A volcano on the island of Mont-serrat is about to explode as a hurricane bears down on the small Caribbean nation. A group of fearless sixth graders is on the case, charged with determining what kind of damage may occur, which health measures to follow, and how to carry out evacuation plans.

It’s all in a day’s field trip for students in the Mt. Lebanon School District outside Pittsburgh. The middle schoolers’ adventure takes place without anyone leaving the building, using a videoconferencing system and the services of the Challenger Learning Center at Wheeling Jesuit University. In e-Mission: Operation Montserrat, a “mission commander” at the center interacts live with the students, relaying reports about lava flow and evacuee progress, showing video clips of ash clouds over the island, and sending seismic data and information about hurricane intensity to students’ laptops. They analyze the information, make predictions about risks, and suggest courses of action.

The virtual field trip takes earth science to an entirely new level. “Kids don’t find studying rocks exciting,” says Aileen Owens, instructional technology coordinator for the district. “That changes when you make learning come alive like this.”

These days, more schools are using videoconferencing to lead virtual field trips to traditional venues, such as museums and zoos, as well as to more exotic realms. A 2009 report suggests that about 30 percent of U.S. schools have adopted videoconferencing—up 5 percent since 2006.  

“We have to be on the cutting edge,” explains Jackie Shia, director at the Wheeling, West Virginia–based Challenger Learning Center. “Our students go home to Xboxes and iPods, and then we take them into a classroom and show them photocopies. How do those worlds connect? It’s got to be innovative and exciting because there is so much stimulation outside the classroom.”

Customized Curriculum
The beauty of virtual field trips is that they can be customized for your students and the educational goals you want to meet. For example, Owens wanted her students to work on their analytical and critical thinking skills while experiencing Operation Montserrat. In order to accomplish this, she assigned them the roles of journalists, requiring them to gather information from the other teams and synthesize it.

At one point, Owens wanted to add a team of students that would act as medical response and environmental quality specialists. She worked with a Challenger staff member to create the team, and then Challenger trained its mission commanders to support it. Now other schools can take advantage of this new component, too.
Other virtual field trip providers, such as the Cleveland Museum of Art, also work directly with teachers to customize trips. The museum invites teachers to request a tour specific to their needs. Dale Hilton, the museum’s director of distance learning, says one teacher wanted to create a lesson about artist Vik Muniz, who creates art out of food and other media. Students created self-portraits using food and condiments, which the teacher photographed and sent to the museum. The museum then incorporated the students’ work into a custom virtual field trip to help the students make connections between Muniz’s work and their own.

Virtual field trips also allow students to connect face to face with authors for a fraction of the cost of in-person visits. Teachers say that virtual visits deepen students’ understanding of what they are reading, and that the technology allows writers who might not otherwise go on a traditional book tour to reach readers across the country.

Global Connections
Another benefit of virtual field trips is the ability to travel around the world without a passport. St. Thomas the Apostle, a private school in West Hempstead, New York, worked with nonprofit organization Global Nomads Group to virtually bring its students to a classroom in Ghana. The American and Ghanaian students discussed both the election of the first U.S. African-American president and the African country’s first democratic election.

Videoconferences between partner schools give students from different cultures a chance to discuss common issues and events, including how they can work together to solve global problems. “The dialogue between children is invaluable,” says Christina Teisch, principal at St. Thomas. “Kids really learn from other kids.”

Janine Lim, instructional technology consultant at Berrien RESA, an education service agency in Berrien County, Michigan, agrees it’s valuable to foster such connections. She’s written videoconference programs to address earth science curriculum goals, including one about carbon emissions that has been the template for interactions between students in Michigan and the U.K.

“I think the big question is whether [these events] help students understand content better. Another gauge of success is if the kids keep talking about it,” says Lim. “Our students did it this year and last year, and both times they talked about it the rest of the school year.”   

Making It Work
While some schools use videoconferencing systems from Tandberg or Sony that can run thousands of dollars per system, others are taking advantage of free Web 2.0 tools that can help burst classroom doors wide open.

Guy Lodico, director of technology for the Plainview–Old Bethpage Central School District in New York, has moved the K–12 schools he serves away from expensive videoconferencing units. These days, the kids take virtual field trips using the free Skype videoconferencing service and $100 Logitech webcams optimized for high-quality video calls. There are some compromises, such as a fixed lens on the webcam that doesn’t allow for zooming in and out, but that isn’t a big issue, according to Lodico. A computer connects to a ceiling-mounted projector that displays the videoconferencing presenter and program on an interactive whiteboard.

Lodico says the Challenger Learning Center supported his efforts to have Operation Montserrat—a very complex program—delivered over Skype, and he’d like to see other virtual field trip providers start to do the same. Because this use of Skype isn’t widespread yet, some districts are hesitant to embrace virtual field trips. But “the quality is there,” Lodico contends, “and I see this as really serving the educational needs of school districts across the country, including rural and socioeconomically challenged districts that can’t afford videoconferencing equipment.”

More than that, Lodico sees using Skype as the best way to truly integrate virtual field trips as a core part of the curriculum. Some schools have mobile carts to move videoconferencing equipment around the building, but that still means teachers have to request system access in advance. Also, if there’s only one system in the school, there can be conflicts when two teachers want to engage in different conferences at the same time on the same day.

In other schools, conferences take place only in a dedicated room such as a media center. Such setups make videoconferencing a special event, whereas “Skype make it ubiquitous in the school district,” says Lodico. Skype reduces configuration costs and time, he adds, and teachers with low-cost webcams in their own classrooms can set up a videoconference activity in just minutes.

A Level Playing Field
Whatever approach schools take to videoconferencing, they seem to agree that achievement goes up when virtual field trips are well-integrated, based on educational standards, and tied tightly to the curriculum. Equally important, a good event truly seems to leave no child behind. “I’ve learned at each videoconference that every child is attentive, engaged, and absorbed in what’s happening,” says Teisch. “The most challenged learner, with the most severe special educational needs, is not gazing out the window, but participating. So that is definitely helping their learning.”

Challenger’s Jackie Shia recounts the story of a teacher who told her that Operation Montserrat opened her eyes to the fact that her method of teaching wasn’t reaching one of her students. He had been failing everything in school but was now excelling in his role as a virtual communications officer. Says Shia, “I love that this levels the playing field. Students who don’t excel in a traditional classroom come to life in this Operation Montserrat mission.”