In a virtual world, there are few places you can’t go. That became clear at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic when students in schools across the world entered virtual classrooms from the comfort of home. 

And just as easily as students log into their virtual classrooms, they can also venture into new and exciting environments and biomes. They can visit other countries to study new languages and cultures. Browse exhibits at museums and art galleries. Travel through time to experience history through new eyes. And even talk directly to scientists, athletes, artists and experts face-to-face. All without stepping foot outside of the classroom.

These are the experiences made possible by virtual field trips. 

Getting Hands-on with Virtual Field Trips

In-person field trips set a high standard when it comes to first-hand observation and hands-on learning.

They take students outside the classroom to experience new things and interact with subject matter that isn’t traditionally available in a classroom setting. They make possible interactions with new people, visits to new places and experiments with new things. 

Field trips are a staple learning activity, particularly in disciplines that benefit from immersion or in-person engagement – think biology, geography, language, history and environmental science, for example. 

But with a plethora of virtual field trip options available to educators today, they provide a more convenient and accessible approach. For example:

  • Rather than visiting a museum, students take a virtual 3D tour led by a professional guide. They can ask questions in real time, linger at exhibits that spark their interest and go back and visit at a later time if they want to jog their memory.
  • Rather than taking a walking tour of a community or neighborhood, students might use aerial drone footage to explore. They can get closer to the action with on-the-ground, 360-degree photography and sound recordings. Explanation or interview videos at certain stops can help build context and reinforce what students see and hear around them.
  • Rather than visiting a laboratory for a live demonstration in the field, students might connect via livestream with a scientist who gives them a lab tour and walks them through an examination of samples provided to the classroom.

Virtual field trips also introduce students to real people in real discussions and real contexts. Mentors, community members and experts can share their experience and expertise via videoconference – making it perhaps one of the simplest ways students can connect and learn directly from those who have “been there and done that.”

How and when to use virtual field trips?

Virtual field trips are effective as stand-alone activities. But they can also be used as part of a greater educational whole:

  • Exploration before the lesson: Students can visit a location virtually and familiarize themselves with key points of interest, for example
  • Immersion during the lesson: Students can apply new concepts and skills to activities planned during the virtual field trip
  • Reflection after the lesson: Students can revisit the trip to gather more information or reinforce learning that happened earlier

In addition to the virtual field trip itself, teachers can provide maps, worksheets, videos, quizzes and online activities to help reinforce and measure student learning.

Some teachers and schools prefer to build virtual field trips on their own, seeking out experts and finding resources that fit with their curriculum and standards. Some prefer to use pre-built ones designed to take the organizational work off of teachers. Many museums, aquariums, zoos, parks, galleries and more offer their own virtual tours. Meanwhile, platforms like virtualfieldtrips.org are purpose-built for hosting these kinds of activities.

The Rise of the Virtual Field Trip

Virtual field trips started gaining notoriety as a growing phenomenon in the late aughts

Back then, they were lauded for their ability to take students to places they couldn’t otherwise go – think rainforest tours, Galapagos explorations and northern expeditions. Students could learn about space directly from NASA specialists or go behind the scenes at an orchestra.

COVID-19 pushed their popularity further. As classrooms were forced to move online, teachers with field trips already booked had to cancel last minute. They sought alternatives that fit within academic (and pandemic) guidelines. Field trip venues and destinations had to quickly adjust to new and unexpected restrictions, as well.

As we move toward a new normal, we don’t expect that momentum to stop anytime soon. With more kinds of technology entering the educational space, virtual field trips are well positioned to serve a generation of students who are engaged with (and by) technology from day one.

Why They’re Here to Stay

From a teacher or administrator perspective, virtual field trips have proven their appeal:

  • Ease of organization: The administrative burden is much lower for virtual field trips in comparison with in-person ones. Fewer size limitations. No permission slips, no buses, no parent chaperones.
  • Lower costs: In general, virtual field trips cost less than in-person ones. Instead, they rely on resources that are already readily available in most classrooms.
  • Student safety: There’s little to no risk of students getting lost or injured. There are no additional environmental hazards and you likely won’t need any special equipment to keep students safe.
  • Repeatability: Though there is some upfront work required for virtual field trips (especially if you create your own), they are easy to update for next year’s lesson plan and curriculum.

Virtual field trips offer possibilities their in-person counterparts simply cannot: 

  • Opportunity: Virtual field trips aren’t limited to where and when students can easily travel. In fact, classes can take students to places that would otherwise be impractical or impossible. They can connect with people from around the world in real-time, experience a historical moment as it might have happened or “handle” artifacts that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them.
  • Pacing: Many virtual field trips allow students to explore an environment at their own pace. Students may revisit a location after the lesson to answer additional questions, reinforce learning they’ve forgotten or dive deeper into a point of interest.
  • Accessibility: While there are still barriers to virtual field trips, they carry fewer accessibility concerns compared to exploring a physical environment in person. Because they are often media-rich experiences, virtual field trips encourage student learning through many means. They may include real-time conversation, video, and interactive activities. This is particularly helpful for neurodivergent students, and students who prefer to learn visually or experientially. 

Like any learning activity, it’s important to consider how a virtual field trip fits into your curriculum. What standards does it support? What should the learning outcomes look like or how is it integrated with the day’s lesson plan? But with their low barriers to entry and the range of possibilities they offer both students and their schools, they’re primed to become an integral (and much-loved) part of a robust virtual or hybrid learning strategy!

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