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Gas prices fuel rise in virtual field trips

As soaring costs make traditional travel impossible for many schools, educators are turning to the internet

By Laura Devaney, Senior Editor, eSchool News
July 14, 2008

As schools grapple with budget cuts and rising fuel costs, many districts are finding it necessary to reduce or eliminate field trips, leaving students and teachers with a surprisingly attractive option--virtual field trips.

Virtual field trips typically involve students using video conferencing software or using a simple web browser to visit an online destination, such as the web site of a national museum, that offers virtual tours through the facility and up-close, three-dimensional views of geological formations, art work, and so on. They are different from webquests, which tend to be inquiry-based activities in which students use the internet to answer a set of questions.

Some virtual field trips are conducted through video or web conferencing, while others are available on individual computers by clicking a link on an organization's web site.

Many district web sites already have pages dedicated to virtual field trips, including tips and hints to help teachers get started.

Speaking with school IT staff also could help teachers learn what equipment or solution, if any, they might need to bring their class on virtual field trips. Many classrooms just need a high-speed internet connection and video conferencing capability. 

Students enrolled in the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) have the opportunity to participate in numerous virtual field trips, said Cindy Knoblauch, an FLVS Teacher of the Year nominee and the newly appointed student activities coordinator. Students are able to take a virtual field trip on their own or in groups, using a computer and browser or a web conferencing tool (FLVS uses Elluminate) that allows students to be on separate computers but still be tied together.

One of the school's science courses includes a virtual trip to the Grand Canyon. FLVS also hosted a virtual week-long Shakespeare festival that included a virtual field trip to the Globe Theatre.

"The kids used Google Earth, and they really had the feeling that they were going to that place," Knoblauch said.

Virtual field trips also help students experience guest speakers who otherwise would not have been able to speak to their classes. For instance, FLVS connected with a classroom in England. The English students all had web cameras, and FLVS students were able to see and "meet" the class. One of England's members of Parliament visited and spoke with the class that day, and FLVS students had the chance to "meet her as face-to-face as you can be," Knoblauch said.

As is common with physical field trips, often one class will have the opportunity to visit a place while the majority of the school remains in the classroom. FLVS students took a physical field trip to a zoo, but filmed video and streamed it back to students who weren't able to go, so they still had the chance to see the animals up close.

Virtual field trips offer budget-friendly opportunities not only for schools, but also for students whose families might not be able to afford the sometimes costly expense associated with physical field trips.

"Obviously, there's a budget, and kids who can't go somewhere, [but] we can go worldwide [online]," Knoblauch said. "Some of these kids will never leave the town they live in, but they can go to England. It widens the field."

There are many groups dedicated to offering opportunities for virtual field trips and to helping educators get started if they are considering a virtual field trip.

"Virtual field trips offer inspiring ways for students to engage with the world outside their immediate surroundings," said Ruth Blankenbaker, executive director of the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC), which organizes virtual field trips offered by institutions such as the Bronx Zoo. "Geographic boundaries disappear, and the world becomes their classroom." 

Blankenbaker said she has noticed a 55-percent increase in site usage during the most recent school year as compared with the same period last year.

"We are frequently told that with budget cuts, virtual field trips are the only way schools are able to sustain their ability to provide field trip experiences," she said. By participating in virtual field trips, Blankenbaker said, educators also have discovered they are able to go more places than they are with "land-based" experiences.

Besides CILC's opportunities, educators also can explore virtual trips offered on institution-specific web sites.

Well-known museums, such as the Smithsonian Institution, the Louvre, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, offer virtual field trips. National and state parks departments are good starting points as well.

The National Zoo, which belongs to the Smithsonian Institution, offers virtual tours of the zoo, including up-close views of zoo animals via a live webcam.

The U.S. Department of the Interior's National Park Service offers many virtual field trips to well-known locations such as Death Valley National Park (Calif.), Grand Canyon National Park (Ariz.), and Alaska's Sitka National Historical Park.

California's K-12 High-Speed Network, combined with two-way interactive video conferencing, gives California students the chance to learn about state parks through the Department of Parks and Recreation's State Parks unit. These video conferences are part of the Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students (PORTS) program administered by California State Parks. PORTS seeks to help bridge California's educational achievement gap by bringing the resources of California State Parks to students throughout the state. For many schools across the state, virtual field trips to historic sites or wilderness and natural areas can provide what otherwise would be impossible in an expensive field trip.

Through video conferencing, the program brings park rangers and public officials from locations in the California State Park system right into classrooms anywhere in the state. Programs are presented from the middle of an isolated desert park, tide pools at a state beach, the State Capitol Museum, and even from the middle of a breeding colony of elephant seals. All programs are carried over California's K-12 High-Speed Network.  The programs reached about 700 classrooms last year and are free, provided schools have the correct equipment.

Educators might want to turn to a company such as Tramline, which offers TourMaker, a tool to create virtual field trips. A single software license is $25, and district-wide licensing information is available online.

Kim Foley, Tramline's owner and co-founder, said she thinks interest in the software might increase now that gas prices have topped $4 per gallon.

"Another wonderful feature of virtual field trips for educators is that they can be shared with other educators," Foley said. "Most of us have the experience of disappearing into a time warp as we've searched for information on a given topic. If teachers find an existing, high-quality virtual field trip on a topic they want to teach, it can save them hours . . . they can then use for some other task."

Tramline's field trips are accessible to students at any time once the trips are posted on the web. Like CILC's field trips, Tramline's field trips are correlated to a detailed list of national standards and skills.

Of course, some educators contend virtual field trips are not as enjoyable or educational as physical field trips. A virtual trip robs a student of that traditional experience, they say.

"I've been hearing that for more than 10 years now, but I don't really see it as an argument--virtual field trips do not replace on-site field trips, they just provide another option," Foley said. "If one cannot go on a real trip [owing] to costs, liability, or other reasons, then why not explore virtually?"

Virtual trips also give educators great opportunities to let classes explore places that aren't practical to visit in person, she added.

"Most of us cannot presently travel into space, but we can learn much about it via a virtual field trip. There are so many places we cannot conveniently travel to for so many reasons, and then there are places that are not practical to visit, such as volcanoes," Foley said.

"While no one would argue that a physical field trip isn't fun and to some degree educational, an argument can be made that the virtual field trip offers distinct advantages over land-based trips," added Blankenbaker. 

"Virtual field trips on the CILC web site are tied directly to academic standards, and the providers are professionals with great experience and know-how in engaging students in their programs. Teachers have a built-in assurance that a virtual field trip is directly tied to precise learning objectives. This is much harder to achieve in a physical field trip. So I would argue that a virtual field trip is a laser beam directed toward learning, and a physical field trip is a shotgun approach that is fun but in some ways less beneficial in terms of what is truly learned."

One major issue teachers often deal with on field trips is behavior problems, and having students in the classroom prevents one child from spoiling it for the group, said Knoblauch.  Parents also can experience a virtual field trip with their child, whereas with a physical field trip, only a few parent chaperones are able to accompany a child's class.

"For example, if you want to visit your state's capital, you're limited with time, how much you can walk, and so on, but with a virtual trip you can cover the entire capital ... it's more diverse and more time-effective. Lots of kids will tell you they had so much more fun on a virtual trip," Knoblauch said.

Regardless of the relative merits of real and virtual field trips, most everyone agrees that rising fuel costs and shrinking school budgets should not affect students' opportunities to learn about new places and visit, in whatever manner, different places.

"In many ways, rising fuel prices and budget cuts have opened doors to learning [that educators] might not have otherwise considered, and students' lives are all the richer for the virtual visits they are now experiencing," Blankenbaker said. End of article.

For additional information regarding distance learning, video conferencing and audio visual integration call 1-800-224-7083, or click here to have an IVCi Representative contact you.

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