Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Virtual Field Trips in the Social Studies Classroom: Real Opportunity or Red Herring? Part 2

As we discussed last time, the appeal and intention of virtual field trips is to afford students the opportunity for an out-of-school, immersive, curriculum-extending experience, without the expense of busses and lost classroom time. Sounds great, doesn’t? And Great it can be, but as we will see, it does take a bit more than a mouse and a screen to fill the bill.

Stoddard (2009; Figure 1, p. 417) describes the requirements for a truly enriching, authentic learning experience, whether the field trip is an actual or virtual one.

Clear objectives for the field trip
In order to get permission for an actual field trip, many teachers are required to submit real, often substantive documentation of the trip’s academic value. These may include lesson plans, appropriate state curriculum standards, connections to subject areas, etc., all in addition to any paperwork for busing, arrangements for lunches or other classes that students will miss, collecting permission slips, and recruitment of chaperones. While we can gleefully claim that virtual field trips eliminate many of these cumbersome complications, the need for authentic academic value remains. Teachers need to clarify the purpose for the experience: what is the Golden Nugget, or the Big Idea, that students should gain from this trip, and what specific activities will get them to that goal?

Logical connections to and timing for the curriculum
A big part of the objectives for the field trip experience should enhance and extend the curriculum. The timing for the trip will both depend upon and influence the objectives and their connections. Is the field trip a warm-up activity, setting the stage and getting students excited about an aspect of the curriculum? Or is it a culminating activity, winding up the students’ learning with a form of hands-on, brains-on application of their knowledge? Or the field trip experience may come in the middle of the students’ studies, both using their prior knowledge and building new knowledge through experience?

Student and teacher interactions with “experts’ as part of the field trip (substantive conversation)
As with any extension activity, the “extension” may occur on the part of the teacher, as well as the students. Be they re-enactors in character as at historical sites like Colonial Williamsburg (or a more close-to-home example, Genesee Country Museum), docents or other guides at museums or zoos, or pre-assembled materials like the World Religion exploratory kits recently introduced at the MAG, teachers and students should be able to count on authentic give-and-take with experts.

Instruction is inquiry or problem based in order to engage students in higher order thinking
The knowledge give-and-take on a field trip experience can challenge students to higher order thinking and authentic learning. Bloom’s Taxonomy includes skills such as classify, solve, demonstrate, articulate, analyze, explain, illustrate, prioritize, speculate, validate, predict, assess, and justify in its highest levels of critical thinking. Authentic learning occurs when students have the opportunity for the hands-on, brains-on experience that requires them to tap into their own knowledge, the knowledge of others, and to synthesize it all in a problem-solving or exploratory inquiry.

Field trip site provides guidelines or materials for teachers
The teacher interaction with site experts may come in the form of preparatory materials for classroom use. Often these materials include various goals and objectives available from a site visit, pre- and post-visit materials that introduce or synthesize student experiences, and scaffolding questions and guidance for teachers to customize the experience for their students based on curriculum needs, local connections, and grade level.

Media or artifacts (online or objects) used to enhance the curriculum
More and more field trip sites are embracing the multi-modal learning experience, enhancing their actual and virtual field trips with a variety of sensory opportunities and interactions. These serve to engage students (and teachers!) on many levels, address different abilities, and make cross-curricular connections.

Teachers engage students in work to prepare for and debrief field trip –
to work towards deeper knowledge
As described above, many sites offer pre- and post-visit materials. Use of these materials to prepare students for their visit – ranging from simple “museum manners” to introductory “what we might see there” images to open-ended questions that address issues or aspects of the visit’s subject – can have highly beneficial effects on student learning. Docents at the MAG have consistently remarked on the differences between student tour groups that have participated in the pre-tour materials available for teachers, and those that have not. Prepared students arrive excited to see “familiar” objects, are able to readily describe and explain what they see using enhanced vocabulary, make more frequent connections to their school studies, and are more willing and able to engage the docent in analysis and inquiry, the give-and-take with experts that makes the experience more authentic for all.

Teachers collaborate with field trip site personnel to enhance student learning
While the site experts are indeed “experts,” the knowledge and experience of the classroom teacher is invaluable. An individual teacher’s class will undoubtedly benefit from the teacher’s work with and consultation with the site educators or other experts, but the benefit does not end there. All visitors, school and otherwise, reap the harvest of such collaboration.

Stoddard, J. (2009). Toward a virtual field trip model for the social studies. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 9(4), 412-438. Retrieved from

Critical and Creative Thinking - Bloom's Taxonomy. Accessed at

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