Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Do Virtual Field Trips Cheat Your Students?

Previous posts have mentioned available virtual tours and lists of links but not how specific schools are using them or the controversy involved. Ben Arnoldy reports in The Christan Science Monitor that as more and more schools see virtual field trips as options, educators are asking themselves if this is this a good thing for students or if it shortchanges them.

The state park system in California reaches almost 20,000 students every year through virtual field trips. Students at Marshall Middle School, for example, teleconferenced with a state park guide on the CA coast to see and learn more about elephant seals. The park system uses these virtual tours as a way to engage a new generation and increase visits to and investment in state parks.

A third grade class in Citrus Heights, CA, had a teleconference with a NASA educator when Pluto was deemed not a planet. Students can go places that were impossible before or with far more focus than is possible in a real field trip. "Take the kids to the zoo and they are all over the place. Take them the Bronx Zoo, virtually, and they can go behind the scenes and see the hairs in a buffalo's nose," says Ruth Blankenbaker, executive director of the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC), which helps organize virtual fields trips through its website.

The current growth in virtual field trips or virtual tours is fueled by costs. Gas is $4 or more a gallon across the country and the cost is a strain for school systems. According to Ryan Gray, who edits School Transportation News, about 40 states will have a deficit in their transportation budgets when the 2008-2009 school year starts. Other factors encouraging virtual field trips are the wider availability of broadband, an increase in virtual field trip options, and a reduction in costs for teleconferencing equipment. And with virtual field trips, far-flung visits like to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia become possible regardless of student family income or district wealth or poverty.

But there are objections to the use of virtual field trips. Some fear that the free or near-free virtual field trips will replace all field trips as schools face higher costs and reduced budgets. What students really need, according to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, is "the hands-dirty, feet-wet experience in nature." Some educators are being judicious and using teleconferencing and virtual field trips to prepare students for real-life field trips or to interact with experts in a controlled way before or after a real visit.

How have you used virtual tours or field trips this school year? How will you use them next year? Will you, like some teachers in the article, not reduce the number of real field trips at all and simply add virtual field trips as supplements? Or will you face a slashed budget and have fewer options other than virtual field trips? What about in poorer school districts -- how are virtual field trips being used?

SOURCE: "Now students take field trips online" 06/06/08
photo courtesy of elemenous, used under this Creative Commons license

No comments: