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E-Learning

A Virtual Ticket to Ride

Forget old-school field trips. The fastest way for educators to get students out and about is through online technologies.

When Traci Blazosky took her first-grade students out to study frogs last winter, they didn’t just take a short walk along the river. They traveled to five continents, studied several types of frogs in their natural habitats, and even listened as a frog and a toad “blabberized” to each other.

Yet they never stepped foot outside their classroom.

Blazosky, a teacher at Clarion Elementary School in northwestern Pennsylvania, is able to take advantage of the reach of digital technologies to guide her students on what have become known as virtual field trips, a less expensive and more diverse alternative to the traditional load-’em-on-the-bus-and-hope-we-find-a-specimen outings of old. Coordinating a laptop, online videos and software, and an interactive whiteboard, teachers such as Blazosky can escort their classes on far-flung adventures around the globe beyond the range of any school bus.

“My students can now see the world from our classroom,” says Blazosky. “Plus, it saves us the hassles and costs of insurance, permission slips, sack lunches, and chaperones.”

The fewer headaches are complemented by a lot more options. The variety of technology tools that make use of video, audio, interactive materials, web links, and videoconferencing allows teachers to act as travel guides, naturalists, curators, and historians.

Blazosky conducts three virtual field trips per semester, carefully constructing each one with a trio of web-based technologies working in concert: Google Earth, Discovery Education Streaming, and a new service called Glogster EDU, which is the educational branch of the social networking site Glogster. She creates the itinerary for a trip by placing a pushpin at each desired stop on Google Earth’s 3D image of the world. She then selects relevant videos from Discovery Education Streaming—or makes her own with the help of a green screen—and pulls interactive resources such as jigsaw puzzles and quizzes off the Discovery Education site or other web sources.

Blazosky embeds all these instructional elements into a customized Glogster page, or Glog, which essentially is an interactive poster that comes to life with a click on any of the features built into it. One Glog featuring generally five or six activities greets Blazosky’s students at every destination on their journey.

“When you click on a pushpin, a Glogster poster appears that holds all of those components for the tour,” she says.

A trip begins with the launch of the Google Earth file saved on Blazosky’s desktop, pulling up the globe and “flying” her students to their first stop—and their first Glogster page. The students watch all of this roll out before them while parked in front of Blazosky’s digital Smart Board with, as she says, “light luggage, first-class seating, and lots of leg room.”

The cross-continental frog excursion led first to South America for a look at red-eyed tree frogs. “Our trip started first thing in the morning,” she says. “I told my kids to pack their bags, and they all came to the front of the room and sat on little steps in front of the Smart Board. These were their ‘seats’ on the safari bus. From the start their imaginations were totally engaged.”

Next it was on to North America, and then Asia, Africa, and finally Australia to study the corroboree frog. A Glog would open up at each location, displaying cartoon-frog icons that acted as portals to the video and interactive features. At one point the students were entertained by the appearance of a frog and toad “blabberizing” to each other, as Blazosky incorporated a web-based tool into the presentation that made it appear as though the two amphibians were having a conversation—though the voices sounded suspiciously like her own. Occasionally, Blazosky would invite students to come up to the Smart Board’s touchscreen and open up one of the interactive activities.

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Several national directories list the names of videoconferencing program providers. One of the best known is the Indiana-based Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (cilc.org), which offers up more than 170 content providers.

“All of the students joined in and learned to work cooperatively,” she says, “so there was learning on a lot of levels.”

One advantage of a virtual field trip over the usual land-borne expedition is that it lets you get on and off the route as time allows. “We may start the field trip and travel to two places one day, and then come back the next day and travel from where we left off to the other two places,” Blazosky says.

Her ease with technology is well earned; she is nearing completion of Wilkes University’s online graduate program in instructional media. But that level of tech savvy is not a requirement for conducting engaging virtual field trips, according to Lance Rougeux, director of the Discovery Educator Network, an online community for Discovery Education resource users. Rougeux says that any combination of a web-connected computer, an LCD projector, and a simple projection screen can provide the same virtual travel experience Blazosky gets from her Smart Board.

“You just need a nine-pin cable to connect to the projector,” he says.

Some school systems, though, that want to heighten the learning potential of virtual field trips are incorporating the use of more sophisticated technology—namely, videoconferencing—to bring students into real-time contact with experts, peers, and compelling personalities and subjects worldwide. The Texas Education Service Center (ESC) Region XI devotes an entire slice of its educational technology division to “Content Enhancement Programs via Videoconferencing,” which is a more dignified way of saying virtual field trips. The use of videoconferencing has allowed the region’s students to go diving in Key Largo, converse with an Iditarod musher in Alaska, learn about polar bears, talk to people in an underwater hotel, and speak with their counterparts in a classroom in Pakistan.

Laurie Hogle, the coordinator for telecommunications and distance learning for ESC Region XI, which provides services to 77 public school districts and 35 charter schools in north central Texas, describes a videoconferencing outing for high school students that transports them into an operating room in a Chicago hospital. One of the agency’s videoconferencing content providers is Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, which partners with a local hospital to allow high school students to observe a live open-heart surgery.

“Our students are able to hear the surgeon explain his procedures as they watch him perform the surgery,” Hogle says, noting the presence of a nurse in the OR who facilitates the interaction. “If things get too intense and the surgeon needs to really be concentrating, she will answer questions or they’ll start discussing things with the anesthesiologist or the scrub nurse.”

Hogle says her organization works with several providers around the country that offer videoconferencing programming. The region also has its own network of in-state providers called Connect2Texas that joins students with participating Texas-based educational and cultural institutions, such as the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, and the National Cowgirl Museum. “They’re the ones that are actually delivering these virtual field trips,” Hogle says.

That’s one of the few times Hogle will be heard using the term virtual field trip. “We try not to, the reason being that ‘field trips’ kind of has that ‘Woo, free day!’ connotation. The idea behind this is that they are actually enhancing curriculum and tying into what students are learning.

“We really come at this from the instructional piece,” she says. “The technology is terrific, but what are you going to do with it? Our push is to find as much out there that can benefit our classroom teachers, improve student learning, and bring students things that they traditionally would not be able to do—short of getting on a bus and going somewhere. A traditional field trip takes at least half a day; virtual field trips can be done in 45 minutes. They can be integrated into a school day without losing a lot of instructional time. That’s the beauty of this technology.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of THE Journal.

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