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Virtually There

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Alexandria, Va.

For a teacher, the point of going on a field trip is to make learning come alive for students in a way that textbooks cannot. There are, of course, the usual glitches. A student might wander away from the rest of the class. The school bus may get stuck in traffic. But, in the end, the experience is usually worth the trouble. Reading about something is no substitute for seeing it firsthand.

If the experience of three 5th-grade classes at an elementary school here is any indicator, electronic field trips are no different.

The students at Lyles-Crouch Elementary School took a "virtual" field trip last month via Turner Educational Services' Adventure Learning program. Their destination was Berlin for the 50th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day.

Through a live television broadcast that took place over three days, students "visited" the Brandenburg Gate in what was once East Berlin. They toured a historic church that had been bombed during the war and the once and future site of Germany's Parliament.

On the trip, they "met" aged World War II veterans from Germany and the United States, survivors of the bombing of the city of Dresden, and contemporary German high school students and their teacher. Students could pose questions for all of these experts via telephones, computer networks, and fax machines. If they were lucky, they might even get their questions answered on the air.

Like real field trips, this one had its share of headaches. For one, it rained in Berlin, lending a dreary quality to the broadcast. Lyles-Crouch's 5th graders, however, were warm and dry. For teachers, some confusion also arose over how to operate the technology and where to send their students' questions. And some of the 5th graders were disappointed when their questions were not broadcast on the air as were inquiries from many of the 400 other schools watching the broadcast.

To top things off, a boy watching the program in the first row vomited on the rug. But he probably would have gotten sick, anyway.

In the end, these students and teachers say, the experience was worth the trouble.

"I wasn't really that excited learning about World War II at first," says Kiana Williams, a Lyles-Crouch student. "Now, I sort of do want to learn a little bit more about it."

Turner Educational Services is among a small number of museums, school districts, and corporations that have begun experimenting with field trips on the information highway. Probably the best known among these ventures is the Jason Project, which was launched almost seven years ago by oceanographer Robert Ballard, the discoverer of the wreck of the Titanic. Through his annual scientific expeditions, students at sites around the world do more than just talk with the experts. They can actually manipulate robotic equipment by computer, sending a crane into an underwater volcano, for example, to take temperature readings.

Educators and entrepreneurs are hoping that all of these kinds of virtual field trips will become increasingly commonplace in schools nationwide in years ahead.

"What's important about a lot of these field trips is that students are able to go to a place they would not normally be able to visit," says Linda G. Roberts, the director of the U.S. Education Department's office of technology assistance.

"For many communities that are fortunate enough to have resources like science museums, visits to those kinds of things are really wonderful for students," she adds. "But what about the millions of students who are in communities where these kinds ofexperiences would not be available?"

Creating Demand

Turner's Adventure Learning series was put together in collaboration with Indiana University's Center for Excellence in Education, a research-and-development center that specializes in classroom technology.

The series is more ambitious than some programs in that it has scheduled a lot of field trips in a short amount of time. In the year since the program began, the company has taken students to half a dozen sites. These have included: Gettysburg, Pa., for lessons on the Civil War; the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Fargo, Ga., for a session on wetlands and biodiversity; and Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya, for a tour of a flamingo colony. At all of those places, students could "talk" electronically with the historians, scientists, and naturalists who were on site.

The trips, which cost $295 to $395 per school, have gotten mixed receptions. The journey to the Okefenokee swamp, like the Berlin trip, drew more than 400 schools. But a planned March visit to New York City's Ellis Island was postponed when few schools subscribed.

"When we survey schools that use the field trip, we get very high marks. But for schools to look at opportunities to purchase field trips and to set aside money to do so is a little more of a challenge," says Gary Rowe, the senior vice president of Turner Educational Services, which is a division of Turner Broadcasting. "We know it will take a while to prove the merits of what we're doing."

For the company, however, these kinds of ventures are a foot in the door of the classroom of the future.

"What we see down the road is that the curriculum that's bounded by the textbook is going to give way to a curriculum that's much more media-rich in its content," Rowe says. Researchers at the Indiana University center, for example, are already at work on "virtual textbooks" that could put a vast array of information and media sources at students' fingertips and provide a structure to help them navigate through all those resources. When such visions become a reality, Turner hopes to be ready.

Questions and Glitches

All of this, however, is still years down the road for schools like Lyles-Crouch Elementary. While national statistics suggest that schools have an average of one computer for every nine or 10 students, Lyles-Crouch has just 15 computers for three grades. Two additional computers are equipped with modems that give teachers access to large computer networks.

These technological shortcomings forced all 70 5th graders to crowd into the school's library for the first day of the telecast from Berlin.

The school also does not subscribe to America Online, the computer network students could use to send questions to Berlin. Turner provided a start-up kit that includes a free trial subscription to the network a day or two before the field trip, but teachers said they would have liked more preparation time.

"It would've been nice to have even a 15-minute practice run the previous day," says Kathleen Hart, the school's technology coordinator.

Judging by conversations in a computer forum that was going on during the broadcast, Hart was not alone. In the first few minutes of the program, teachers all over North America were asking where to send students' questions. Their inquiries disappeared later in the broadcast.

Fifth graders at Lyles-Crouch do not usually study World War II, but this field trip gave teachers there an opportunity they couldn't pass up. The Retired Officers Association, a national organization based here, offered to pay the fee for the school, a sum it might not otherwise have been able to afford.

Rather than give their students a crash course on World II before the field trip, teachers here decided to use the experience as a way to introduce students to the subject matter and to whet their curiosity for further study.

For the most part, it did.

"Why did they call some places concentration camps?" Michelle Clark wanted to know.

Louis Smith was curious about what kinds of weapons were used in the war.

"At the beginning of the war, did you think you would win or lose?" was Michelle Heinz's question for a former German soldier.

And Shantice Bates asked German high school students what kinds of media they used to learn about World War II.

The students were most curious, however, about the everyday lives of those who had been children like them during the war.

"Were you aware of what was going on?" asked Megan Shapiro. Other students wanted to know whether war-era children had toys to play with or what they found most frightening about their experiences.

In all, students at all of the participating schools sent 800 questions via America Online or the Internet. More questions came by telephone and fax machines. According to a spokesman for Turner, 150 of the 800 computer-generated questions had been answered one week after the broadcast. One of those questions came from Lyles-Crouch. Two weeks later, Lyles-Crouch students were still waiting for answers.

That their questions did not get promptly answered was a disappointment to both the 5th graders and their teachers.

"I know that's not the point; but for 5th graders, it is the point," says Kary Henry, one of their teachers. "I think it was really hard for them to not get immediate feedback."

But, as Turner officials point out, getting on the air for the field trip was no different from trying to get on the air during a broadcast of "Larry King Live."

"You have to stand in a long electronic queue," Rowe says.

Novelty Now, Learning Later

The three one-hour broadcasts were hosted by an American woman and a German man. Over the course of the electronic journey, they took students from the victory of the Allied Forces in Europe to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the growth of the "skinhead" movement in present-day Germany.

Along the way, they touched on the rebuilding of Germany, the birth of the United Nations, and the Cold War, among other topics.

The program was a hybrid of prepared segments that had the flavor of Turner's Cable News Network broadcasts and live tours and interviews with the people who were on site.

The former German airman told how he had been wounded by machine-gun fire when the Russians invaded eastern Germany. He said a Russian doctor nursed him back to health.

Another German, who was a 14-year-old schoolboy when the city of Dresden was bombed by the Allies, described how he had helped a friend search among that city's bombed-out buildings for his parents.

"I thought it was really neat how you could link up telephone lines and talk to people in Germany and ask them questions about the war," said Elisa Mitchell, one of Henry's students. Most students concurred.

But another 5th grader, Dion Washington, was less impressed. "I thought it was boring because it didn't have much action," he said.

Part of the problem for students like Dion was that the broadcast was geared to older students even though it was not specifically advertised that way. Nevertheless, teachers taped the segments so that they could show it again, the next time stopping the tape to explain some of its more sophisticated points.

"The live event was fantastic for the excitement and the novelty of it," Henry says. "More of the learning will come when we can go over it."

Although Lyles-Crouch did not choose to go this route, Turner also offers materials so educators can use the program as a resource for "problem centered" learning. That approach calls for students to identify problems or questions they want to investigate further.

Turner is planning more adventures for the coming school year, including the rescheduled Ellis Island trip and a journey to a rain forest. It is probably unlikely, however, that students at many schools like this one--with limited funds and technology--will be able to go along for the virtual ride.

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