The Virtual Field Trip: An Experience Equalizer

Teachers! Try this out: Think of a dream field trip for your students- a place out in the world where they would learn so much more about what you teach in the classroom, and the experience itself would enrich their lives for years to come.

Now- Have you taken them there yet?

If you’re a public school teacher, you probably just said no. Let me ask you this: Why not?

If you just said “not enough money” or “not enough time,” read on!  I may be able to help! If you’re a teacher who gets to take your students wherever you want, whenever you want, run for office.  We need you in government.

A condensed case for field trips

The field trip is one of those disappearing traditions of public education that we really should do more to hang onto.  They’re great endeavors, but in an era of high stakes testing and budget cuts, it just makes sense to avoid time consuming, expensive diversions that are all too often under-planned, and therefore costly to a child’s education.

Adventure_Science_MuseumWhat gets lost in the shuffle is that research shows us field trip experiences are especially valuable in changing the futures of disadvantaged students and children in poverty. They only know the world between their home and the school. If not for the efforts of proactive teachers, they will likely never gain valuable worldly experience that broadens their horizons.  As Jose Vilson says in a great recent article, “educators have to work to the best of their abilities because we are what’s left of the social safety net.” It’s up to us to provide the glimpse into other realities for our students- to expand their awareness, to show them what’s out there, to unveil possible futures for themselves they never considered.

Lucky for us, we live in the 21st century.  If you teach students affected by poverty, you have at your fingertips tools that could radically level the playing field for them, for the rest of their lives.  Technology might actually be how we can change things. If you can’t get the kids out into the world, plan specific fun day “virtual field trips,” in which you bring the world to them.

Some virtual trips are obvious and easy to understand: You can “go” to The LouvreThe National Museum of Natural History, and several other museums.  Others you may have to use your creativity to build- Are you studying “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and want the kids to see where Poe grew up? Maybe you could search for images and build your own tour of his home. Say you’re a math teacher teaching geometry.  Maybe you could take a bridge walk to see how engineers use shapes to support weight in real life.  Want to turn world geography into an interactive game? GeoGuessr has already done it for you, through the magic of Google Earth. 

A few months ago, a YouTube video came out in which you can travel across the solar system at the speed of light, starting at the Sun.

It takes 45 minutes to get from the Sun to Jupiter.  How cool would it be to teach a normal astronomy lesson, focusing on the size and features of the Solar System, but to pretend the entire time that we’re astronauts in a space ship, and that the video playing on the board is really the rear window of our ship?  We could have discussions about how fast light speed is (186,000 miles per second) or what other objects are in the solar system, and we could take momentary breaks from our discussions at 3 minutes, and 5 minutes, and 8 minutes, and so on to watch as we pass by planets we know. Now, that’s one field trip we can only take virtually. I just have to rewire my brain to look for these opportunities.

In many ways, virtual field trips will never replace the value of real ones, and we shouldn’t abandon the fight to keep those. In the mean time, though, here is a little bit of help as to how to get started with a virtual field trip of your own.

1. Plan your “trip” around your learning objectives.

This might sound like common sense, but all too often, field trips are treated as self-explanatory learning opportunities.  A trip to the zoo makes perfect sense, because how can the students not learn something as they’re running around looking at animals? If this were always true, then field trips would be as educational as classroom days, and with enough field trips, kids wouldn’t need teachers. We can do better.  Virtual field trips give you the opportunity to design a high quality learning experience that aligns with the objectives you’re already teaching.

2. Be the guide, not the presenter.

StudentsExploreWe teachers loooove explaining things. When kids stare at a challenging photograph or diagram on the board, nothing pleases us more than to heroically end the confusion by explaining to them what they’re looking at.  With virtual field trips, we can’t do that. Remember- it’s about providing the students with as much of an authentic experience as possible. We don’t want to let it be just another lecture or Powerpoint presentation.  It’s gotta be an event!  Take a deep breath and let it be personal to them.  Let them have conversations about what they’re seeing, hearing, and feeling. Let them struggle to understand.  Offer guidance when they need it, but not force-feeding.

3. Train your students to learn through inquiry.

Before taking your students on their virtual field trip, give them mini lessons in how to think critically with visual and auditory media. If you’re taking a virtual trip to Washington, D.C., and you want the kids to discuss the significance of the Lincoln Memorial, give them practice beforehand with photos of other statues or monuments.  One of my favorite ways to train students in natural, everyday inquiry is the “See, Think, Wonder” method.  In short, you ask students what they SEE, then what they THINK about it, and finally, what that makes them WONDER.  The beauty of “See, Think, Wonder” is that it’s recursive- you can keep doing it in a loop, finding deeper and deeper meaning in what was once barely considered by the students.


Once they’re familiar with a method like this, you can ask them open ended questions that lead to deeper thinking, during your virtual field trip.

4. Be deliberate about the “cultural learning” part.

Sure, you have to tout the content mastery that your field trip is helping with, but don’t shy away from the fact that you are exposing your students to different perspectives, expanding their respect for other cultures.  That’s Common Core, baby!  According to the CCSS, “students who are college and career ready in Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening, & Language…come to understand other perspectives and cultures …students can vicariously inhabit worlds and have experiences much different than their own.” Slap that right on the lesson plan, because by organizing this experience, not only are you doing what’s best for them, you’re doing your job.  (Sometimes in education these days, we only do one or the other.  😉 )

5. Buy, Borrow, or Build.

ipad-3-schoolThere are several ways to take a virtual field trip.  If you have the money, there are companies out there with packaged trips ready for you to buy. There are also sites where teachers share trips that they put together, for free. Just hit up Google and start looking for trips that fit what you’re teaching. If you want to build your own, you could just start looking for pictures, videos, and other media that fit what you’re trying to do.  The main thing is to not be intimidated.  There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to do it.  Each attempt will make you better at it, and each attempt will improve the educational experience of your kids.  The main thing is to think BIG, and plan an experience to match your vision. So what are you waiting for?  Get out there! (Virtually!)

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