Inside Insights: Innovative Outdoor Education in a Changing World

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine we hear about our new Virtual Education Center, and how virtual tools are allowing our branches and members to stay as connected and active as ever.
Nick Block Nick Block
Volunteer Collaborations Manager
June 30, 2020

In the short span of several weeks, the coronavirus outbreak went from a small blip on our radar to something that, at times, feels all-consuming. Nearly every person, company, and organization on the planet is impacted by this crisis - and The Mountaineers is no exception. 

While agonizing, the decision to suspend in-person programming in March was a quick one. The health and well-being of our community has always been The Mountaineers top priority. The more difficult challenge became how to reformat our programs for a new (socially distant) normal. 

Although we still have a lot to learn, COVID-19 has forced us to think outside the box and find new ways of offering outdoor learning opportunities. We needed to create a more flexible and agile operating structure, and challenge the way things have traditionally been done. As a 114-year-old organization, quick and nimble change does not always come easily to The Mountaineers. But adapting quickly for our community was essential, and will continue to be critical in our rapidly-changing environment. 

The ideas and solutions generated by Mountaineers volunteers have been inspiring, and we’re grateful to the volunteers leading opportunities to help our members keep learning when normal is not possible. Seeing our leaders’ creativity, ideas, and passion has been truly exciting. While there are many challenges ahead of us, we’d like to think we also have an opportunity to try new things, challenge our assumptions, and do things a little bit differently than we’ve done before. In a time when isolation has become the new normal, keeping our community together has become more vital than ever. 

As of this writing, public lands are beginning to re-open and we’re exploring what that may look like for the future of our programs. To support our volunteers in this time of uncertainty, staff are working hard to develop and support innovative learning options like volunteer-created online content, digital events, and flexible course offerings. Helping volunteers and members stay engaged with their courses and programs is our top priority, and we’ve been so amazed by the incredible outpouring of dedication and creativity from our volunteers (which is why, for this edition of Mountaineer, we’ve renamed this column Inside Insights in a nod to those doing their part to keep us all healthy by staying inside). 

Here are just a few ways our volunteer leaders are helping to innovate outdoor learning:

Virtual Education Center 

In April,we launched a Virtual Education Center to provide members and volunteers with a place to advance skills and create new content. This includes a calendar of virtual events, activities, and courses so members can find online offerings available to our community. We built a curated library of content on a variety of different topics including fitness, leadership skills, and more for our members to enjoy. 

We also included a content creation page to help volunteers find ways to turn their in-person content into online content. Our hope is that this shift to support volunteers with online tools will allow us to be flexible and creative as we continue to navigate our way through the changing world.

Virtual curriculum toolkit

We launched a toolkit within Google Classrooms, a free online learning platform, to give interested volunteers a variety of options to get their content online. Allowing instructors to creatively structure content, host video conferences, and even create video content, the possibilities of what a volunteer can do are endless. We are already seeing volunteers use this tool successfully. For example, the Foothills Branch used Google Classrooms to enhance their existing Digital Navigation and Trip Planning Course, which is now being taught entirely online. This helped enable more students to participate and reduce the burden on volunteers in the long term while simultaneously getting more students the critical navigation skills they want and need!

Blended learning

Blended learning refers to mixing online and in-person content. We’ve seen a lot of excitement from volunteers on this approach, as it allows for more flexibility and adaptability when we need it most. The Everett Scrambling Committee was an early adopter of this technique. Their Ropes Techniques Seminar is required for all scramble leaders, but it came with a logistical headache: the lecture space was several miles from the field location, so running the course involved driving from one location to the next, making coordination and logistics difficult. Everett Scrambling moved their lecture content online, making it easy to run the lecture content at any time - including during the COVID program suspension. This will make it easier for students to finish the second portion of the workshop in the field at a future date.

Compressed and intensive classes

Many volunteers are interested in creating compressed or intensive versions of their courses, where students learn in a shorter time frame, and we already have a few examples of these courses across the organization. For example, instead of a course that runs three lectures over three weeknights with one weekend field day for three consecutive weekends, an intensive course might run all the lectures and field trips in one block of time over the course of four days. This format presents a challenge for students and volunteers who must be able to take time off during the week, but it allows for adaptability in the timing of the course, and it greatly reduces the overall time needed to complete a course. Members with children or challenging travel schedules often find intensive courses to be the best solution for them, and the overall format reduces our carbon footprint.

Small cohorts and mentor groups

With social distancing guidelines likely to be in place in some form or another for the foreseeable future, many programs are looking to try a small group format. Instead of large gatherings, the small cohort model creates a smaller, tight-knit gathering of students who learn together. This model can create deep friendships and close connections, and the various digital options help these small cohorts connect within the larger community. Smaller groups can also be hosted in more locations, increasing their flexibility. 

Like intensive classes, cohort-based programming has the ability to run programs at different times in the year. For instance, moving a course that normally runs in the spring to the fall is much less logistically challenging when you are dealing with smaller groups and a shorter timeline. 

Digital events

We’ve seen lots of success from digital events already, and we’re excited to carry them into the future. The Beta and Brews evenings - a popular event where Mountaineers climbers gather to share beta from a favorite climb - has gone digital, with high attendance! Other activities have started to offer similar presentations, like the Backpackers’ Pajama Party hosted by the Foothills Branch.

Overall impact

As a community, we are becoming more agile, flexible, and creative every day. Life during a global pandemic has been challenging for many of us, but we see hope for the future. With this shift toward moving lectures and events online, we'll be more adept at offering virtual content and can reduce the commute to lectures and meetings, saving people time and reducing our carbon footprint. It also offers us the opportunity to reach a broader member base in the PNW and beyond. We should not minimize or forget about the impact this has had on so many people, but we should remember that there is always a silver lining to every challenge.

There are so many ways we can make outdoor learning possible, and we are just starting to scratch the surface of what we can do. It takes determination and creativity, but our volunteers have shown us that when Mountaineers come together, anything is possible. 

Learn More

Are you interested in getting involved, creating content, or connecting with The Mountaineers community? Be sure to explore our Virtual Education Center

MAIN IMAGE OF Virtual bird watching. Photo courtesy of Evy Dudey.


This article originally appeared in our Summer 2020 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.