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Why Use Virtual Field Trips?

by Dr. Scott Mandel

The students entered the computer lab and immediately moved into their cooperative learning groups. Their topic of study involved an investigation of how people adapt to various climates and topography in their quest to create adequate living conditions. Within this particular cooperative learning lesson, the students' immediate task was to determine the types of clothing and equipment necessary to bring with them for a hypothetical trip to various spots around the globe. The problem that they faced was that they were required to make their decisions based only on the climate and topography of that particular location. The source of their material was to be a virtual field trip experience on the Internet. The information and material they subsequently acquired would be synthesized into their overall study of human adaptability.

Prior to the session, the teacher had created a virtual field trip Web site for his students, uploaded onto the school computer network. The site included links to previously selected Internet addresses of locations which visually exemplified the material he wished his students to experience.

Each two-student team logged onto the assignment-created Web site which appeared as a weather map of the world. Various sites were designated as places for the students to click on and "visit." However, each predetermined "location" on the map was linked to a Web site approximating the conditions one would find at that particular location. The groups subsequently determined the various areas to visit, based on their personal choices. They each had a "topic sheet" of subject areas and concepts for which to search and answer, which would then form the basis of a later classroom discussion. Some of the experiences related by the various groups included:

  • One group clicked on the Bahamas and were met by a hurricane, thanks to the Web site on a typical northern hemisphere hurricane. At this site, they were able to discover meteorological steps involved in the development of hurricanes, see pictures of hurricanes in action, learn about the long recorded history of hurricanes, and investigate other variations of serious weather conditions, such as tornadoes and thunderstorms.
  • Another group visited one of the islands in the Pacific rim, where they were faced with an active volcano as portrayed at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. This site presented the students with pictures of various currently active volcanoes and the destruction they wrought especially from lava and earthquakes. The site also included a section describing how volcanoes work and the general hazards posed by volcanoes to cultures that live in their vicinity.
  • A third group faced the harshness of one of the world's numerous deserts through the Web site Bright Edges of the World: The Earth's Evolving Drylands. The site described in both text and pictures the status of various arid regions around the world, the animal and plant life that the region supports, and the fate today of that particular area due to human encroachment.
  • A different group investigated the unusual living conditions within the rain forests of Brazil using the Web site Amazon Adventure. At this location, the students were able to study the various aspects of life in the heart of the rain forest, both human and animal. This particular site also allowed the students to take on the roles of explorers as they learned about life within that environment.

At the end of this Internet session, all of the students reported that they had a significantly better understanding of the adaptability of different peoples to their environment. Much of this new perception was a direct result of their miscellaneous experiences on this virtual field trip of climates and topography around the world.


In today's cyberage, the Internet can extend the educational value of field trips to levels previously unimaginable. Virtual field trips—field trips taken online—can take a student to locations too far away to travel to or too expensive to visit. Virtual field trips can take a student back in time, into outer space, or into the microscopic world.

A virtual field trip, if done correctly and in an educationally sound fashion, can provide many of the identical cognitive and affective gains that an actual real-life field trip can provide. (See Buettner, 1996, and Goldsworthy, 1997, for accounts of how students incorporated the Internet into their classroom field trip experiences.) The trick is to give the activity the same care and credibility as one would give to a real-life curricular excursion. Simply going to an interesting Web site would not constitute a curricular field trip in and of itself, just as an off-campus excursion to an amusement park would have limited curricular value (although there have been teachers who have attempted to justify a trip to an amusement park as a study of the gravitational forces exerted on the human body through the experience of a roller coaster ride).

If a virtual field trip is conducted in the same meticulous fashion as a real-life field trip, students should be able to acquire the same cognitive and affective gains that previous research has found. When this is possible, an entirely new world of experiences will be opened to all students regardless of the school field trip budget, as they can all experience firsthand the potential of the Internet as a valid curricular device.


The entire concept of the virtual field trip is a relatively new one. Unfortunately, not many of these online excursions currently exist on the Internet, and those that do exist are often filled with more "glitz" than with substance. Still, a growing number of sites are currently online, many of which can be incorporated into the curriculum in some fashion. Most of these "packaged" virtual field trips are sites which are already constructed and available online "as is" without personal curricular adaptations. Packaged field trips generally fall into three basic categories:

  • COMMERCIAL SITES—These are sites that present a virtual experience in the hopes of either eventually selling the reader something, having the reader visit other commercial links connected to the site (where the products can subsequently be sold), or getting the reader to physically visit the location promoted. An example of this type of site would be the many virtual excursions to Hawaii.
  • INFORMATIONAL SITES—These are sites usually prepared and maintained by organizations promoting a specific cause. These sites serve as a way for the organizations to present their particular point of view to the public, and to educate those who visit the sites. An example of this type of site would be the virtual excursions to a rain forest or to other various animal habitats.
  • EDUCATIONAL SITES—These are sites constructed by students or teachers as a classroom or personal project. They cover a wide variety of topics. Although the quality of this type of site varies, the "hidden curriculum" on these sites is significantly more limited than that in the two categories above. Unfortunately, one significant drawback to these sites is that their longevity on the Internet is often limited. A quality site which a teacher discovered one day may be gone the next due to the completion of that particular Webmaster's class project. An example of this type of educational site might be an excursion inside a frog's body or to a particular time period or historical event.

All of these packaged sites can be readily used with students—even the commercial sites—if their material can be logically integrated into the curriculum. The benefit of using these sites is that a tremendous amount of the legwork has already been completed, and the online material is often of an excellent visual quality. The negative aspect of using these sites is that they frequently do not easily fit into the classroom curricula. The sites either cover material that the teacher does not want to cover, or more often, neglect to address the areas that the teacher wishes the students to experience on a virtual excursion. Unfortunately, in light of the limitations of packaged field trips today, the only way for the teacher to adequately cover all of the material that she wishes to cover on a virtual field trip is through the use of a "personalized" field trip.

In contrast to the packaged field trips, a personalized field trip is one which is developed by the classroom teacher through a variety of online sources, and which directly addresses the curricular goals of the classroom. It is an educationally sound electronic experience that is fully integrated within the curriculum.

The choice between using a packaged or a personalized field trip is similar to the choices made in the planning of a real-life excursion. For instance, if students go to a museum and are required to take a predetermined tour supplied by that museum, with no alterations or changes based on their classroom curriculum, that would be considered a real-life packaged field trip. However, if the teacher talks to the museum personnel and has the tour tailored to meet the specific curricular goals of the class, that is a personalized field trip.

Sometimes the packaged field trip—either in real-life or online—addresses the goals of the teacher quite adequately. More often it does not. However, by definition, the personalized field trip will always address the curricular goals, since it is designed by the person in constant connection with the goals and standards of the curricula—the classroom teacher.


Before the teacher embarks on this type of project, it would be beneficial to visit some virtual trips that currently exist on the Internet.

Once teachers are familiar with the types of materials that are incorporated into virtual field trip sites, they can start to develop their own personalized virtual field trips. And that is when the fun really begins.