specific applications of this approach to our programmes, we invite you to read our blog: Residential Learning and Teaching in a Pandemic: A story of collaboration and commitment, which will be published shortly. We have found that our learning on residential courses is applicable for an on-campus context. Specifically, we have valued the shared conversations with students and staff on our programmes and beyond that have been mindful and gentle, as together we have navigated these unprecedented times. In doing so, we have moved beyond the ‘buzz words’ of pandemic pedagogy and created meaningful learning experiences in a range of places and spaces.

If you would like to learn more about our team’s and others’ approaches to expanding hybrid learning and teaching to include the outdoors, indoors and online, consider attending the University of Edinburgh Learning and Teaching conference themed sessions: Hybridity reimagined: Teaching experientially in outdoor, indoor and online places.

photograph of the authorHeidi Smith

Heidi Smith is a Lecturer of Outdoor Environmental Education with learning, teaching and research interests in outdoor environmental education in all its forms, place-based learning, leadership, praxis, transculturality, and innovative pedagogies.


  1. It is great to read the promotion of outdoor learning during the pandemic. The outdoors is known to be safer than indoor environments for COVID transmission so when I reflect that learning became solely online for the majority and that left most learners isolated, it seems like an opportunity lost. I really like your comment about the outdoors being the primary learning environment supported by indoor and online platforms. This is really sound praxis both from a learning and health perspective. I just want to support your blog and say that at the University of Cumbria in their outdoor degree courses there have been residentials and outdoor learning throughout the pandemic, within the rules of the day. We too found that students really valued these learning experiences over and above the online alternatives. They were happier and healthier. There was no known transmission of COVID in any of those sessions supporting the evidence that outdoor learning is safe in a COVID world. Thanks for sharing. If we can collaborate to strengthen your assertions, bring it on.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and successes of residential learning during COVID. As you say, students were happier and healthier for the residential learning experiences. We are really pleased to hear you’ve had similar success.

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