As curriculum technology coordinator for Avon Local Schools in Avon, Ohio, Paul Hieronymus has helped organize some pretty amazing field trips. Fifth graders in his district have observed vibrant coral and crustaceans while following a diver at the Reef HQ Aquarium in Australia. And pop-culture classes have chatted with hip-hop experts while touring the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.
The students managed to visit these sites without blowing the budget because they never really left; they used videoconferencing equipment to interact with experts in real time and follow along on personalized tours. Opportunities for such digital adventures are available in every subject, says Ruth Blankenbaker, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration, which offers a searchable database of nearly 150 content providers.
Even traditional in-person field trips can be enhanced by videoconferencing, Hieronymus says. His district worked with the distance-education staff at the Cleveland Museum of Art, about half an hour away. “The [museum staff] can zoom in on that artwork closer than on site, and see things we would never see when we were there. The students can look at an African mask side by side with a painting from the Renaissance era and compare the two.”
The average interactive program costs about $125, according to Julia Shildmyer-Heighway, director of content services at CILC. “Schools are beginning to budget for virtual field trips in the same way they budget for software or ‘land-based’ field trips,” Blankenbaker says. Free programs from federally funded organizations, including the Library of Congress and NASA, are also available.
Alternatively, schools can pool their resources so that classes can share a paid virtual field trip. That arrangement recently allowed students from Berrien and Cass counties in Michigan to interview neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson, the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, who successfully separated twins conjoined at the head. They were also able to talk to children’s author Ben Mikaelsen, who lives in a Montana log cabin with a 700-pound black bear.
Videoconferencing equipment can be costly—typically between $3,000 and $12,000. A basic system requires a monitor, camera, microphone, speaker, and dedicated bandwidth. Hieronymus’ schools paid for the equipment and the trips using district money, grants, and donations from businesses and foundations.
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2007 edition of Teacher