Leverage Virtual Field Trips to Engage Students in Authentic Learning Experiences

Grades K-12 25 min
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Explore how to leverage virtual field trips to engage students in authentic learning experiences.

Field trips have long been a tradition in education. They are an excellent way to engage students in real-world learning experiences that cannot be replicated in the traditional classroom setting. These real-world experiences provide a powerful and authentic way to help students make connections and find relevance in their learning.

We know that the greater their real-world experiences, the easier it is for students to make connections to new learning. This is essential to developing understanding. For example, it is easier to comprehend the concepts related to animal habitats and their physical characteristics when we have observed a wide range of animals in their replicated habitats, such as on a tour of the South American rainforest exhibits at the local zoo. We also know that relevance is key to engaging students in their new learning. When students find the learning interesting and worthwhile, they are more likely to stay engaged and motivated to persevere as they work to develop their understanding. When the learning experiences are from the real world, it is easier for students to see how their new learning relates to the world around them. Field trips can provide this relevancy. For example, when students visit a local medical engineering company, they can better appreciate how science, math, and the engineering design process positively impact people. They literally see it in action.

As important as these experiences are for learning, planning traditional field trips takes considerable effort. There is a lot of logistical planning in order to coordinate chaperones, permission slips, and bussing. There are also geographic and time constraints, which limit our opportunities. By the time our students arrive at school and we bus them to a field trip destination, they are left with a limited window to explore and discover before we need to return to school in time for them to catch their bus home. This investment of teacher time, bussing costs, and lost learning time due to travel usually means that students often only experience field trips on a very limited basis, if at all.

Fortunately, because of increased access to technology and the expansion of interactive resources online, the opportunities for students to experience field trips has become both more feasible and wide ranging. We can now more conveniently facilitate these experiences within our classrooms via virtual field trips. With virtual field trips, there are no geographic limitations, minimal teacher logistics, and decreased loss of student learning time due to travel, and many times, there is no cost. As a result of reducing these traditional field-trip barriers, we can now provide students with multiple opportunities to meaningfully experience the world around them. For example, in one day, students can tour NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, investigate the exhibits at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, explore the Pyramids of Giza, appreciate the art at the Louvre, take a live virtual tour of Amazon’s fulfilment center, and even travel back in time to Colonial Williamsburg. The opportunities for real-world experiences via virtual field trips are exciting and literally at our students’ fingertips!

Along with removing barriers, virtual field trips also offer additional benefits.

  • Equity: Virtual field trips can help mitigate the inequities that often result from economic limitations of families and schools who cannot provide students these otherwise valuable, but expensive, learning experiences.
  • Social and Emotional Learning: Because students can have multiple and varied experiences, they can gain greater and broader perspectives about the people, places, and things in the world around them. This broader perspective can help foster greater social and emotional learning skills, such as empathy.
  • Access: Students who have a passion for the topic can revisit most of these virtual field trips as often as they want and extend their learning beyond the time constraints of the classroom.
  • Differentiation: With traditional field trips, chaperones need to ensure that students don’t become lost, so they typically direct students through the exhibits in a group. With virtual field trips, it’s okay for students to lose themselves a bit as they navigate, wander, and explore the virtual experience. Students can be given more control over the pacing and path in their learning, which is very empowering, and thus, very motivating.
  • Career Exposure: During field trips, such as at the zoo or a medical company, students are also exposed to career opportunities that they may not otherwise have considered. These experiences may spark their interest and passion to continue learning in order to achieve newly identified career goals. The more exposure that students have to various career options, the better they will be at determining which career and postsecondary path is best suited for them.
  • Teacher Workload: Teachers can also regain valuable time and reduce workload. Rather than doing repeated headcounts and using precious time recruiting chaperones, we can better leverage our time to design learning experiences and support our students as they actively engage in their virtual field trips.

Identify Your Purpose

It’s important to be intentional in our planning for virtual field trips so that they are meaningful learning experiences. To ensure your field trip has purpose and value, you will need to first identify the learning objectives that are aligned to your standards and consider how a virtual field trip can support the intended outcomes. The virtual field trip could be used as a spark activity at the start of a new unit, it could be integrated within a unit to weave authentic experiences into the learning, or it could be used at the end of a unit as a culminating activity.

Locate Virtual Field Trips

The next step is to locate a field trip that aligns to your learning objectives. You can do a web search to locate a virtual field trip or use one of these curated lists that provide resources ranging from art to culture, history, science, zoos, national parks, and more.

  • While not designed as formal virtual field trips, the following resources can also provide your students with an immersive virtual learning experience:
  • Teachers are also crowdsourcing and sharing collections. For example, see this Virtual Field Trips Wakelet by Candy Tech Ideas.

Select Virtual Field Trips

When selecting a field trip, consider how interactive the experience is designed. Some field trips are designed for a more passive experience, while some are much more interactive. Just like with traditional field trips, the more interactive the experience, the more that students will engage.

Some virtual field trips are completely asynchronous, and others provide opportunities for live synchronous tours with a real tour guide. Having a live guide restricts you to specific dates and times when they are available, but it makes the experience more engaging and enriching when students have someone who can guide them and answer their questions. The asynchronous trips allow you complete flexibility, but you may need to build in opportunities that support students’ questions as they explore.

Prepare for the Virtual Field-Trip Experience

It is also important that you explore the “destination” ahead of time. As you explore, you will be able to identify and locate the key artifacts, resources, and experiences that you want to be sure the students investigate. Based on this exploration, you can then design activities to support student learning before, during, and after their virtual field trip.

You will also want to consider the technology requirements and test them to ensure that they work as expected within your classroom environment. For example, are any of the key links being filtered by district firewalls? And don’t forget to consider the time differences if it is a live event. You can use the Time Zone Converter from Time and Date AS to make sure that you know when the virtual field trip will occur in your area.

Design an Engaging Experience

Based on what the virtual field trip offers, you will need to design learning activities that help focus and engage your students during the experience. These activities should detail the learning outcomes and tasks. What specifically do you want students to observe and document to demonstrate their learning?

As you design the virtual field-trip experience, also consider how you can empower your students. The amount of voice and choice, as well as the degree of control over the pace and path of their experience, will be determined by the age of your students and their experience with virtual field trips. Offering some degree of student control can be empowering and motivating.

During their initial experiences, you will want to provide students with more guidance, structure, and scaffolding. However, as they gain experience, skills, and confidence, it will be important to release more of the responsibility and the control over to the students. You can empower them by letting them: generate the questions to be answered during their explorations; determine how they will explore, wander, and navigate the experience; select with whom they will partner during the journey; and decide how they will process and demonstrate what they learned. The more student-centered that you can make the experience, the more that they will be intrinsically motivated to engage in the learning.

Maintain a Growth Mindset

Maintaining a growth mindset is also key as you prepare. For your first experience with virtual field trips, keep it low stakes. Use it as an opportunity to experience and experiment in order to learn how it works. You can let students know that it’s the first time you are doing this. It is an excellent and authentic opportunity to model that we all learn by trying. Let them know that you prepared well and are hoping for the best, but that it’s okay if things don’t work out exactly as expected. It is good to remind them that new learning is sometimes messy and that you will try again based on what you learn from this first experience.

Before the virtual field trip, it’s important that students know the purpose and outcomes for the experience. They should know why they are visiting the destination selected.

Spark Their Interest

Rather than telling students what they should learn, you can generate excitement, pique their interest, and spark their curiosity by encouraging them to generate the questions that will drive their virtual field-trip exploration. The manner in which you spark your students’ curiosity will be driven by your learning objectives as well as by your own creativity and passion for your subject. Some common sparks include sharing a statement, quote, picture, video, comic, political cartoon, experiment, object, artifact, joke, music, map, primary document, or story.

New learning is built upon the connections we make to our previous knowledge or experiences, so the “spark” should also activate their prior knowledge as well as be something that is intriguing and thought provoking. The goal is to connect their virtual field-trip experience with their current knowledge and experiences as well what they are learning in class. For more details and ideas for how to spark student curiosity, see the AVID Open Access article, Spark Curiosity and Ask Questions for Inquiry Learning: Step 1 of the Searching for ANSWERS Inquiry Process.

Leverage the KWL Strategy

The highly effective KWL strategy is often used to help students close the gap between what they already know (K) and what they wonder or want to know (W). Learning (L) is what occurs as they gain understanding, knowledge, and skills while answering the questions related to their wonderings.

  • Know: You can first guide them through identifying what they already know (K) by using this Ask Questions template or Starburst Star from the ANSWERS Inquiry Process. These templates can help guide students through the process of activating their prior knowledge and connecting what they know to the upcoming virtual field trip.
  • Wonder or Want to know: In the process of identifying what they already know, students will be better able to recognize things that are not familiar. This gap of knowledge can spark their curiosity and lead to questions about what they wonder or want to know (W). The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) from the Right Question Institute is an excellent strategy to guide students in generating their own questions. In the process of identifying what they wonder, you will also get an idea of their current level of understanding and possible misconceptions they might have about the topic that you can address prior to their virtual field-trip experience.
  • Learned: Students can then use these questions as they investigate and search for answers during their virtual field trip. This process of finding answers that closes the gap between what they already know (K) and what they wonder or want to know (W) is what will help them develop their new learning (L).

Introduce New Vocabulary

Before the trip, it can also be helpful to introduce any new vocabulary or remind them to use digital tools such as Dictionary.com, Vocabulary.com, or Visuwords.com to help them define new words that they may encounter during their experience.

Provide an Overview or Orientation

Before their virtual field trip, you may also want to demonstrate and model for your students how to explore and navigate the experience. However, it’s important not to over-guide your students or over-direct their experience. If you do, they will then become more passive participants in the experience. It is far more motivating to release greater control of the experience to your students and empower them to explore, wander, and make their own discoveries.

The best way to engage your students is to encourage them to explore the destination to its fullest and to empower them as much as possible during the experience. Allow them to navigate, wander, and explore unguided as much as possible. Empower students by giving them some voice, choice, and control in their experience. As the teacher, your role should be to serve as the facilitator of their experience.

Strategies to Engage Students

It is essential to design the virtual field trip so that students are sure to experience the key resources and information. It is also important that they have a means in which to document their learning and the answers they discover. For example, you can design scavenger hunts and leverage a jigsaw approach to engage students during the field trip.

  • Scavenger Hunts: You can gamify the experience by having students earn badges as they locate and document key information, resources, or artifacts. They can take screenshots that serve as selfies in front of the artifacts to document their findings. They could then post these selfies in a collaborative slideshow, an LMS discussion, or a PicCollage.
  • Jigsaw: You can have students work in groups to divide and conquer the exploration. They can each be tasked with specific questions to find answers and document their findings using digital tools such as Flipgrid (Tips), Padlet (Tips), or an LMS discussion board. After finding the answers, they can then report back to their group to share their findings.

Strategies for Students to Process and Document Their Learning

As students explore the virtual field trip, they should both process and document the information that they are learning. The following digital tools can help them capture this documentation as well as process their new learning.

After the virtual field-trip experience, students should be expected to demonstrate what they learned from engaging in the experience as well as how they learned.

Demonstrate What They Learned

Students should create something that allows us to see what they learned. This evidence of learning can be used to share and celebrate their learning as well as to provide them feedback on their learning. It is also another opportunity for them to make connections between what they knew prior to the field trip and what they know now as a result of engaging in the experience. The following are some digital products and tools that students can use to demonstrate the learning that they gained from the virtual field-trip experience.

Reflect on How They Learned

It is also essential that students take time to reflect on how they learned. Taking time to do this reflection will help them develop their metacognition skills. The following questions, sentence stems, and digital tools can be used by students to support their reflections.

  • Reflection Questions
    • What did you discover that surprised you the most?
    • What new questions do you now have?
    • What strategies did you leverage that worked well for you?
    • How have your knowledge and skills grown?
    • What are your next steps to continue developing your skills and knowledge?
    • For more questions that are backward-looking, inward-looking, outward-looking, and forward-looking, see this list of 40 questions from teachers at High Tech High.
  • Reflection Stems
    • Something unexpected that I discovered was _____.
    • During this process, I have become better at _____.
    • The next time that I do something like this, I will be sure to _____.
    • I used to think _____. Now, I think _____.
  • Digital Tools and Strategies to Support Reflection

You may find that it works better to design your own virtual field trip in order to best align it to your learning objectives. You may also find that after students experience multiple virtual field trips, they are inspired and motivated to design their own virtual field trips or tours, as a way to demonstrate their learning.

You and your students can take the virtual field-trip experience up to the next level by designing your own virtual field trips using the digital strategies and tools below.

Virtual field trips are a powerful way to engage students in more authentic learning experiences. However, just like traditional field trips, virtual field trips should not be stand-alone experiences. Rather, they should be weaved into future learning. One way that we can accomplish this is to be intentional about continuously referencing back to the field trip experiences when relevant to other learning activities.

Ultimately, virtual field trips are a way to enrich students’ learning and provide them with access to experiences that they may not ever be able to have in person. In a sense, technology gives them a magic carpet to ride to not just anywhere in the world, but many places outside of it, too—like the Moon, Mars, the solar system, and into the stars beyond!

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