Taking a Virtual Field Trip
by Prof. Jim Lengel, Boston University College of Communication (http://www.bu.edu/jlengel and http://www.lengel.net)
In a previous article in this series, on using live
video in the classroom, we included this example:
The third seal from the left -- the students had named him Oscar -- was
about to move across the rock and challenge the authority of the old bull.
The students in this Iowa classroom were observing first-hand, in real time,
the activities of aquatic mammals off the coast of California, thanks to a
live video feed from a science observation post over the Internet and into
This has sparked interest from many teachers on the topic of virtual field
trips, such as the one that these Iowa students were taking to a remote aquatic
site on the pacific coast. The information highway took them thousands of miles
away to a place where they could study some important concepts in science, in
ways previously impossible in the classroom. This trip needed neither school
buses nor permission slips nor lunchboxes -- but it did call for careful preparation
by the teacher, perhaps even more preparation than a bus-and-lunchbox trip.
This week's article provides some suggestions on working virtual field trips
into your curriculum, and points you to some online destinations.
Identify the Curriculum Opportunity
The best way to use any field trip, virtual or otherwise, is to teach a concept
or topic that's difficult to study in the classroom or the library. Something
that's dry and abstract in the classroom might prove lively and concrete on-site.
We naturally think of geography or earth science topics, which lend themselves
easily to field work, but don't limit yourself. Consider such topics as:
- Literature. A visit to the House of Seven Gables or Thoreau's Walden Pond
or Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
- History. Follow Lewis and Clark along their journey across the new continent,
or tour the battlefield at Gettysburg.
- Music. Follow Mozart's career across the cities of Europe, or enter a museum
of musical instruments.
- Mathematics. Visit the Greenwich Observatory in England to lean about the
mathematics of determining longitude.
- Art. The Louvre, the Metropolitan or the MFA might contain some resources
to help learn the history of art.
Think through your curriculum, and make a list of those hard-to-teach topics.
Browse through the lists of virtual field trips at the end of this article.
From all of these, identify the best opportunity to enhance your teaching with
an online field trip.
Prepare the Trip
A virtual field trip requires at least as much preparation and planning as
any other trip. Simply sending students off on a bus or a web browser is not
enough. Here are some steps to take to make the trip work well:
- Purpose. Make it clear to the students exactly why they
are taking this trip. Explain in writing the purpose of the trip: "The
purpose of the Lewis and Clark virtual field trip is to understand the varied
geographies and cultures encountered by the explorers, through images, original
sources, music, and art."
- Provocation. Challenge the students with a problem to solve
or an assignment to complete while they are on the trip. Make it as clear
and as concrete as possible, and expect them to produce some work that they
can hand in for a grade: "On the trip, find three different landscapes
seen by the men. Describe each one in your own words, and provide an image
to accompany your description. Explain how each of these landscapes differed
from what they had seen on the east coast." This provocation gets them
thinking, and provides a motivation for their journey.
- Path. Guide them as they move through the trip. Provide
a clear path, with explanations, background information, and a provocative
question at each step. Few students learn at their best when left to wander
aimlessly through the site. Many of the virtual field trips listed at the
end of this article are highly structured to provide a prepared path. Others
are simply collections of resources through which you must trace a path for
your students. Look through the former to get some ideas on how to guide students
- Pre-requisites. Before they depart on their online journey,
make sure they understand the background of the event or topic they are visiting,
just as you would for a physical field trip. Give them some readings, show
them a film, provide a list of key questions, or have them do some preliminary
research that results in their understanding where the topic of the trip fits
in the larger context. Provide, in advance of the trip, a written statement
of the purpose, the provocative questions, and the nature of the path they
are to follow.
Take to the Highway
The virtual field trip can be an event that the entire class takes at once,
or scheduled over several days or weeks. If your school has a computer lab that
accommodates all of your students at once, book it in advance and conduct the
field trip on that day. If you have a cluster of computers in your classroom,
let small groups of students take the trip each day until all have completed
the work. Or let them follow your path at the computers in the library, or at
home. There's more flexibility in scheduling the virtual trip.
Individual, Small Group, or Whole Class?
Even the one-computer classroom can host a virtual field trip. The whole class
might take the trip together, as you lead them along the path and pose the appropriate
question as they class views the objects on the display. You might assign one
question each to several small groups, and let each take its turn at the computer
to follow the path and answer the questions. You might let each student on his
own take the trip, do the work, and then discuss the results with the entire
class at the end. Mix your methods and groupings to match your students' needs
and work styles, and to optimize your technology facilities.
Sources for Structured VFT's
As you determine the topic of your first virtual field trip, take a look at
some well-structured trips, most concocted by fellow teachers and published
on the Web for you to use. Take a sample trip yourself, and do the work, so
that you have a feel for what the student will experience. Here are some interesting
examples of well-structured trips:
Sources for VFT Raw Materials
You might also build your own trip from some of the unstructured raw materials
available online. For most of these, you will need to develop the preparation,
provocative questions, and clear path for your students to take full advantage
of their journey:
Guidelines for Using VFT's
As you develop your own trip, you might want to consult these guidelines:
You may not need permission slips, lunchboxes, chaperones, and bus drivers
for these field trips, but you will want to prepare them carefully.
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