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Take Your Online Students on the Best Field Trips


Did you look forward to field trips when you were in school? The chance to get outside of the classroom brought an often welcome break from the routine and access to a new learning environment. Virtual field trips can create similar reactions in an online classroom.

They’ve been around for a long time, at least in technology terms, but virtual field trips have also come a long way as an instructional strategy taking advantage of improved technologies and resources. And while options for younger learners are easy to find, college students can benefit from these kinds of excursions as well.

Existing options include a range of interactions, scenarios, and opportunities appropriate for individual learners and students working in groups. Basic field trips consist of a sequence of web-based materials sometimes set up in scavenger hunt format, while more advanced versions weave together resources and activities that encourage problem-solving and critical thinking.

Take a look at a few examples:

  • Keystone College in Pennsylvania invites you to virtually hike the Water Discovery Trail. Updated in 2011 with help from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, students travel through 18 stations (some with real-time monitoring) that provide ecological lessons with links to additional materials from local, state, and federal government agencies.
  • Colonial Williamsburg’s Electronic Field Trips combine web-based information with “live, interactive lessons” that allow students to ask questions of experts who present American history topics. Online activities and message boards are also available.
  • Learners engaging in the Smithsonian Institution’s Smithsonian Learning Quests earn digital badges for skills developed when they complete activities and explore interests ranging “from the art world to the zoo, from underwater to outer space.” Organizers boast “reach[ing] an audience of Kindergarteners to College Students and life-long learners.”

Note that some virtual field trip packages are free to access and use, while others require registration and/or charge a fee. Also consider that there are raw materials available online that allow you to create your own field trips, customized for your particular course, required timeframe, and learner characteristics. Google for Educators and Google Art Project are good examples, along with sites such as NOVA’s Explore Ancient Egypt and the American Museum of Natural History.

Consider the Journey and the Destination

The best field trips involve more than just visiting a website or collection of online resources. Boston University professor Jim Lengel identified key components of this strategy, which are best used “to teach a concept or topic that’s difficult to study in the classroom.” Use these criteria to evaluate existing content and as an initial guide for creating your own:

  • Purpose: The activities are related to learning objectives in the course and the goals of the assignment are clearly communicated to the learners before they begin.
  • Provocation: The assignment might include a problem-solving scenario and collaboration among participants. There are specific tasks to accomplish while taking the trip, and they are part of the overall assessment of the activity.
  • Path: The journey is guided to prevent students from getting lost along the way. Prompts and feedback help structure the activities and maintain learner focus.
  • Pre-requisites: There is some preparation involved in getting ready to go on the trip. Reading materials, a list of preparatory questions, and instructions that tie in other course assignments are all ways to help students to make the most of the experience, and again, understand it’s purpose.

If you plan to add a virtual field trip to your course, consider how it might improve learning outcomes and after implementing, get feedback from your students to find out how it worked from their perspective. As with any new instructional strategy or technology, tweaks may be in order to more closely match the needs of your subject matter and students.

Have you taken your online students on a trip lately? Share your recommendations with us here in the comments area.

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Image credit: psd, Flickr, CC:BY

November 12th, 2012 written by (learn more about our authors)

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