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Take a Field Trip Without Leaving the Classroom: Museums, Zoos, and Interactive Videoconferencing [Available Full-Text, Free]

By Stacy Hasselbacher - Posted Jul 1, 2007
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Today, students at Alta Vista elementary school in Sarasota, Fla., are sitting in their classroom and controlling an ROV camera in a shark tank at Mote Marine Laboratory across town. Students in New York are interviewing a Pearl Harbor survivor at the Arizona Memorial Museum in Hawaii. Students in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Alaska are taking part in the 400th anniversary celebration of Jamestown, Va., by connecting to The Mariners’ Museum, which sits on the James River just a few miles from this historic site. How is this possible? As it turns out, all you need is a good Internet connection and videoconferencing equipment.

There are several forms of distance learning programs available. These can be as simple as educational Web sites or as complicated as the satellite electronic field trips provided by organizations such as Colonial Williamsburg. Here, we’ll take a look specifically at distance learning through interactive videoconferencing.

Educational videoconferencing has come a long way over the years. It started out very slowly, and, in recent years, there has been a burst of interest on the part of museums and zoos in providing their educational programs via this medium. As schools find it more difficult and more expensive to take their students on physical field trips, students are missing out on the phenomenal resources that these cultural institutions have to offer. When gas prices began to rise, local museums found that even schools in the neighborhood were unwilling to spend their precious fuel budgets bussing students off-site. Those in the museum community chose to take this as a sign that they should begin to promote their distance learning efforts.

Equipment—High and Low End

But what does all of this cost? The answer is that it depends on the equipment used. There is high-end equipment, produced by companies such as Polycom, that can perform all sorts of fancy tricks and cost upward of $10,000. However, the same connection is available on a PC with the purchase of a Webcam and a software package such as Polycom PVX, which costs about $150. On a Mac, an iSight camera and a free software download, XMeeting, can be used for the same purpose. The picture/image is not as clear, but it is affordable and it works. Compare this to the price of the average field trip, and you can begin to see the equipment paying for itself.

Interactive videoconferencing also keeps the students in the classroom for as much time as possible while still enjoying the resources of museums. With government-mandated standards of learning as tightly fixed as they are, teachers are finding it difficult to justify trips away from the classroom. These virtual field trips save you the time spent on a bus and focus the time "away" from the classroom on a program that, very likely, will enhance the students’ understanding of a topic that you have covered in class.

State Standards—A ‘Must Match’ for Videoconference Content

Content providers are acutely aware of the need to align their educational programming to learning standards. My institution, The Mariners’ Museum, in Newport News, Va., has approached program development in this way: Where our museum’s mission and the learning standards intersect, we develop a program. But how much could a maritime museum possibly have to do with the national learning standards? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Our collections include artifacts from the great age of exploration, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the native people of Virginia, and, most recently, the USS Monitor, the famous Civil War ironclad. You may not think of maritime history as being a standard of learning, but almost every state has standards about explorers, slavery, regional natives of America, and the Civil War. We use our artifacts and archives to vividly illustrate these stories—in ways that schools often cannot. Other museums and cultural institutions have done much the same as we have, bringing their programs into line with learning standards.

Locating and Pricing Content

So, where can educators find all this great content? There are several online resources that include searchable lists of content providers. By far the most comprehensive of these is the Web site of the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC). The CILC provides not only listings of programs but details about the program formats, the national and state standards to which the program conforms, and access to the evaluations written by other educators. The CILC also guides schools and content providers that are new to educational videoconferencing.

What do these virtual field trips cost? Well, like the equipment involved, there is quite a range of pricing for content. Many content providers, particularly those run by government agencies, offer their content free of charge. The Smithsonian, NASA, and the USS Arizona Memorial are a few examples of free content providers. The range of costs for programs is fairly large. There are highly recommended programs that cost as little as $50 for an hour-long session, while some virtual author visits can cost as much as $600 per session. Spend enough time searching the CILC Web site and you will probably find something that fits the bill and your budget.

Measuring Quality

How do you know if you are getting good content? A study by Wainhouse Research for Polycom spells out a set of standards by which you can judge whether or not the content that a provider offers is "good" content. Here are some things to look for.

Instructional Aids: Is there background information to accompany the program? Are there pre- and post-program activities available? Most importantly, are these made easily available to teachers online and via email so that teachers might work with them on their own time?

Interactivity: Good content uses the interactive nature of videoconferencing to its fullest extent. At a minimum, students should always have the opportunity to ask and answer questions during an interactive videoconference. However, the best content providers also include activities for the students to perform: demonstrations, problems to solve, etc. And, again, does the content provider make it clear just how interactive its interactive videoconference program is?

Subject-Matter Experts: Will your students’ questions be fully answered? If the content provider has an expert in the subject being studied on camera during the conference, then the answer is a resounding yes. But how often is that subject-matter expert available to speak to students? Check out the scheduling policies of the different content providers. Some provide their expertise at very specific times, while others are open to scheduling on demand and will work with your availability.

Feedback: Any content provider registered with the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration has the ability to use its common evaluation form, which automatically places the results of teacher evaluations online for others to view. The more feedback a content provider has published online, the more you will know about its program and what fellow teachers thought of it. This also provides a mechanism for you to share your opinions about programs in which you have participated.

Semiautomation: Is the content provider spending its time creating and improving its content, leaving a certain amount of the job to its Web site? If you can find almost everything you need to know about a program online, then that content provider does not spend its time on the phone or writing emails about its programs: It is improving its programs while you read about them online. On the other hand, a good content pro-vider is also available to answer any questions that do crop up. The really good content providers will work with you to tweak their programs to meet your learning standard specifications and to meet the age range of your class.

Staffing: A good content provider has both technical know-how and talented educators. A technician is not responsible for content, and an educator is not responsible for the technology. This allows for everyone to focus on their part of the work and not worry about a subject they know little about.

Passion: If a content provider loves what it does, you will see it. This may be the hardest to quantify, but the CILC has made an attempt. Look for the "enthusiasm" rating of a program presenter on its evaluations online. That will be your best clue to the passion they have for their work and subject.

The Future of Interactive Videoconferencing in Education

Content providers are constantly improving their programming by injecting more interaction and activity into their programs. Meanwhile, teachers are using their videoconferencing equipment for a different kind of connection and interactivity: kid-to-kid videoconferencing. In other words, museums and zoos are not the only sources of information out there. Students can learn from each other as well. In effect, you can have a cultural exchange program without traveling physically to the other culture. This could mean your Spanish class connecting with an English class in Spain, or it could mean your students in Washington state preparing a report about their town and sharing it with a class in Washington, D.C. As the representative of a content provider, I cannot claim expertise in student-to-student videoconferencing. However, I can see its value, in terms of education and in terms of cost.

Give the CILC Web site a look. Connect with some content pro-viders and other schools and libraries that have engaged in this type of virtual field trip. You’ll find it time well spent.

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Tracey Neikirk, museum educator at The Mariners’ Museum, demonstrates the use of navigation instruments as part of the Age of Exploration program.
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Arielle Levine, Distance Learning Instructor, The Cleveland Museum of Art
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Kasey Gaylord, SeaTrek Presenter, Mote Marine Laboratory


Online Information about Interactive Videoconferencing:

Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration

Noodletrip: Go Virtually Anywhere


For more information about desktop videoconferencing, try:

Scott Merrick’s Desktop IVC blog


Some highly rated content providers:

The Mariners’ Museum

Indianapolis Zoo


Stacy Hasselbacher is a museum educator and the distance learning coordinator for The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va. Her email address is

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