Embodied place-based learning in the time of COVID

In March 2020, many educators were forced to move their teaching online as the COVID-19 pandemic upended life as we knew it. I tend to think of myself as fairly digitally literate, so I didn't panic. I knew that I would be able to deliver my teaching in some form or another. I had already taught on two distance learning courses, and worked with a variety of different tools and technologies for online learning. But I also knew that most of my teaching material was not optimised for online learning. I felt competent in the classroom, and I felt competent online. But when it comes to leading online learning, my competence confidence collapses. There was certainly some room to grow.

Then my colleagues and I won funding from the Knowledge Foundation to develop and deliver two online courses about sustainability transitions in a post-COVID world. So, I decided to strengthen my digital pedagogy and began a course in Open Networked Learning. For the first topic we were joined by Dave White, who encouraged us to think critically about the term 'digital native,' typically referring to someone who grew up in the digital age and therefore is fluent in digital spaces. He then invited us consider what the vocabulary of 'digital immigrant' (someone who is a visitor to a digital space) and 'digital residents' (someone who is at home in a digital space) might offer. These terms offer more nuance than the former. Just because someone was born in the age of the internet doesn't mean they are digitally literate. And conversely, just because someone grew up in a time without computers, does not mean they cannot master them.

I was interested in the discussion on the merits of the different terms, but the question I was ultimately left with was: To where? Native to where? Immigrant to where? Resident to where? What place we are talking about? And moreover, what is place at all?

Traditionally, we might think of place in higher education as the "socio-material infrastructures, such as the sandstone bricks and mortar of a campus, including its classes, books and timetables" (Swist & Kuswara, 2016). But as we move towards more and more online learning, we see "an array of digital and non-digital architecture" that contributes to place-making (Swist & Kuswara, 2016). In my teaching, this means shifting from textbooks and whiteboards to eBooks and Padlet. It means in-person lectures are being replaced by pre-recorded videos. It means students are no longer crowded around a desk with a sheet of flip chart paper, but being divided into breakout rooms. Such is the age of COVID.

Now, I'll side-step for a moment and explain my background for readers who don't already know me. My academic specialisation is in sustainability science. Sustainability science is a field of study which brings together different disciplines to address a common problem: human survival (and perhaps thriving, depending on your definition!) on a planet where ecosystems are being systematically degraded. Most of my teaching has been on sustainability programmes and courses, where consideration of place is thought to be vital. This is, in part, because sustainability science (and therefore sustainability education) explicitly and necessarily engages with place through considering the relationship between humans and the ecosystems in which we are situated (Kates et al., 2001). It is also because place is the locus around which students' centre their "experiences that help teach them how the world works and how they fit into that world" (Sipos et al., 2008). Place was thought to be such an important component of my department's Master's programme in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability that programme is not running this 2020-21 academic year because a move to online teaching would affect the learning outcomes so greatly.

Like place, the body is also thought to be an important mediator of learning for sustainability. Embodied learning engages not only the cognitive dimensions of learning, but also the "kinaesthetic/physical, sensory, and emotional facets" (Hill, 2013). Through embodied learning, students can develop "a connection of self and lifeworld" and "conceptualise how their actions and praxis [are] part of the 'ecological crisis'" (Payne, 1997). As Pisters et al. (2019) write, "we can be taught to value a tree and cognitively understand that our lives are connected with its life. However, if we do not experience, feel or sense this connection ‘in our bones,’ we do not fully embody interdependence and are very likely to find it difficult always to act accordingly."

Embodiment in place was vital to my own university education. As an undergraduate student of environmental studies, my experience was characterised not only by time spent in the classroom, but time spent outside of it. We went on walks through the campus to learn about the local ecology. We visited a forest where invasive English ivy was killing indigenous species and saw an area where the ivy was removed by a well-intentioned group, only to result in erosion. Once the ivy was removed, there was nothing to hold the soil in place because the ivy had crowded out the native plants that had earlier served this purpose.

In an ethnoecology class, we travelled to a nearby reservation where we learned about traditional uses of local indigenous plants. We tasted soapberry ice cream and turned soil to establish a community garden. We attended a pit-cook where we tried camas, a sweet-tasting bulb traditionally eaten by Coast Salish peoples. We learned how the ecosystem in which camas grows were traditionally maintained through controlled burns (Pellatt & Gedalof, 2014). European colonisers devastated communities of traditional land stewards through warfare and disease (Pellatt et al., 2015) and favoured fire suppression over controlled burns, and these resulted in a shift from Garry Oak- to Douglas Fir-dominated ecosystems.

Experiences such as these profoundly shaped my understanding of sustainability. While it would be possible to learn about traditional uses of indigenous plants, the impacts of invasive species on ecosystems, and how colonisation harmed First Nations and their traditional food practices, it was the embodied experience of being in a physical place with other people that mediated my learning. The tastes, the smells, the movement through these spaces helped me understand 'in my bones.' These embodied learning experiences engaged me, not only cognitively, but affectively.

So, how can place be brought into online learning in sustainability? This is the question I wrestle with today. We know place-making still happens in online learning (Swist & Kuswara, 2016). But how can we use place as a means to learn about social-ecological systems when the place is virtual? As I typed out these words, I hoped that an idea might come to me. I hoped that I might be able to say 'I can't know for sure, but I know where to start!' But the truth is that I don't have any ideas. I'm not sure where to start.

Sustainability pedagogues advocate for embodied and place-based education, but the reality is that much of sustainability taught in higher education already does not live up to these ideals, even under the best conditions. This is largely because higher education today prizes propositional knowledge (or formal theoretical, conceptual knowledge, which is encoded in language) above other forms of knowledge, such as experiential or practical knowledge (Heron & Reason, 2008). While these other forms of knowledge are devalued, so will be the educational approaches that foster them, amongst which are embodied and place-based approaches.

I will conclude my reflections here with a brief contemplation on my body and the place which I wrote this. I am currently sitting at my desk in my home office. I am on a chair that is too tall for me, so my feet are swinging as I write. Outside my window, I can see a crisp autumn day. The wind is gently swaying the branches on the tree outside my house. In between writing different sections of this, I walked to the end of the island I live on. There are several small beaches and a forest I wandered through. The air was cool, but the sun was warm on my skin. I heard birds singing and looked out over the water at my university's campus. Now the sun is starting to go down and my eyes are tired and my back is stiff. I'm looking forward to going on another walk before the day is over.

As we navigate education in the age of COVID, online learning has become a part of the 'new normal' that is so often spoken about. Greater competency, greater acceptance, and greater insight into the potential of online teaching and learning will undoubtably shape higher education for decades to come. So, what does digitalisation mean for embodied learning in higher education? And what does it mean for placed-based learning? I don't know. But I know that learning will still be embodied and place-based, regardless of whether we acknowledge it. As sustainability educators, this is what we must remember as we move our classrooms online.

We still have bodies. These bodies operate in both digital and physical places. Let's be intentional about how we use our bodies and engage in educational place-making as we enter this era of online learning.


  • Hill, A. (2013). The place of experience and the experience of place: Intersections between sustainability education and outdoor learning. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 29(1), 18-32.

  • Kates, R. W., Clark, W. C., Corell, R., Hall, J. M., Jaeger, C. C., Lowe, I., ... & Faucheux, S. (2001). Sustainability science. Science, 292(5517), 641-642.

  • Oliver, H. (2011). Ecological Restoration of the Riparian Ecosystem at Mystic Vale/Hobbs Creek.

  • Payne, P. (1997). Embodiment and environmental education. Environmental Education Research, 3(2), 133-153.

  • Pellatt, M. G., & Gedalof, Z. E. (2014). Environmental change in Garry oak (Quercus garryana) ecosystems: the evolution of an eco-cultural landscape. Biodiversity and Conservation, 23(8), 2053-2067.

  • Pellatt, M. G., McCoy, M. M., & Mathewes, R. W. (2015). Paleoecology and fire history of Garry oak ecosystems in Canada: implications for conservation and environmental management. Biodiversity and Conservation, 24(7), 1621-1639.

  • Pisters, S. R., Vihinen, H., & Figueiredo, E. (2019). Place based transformative learning: a framework to explore consciousness in sustainability initiatives. Emotion, Space and Society, 32, 100578.

  • Reason, P. & Bradbury, H. (2008). The SAGE Handbook of Action Research (2d ed). Sage: London, UK.

  • Sipos, Y., Battisti, B., & Grimm, K. (2008). Achieving transformative sustainability learning: engaging head, hands and heart. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education.

  • Swist, T., & Kuswara, A. (2016). Place-making in higher education: co-creating engagement and knowledge practices in the networked age. Higher Education Research & Development, 35(1), 100-114.

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