Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Virtual Field Trips in the Social Studies Classroom: Real Opportunity or Red Herring? (Part 1)

The school field trip has become a rarity, if not a complete impossibility, for many teachers and their students in this era of budget slashing. The Memorial Art Gallery (where I am an educator) and most other cultural institutions in the region, and indeed in the nation, have experienced a serious drop in numbers of teachers bringing their students for school visits. It is a loss for all parties involved, on many different levels: the students miss out on a multi-modal, horizon-broadening, informal learning experience at a unique cultural connection in their own community; the teachers lose the chance to extend the basic curriculum with a hands-on, minds-on, real world experience; the institution loses fees which affects funding of general operations as well as educational program development, and misses the chance to connect with young people who might become future supporters and lifelong learners.

In order to combat these circumstances, many institutions are developing ways to reach out to schools and teachers in the classroom. While some of these outreach materials are in the form of physical supplements (books, lesson plans, posters, artifact kits, etc.), the seemingly ubiquitous presence of the internet offers unique and powerful ways to deliver multimedia, interactive, immersive experiences. These experiences, called Virtual Field Trips (VFT) come in the form of videoed tours of places, interviews or lectures by on-the-spot experts, animated or still images with text and/or voiceovers, layered links of deeper or tangential information. For the technologically well-equipped school and well-trained teacher, the VFT appears to offer a less expensive, highly customizable option for replacing the old fashioned field trip. Additionally, the VFT incorporates technology into the classroom practice, thereby addressing another of today’s required curriculum standards.

There are many sites with listings of potentially enriching VFTs. A Google search of Virtual Field Trip yields a State of Utah educational site (, the Tramline company website which developed a do-it-yourself software package called TourMaker for designing one’s own VFT ( ), and TechTrekkers (, among others, all offering extensive listings and links to various VFTs produced by cultural institutions, school groups, libraries, and other entities. All you need is a mouse and a screen, and you’re off on a virtual adventure! But what is the objective of this field trip? What will students gain from the experience? Is the cool digital image of a far-away place an educational experience in itself? What about deeper questioning, critical thinking, and other high level skills? Do the VFTs themselves offer such skills, or is the teacher responsible for developing lessons based on offered digital content?

In my next posting I will address some of these questions, exploring the opportunities for and obstacles to authentic learning afforded by VFTs. In the meantime, I offer to you a sample of some of the more celebrated VFT sites, discussed and recommended in various educational publications.

Some VFT links to explore –

American History:
Colonial Williamsburg’s Electronic Field Trip -

Deliberating in a Democracy -

Fort Ticonderoga -

Historic Jamestowne -

Plimoth Plantation -

Pathways to Freedom -

Quest Atlantis -

World History:
BBC History, Virtual Tours -

Nova Online: Pyramids, The Inside Story -

Roman Open Air Museum Hechingen-Stein -

Pompeii: Unraveling Ancient Mysteries -

General Categories:
eFieldTrips: several selections, mainly science, some SS; requires registration for access –

Tramline -

Museums with “virtual” exhibits or tours -
Beware: many links are inactive!

Scholastic Internet Field Trips:

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