When Paige Somoza, a junior-high history teacher for the Boise School District, visited the National World War II Museum in New Orleans during a family vacation in 2011, she says that a key question instantly came to mind: “How do I get my students here? Obviously, I can’t fly 130 kids to a museum 2,000 miles away.” From that moment, she was determined to find a way to recreate her museum experience in the classroom, and so began her dive into the world of virtual field trips.

Back home in Boise, Somoza looked into whether the museum had any programs she might take advantage of from afar and was excited to learn that it had recently launched a distance-learning initiative. She was soon off to the races, writing and winning a grant to obtain funding for teleconferencing equipment that would connect her students with the WWII Museum. By 2012, she had teamed up with Chrissy Gregg, assistant director of distance learning at the museum, for their first of many virtual visits.

“It’s something different for kids,” Somoza says. “Virtual field trips help you expand lesson content and make it deeper so you can do more with students.”

Somoza’s colleague Amanda Kuznia, K–12 digital integration specialist for the Boise School District, agrees. “It makes the classroom a global community,” she says. “For a lot of kids, especially kids in a rural community, or those who haven’t ever traveled outside their city or state, it’s huge.” She points to Somoza’s subject area as an example. “Being able to interact with WWII survivors is so much more powerful than reading a story. It brings compassion and humanity to the project.”

Students in Boise have definitely confirmed that point. “It’s the one thing kids come back and tell me that they remember about my class,” Somoza says. “Those memorable learning experiences and the projects that the kids produce to demonstrate their knowledge are what make it worthwhile.”

Educator initiative has always been a key driver for creating interactive learning experiences like virtual field trips, but the advent of more accessible and easy-to-use technologies means that more students and teachers than ever can find ways to participate. “When our district started with video conferencing, the equipment cost about $10,000,” Kuznia says. “Now, all you need is a camera and a microphone, which are built into almost every device. It’s a very low-cost option that people may not be aware of.”

Getting started

The first step in planning a virtual field trip, according to Somoza, is to have a learning goal in mind. For her popular Pearl Harbor program, Somoza defined what she wanted her students to learn about Pearl Harbor and began teaching lessons that included a reading provided by the museum, which Somoza modified to include critical reading strategies. This preliminary work put students in good stead to discuss Pearl Harbor and ask questions of Gregg during their live connection.

Kuznia emphasizes that doing some pre-teaching ahead of a virtual visit is essential. “Prep your kids,” she says. “Have them going in with questions, just as you would if you were having a guest speaker in your classroom.”

With a learning goal established, educators will want to find a virtual experience that is the best fit for their students. At this stage, Kuznia suggests thinking big: “If you had a magic wand, what would you do with your kids? For example, Paige’s big dream would have probably been to go to Pearl Harbor, then that was scaled to going to the National WWII Museum, which was then scaled to bringing the museum to her classroom.”

What’s out there?

Discovering what’s available is part of the challenge, and the fun. Some of Somoza and Kuznia’s favorite resources include the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration, which offers “a repository of virtual experiences,” according to Somoza, and Google’s Expeditions app, used with VR headsets, which is one of Kuznia’s top picks.

Video conferencing with experts, or with other teachers and classrooms around the world, is easily accomplished through such applications as Google Hangouts, one of the tools included in Google for Education’s G Suite of tools for the classroom; Zoom; or Skype in the Classroom from Microsoft Education (see “In the Field”). Other virtual field trip resources include 360° Cities, Discovery Education, Field Trip Zoom, and Nearpod VR.

Both Kuznia and Somoza say Twitter has been a helpful aid in finding virtual experiences and making connections as well. “You can contact people directly [through the platform],” Somoza says. She recalls that author Lisa See was tweeting about Polly Bemis, a Chinese woman who became a noted Idaho pioneer, after having been smuggled into the U.S. as a slave in 1872, which piqued her interest. “I didn’t ask her to do a field trip, but I sent her a message and she responded to me.”

Similarly, Kuznia says that a group of students at Boise High School, with their librarian, began tweeting at an author whose work they were reading, and he responded, saying, “I’ll come out there and workshop with you guys.” According to Kuznia, the school was able to cover the author’s honorarium and he showed up.

Kuznia offers the reminder that it’s fine to start small, which can help educators find their footing and get practice. “Maybe contact a local city council member or a state museum,” she says. “There are a lot of people just waiting for educators to reach out and they are willing to help schools.”

Along the way, Somoza notes, “don’t be shy about asking for what you need. The WWII Museum tailors things to exactly what I want.”

Nuts and bolts

In many cases, educators will find support for the logistics of their virtual field trip project within their schools and districts. Somoza says, “I look at what I want to do and see what the requirements are and ask Amanda for her advice.”

Kuznia’s job is to make sure that the educator planning the virtual field trip complies with district policy, including clearing permission with students’ parents in accordance with the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. “I think my role is pretty common at the district level,” she says. “I help teachers use technology. I bridge the gap between IT and curriculum.” This involves making sure that IT knows to let the field trip sites through the school/district firewall, for example. “I’ll go out and do it first, then I’ll shadow teach, and the third time I’ll be there on standby for support.” She has created a list of dos and don’ts of a virtual field trip containing all of her essential strategies.

Though embarking on a virtual field trip may sound like an intimidating prospect, Somoza offers encouragement. “As teachers, we’re often scared of the unknown,” she says. “I was panicked the first time I did this. Just relax. It’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t work out, and in all likelihood it’s going to be wonderful.”

Below, more on the School and Library Spotlight

In the Field: Skype in the Classroom
We took a look at how educators are using the platform to build global connections for their students.

Building an Inclusive Learning Environment
A 2019 AASL Emerging Leaders team has developed a new toolkit for school librarians.