As a consequence of a grant that I have been working on, I have been reading about “virtual field trips”. These trips are multimedia web-based experiences that take the learner to places that might not be feasibly experienced in “real-life”, due to such practical impediments as accessibility and cost. Although the format is limitless these virtual trips often are comprised of readings, maps, glossary of terms, images, video clips and may include on-line discussions with experts and or the instructor. Together these things can lead the student on an interesting and interactive learning journey. To complete the experience there is usually a (hopefully) thoughtfully designed assignmen, such as a field trip report or on-line quiz to be assessed.
Although I would not suggest that these virtual trips replace actual trips I see a great advantage to the student in having this type of learning experience. Often field trips are only available to a small number of students who have the available time and funding. Virtual field trips can open the door to so many more students and although time consuming and potentially expensive to set up initially can be reused (with minor upgrading as necessary) multiple times.
In the sciences the geography and earth science are the most ardent users of these field trips (and probably “real” field trips as well) with ecology and field biology growing in popularity. It seems to me that a with the plethora of electronic learning options a well designed virtual field trip can bring a student to a far away place learn about the culture, the geography, the environmental impact of human practices in a manner that invites critical thinking and gives the student a “real-life” experience. An advantage of field trips or any practical learning tool for that matter is that they can bring abstract concepts into a more tangible and therefore meaningful realm for the learner. If new information is meaningful it follows that it will be easier for learning to take place.
Until mosquito bites, the black fly bites and the hypothermia that comes after slogging hours in a downpour can be simulated, there will not be a perfect virtual field trip. That said, I do think they could have a valuable place in the educational experience across the disciplines. In fact one of the great trips I found is multidisciplinary.