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Classroom Management: 9 Free Virtual Field Trips

Jacqui Murray

Kids love field trips. They're out of the classroom, get to travel by bus with lots of kids and not enough adults. What's not to like?

A few items not to like come to my mind: Cost, staffing, potential for disaster.

But there's a way of using creative classroom management to provide the field trip experience with few of the risks, no cost, and a fraction of the time away from what is likely an overstuffed education day: Virtual field trips, via the Internet.

There are many options for real-time webcams, conversations with experts (via Skype and Google Hangout), and opportunities to visit locations that are otherwise inaccessible. Many classes have embraced this new approach to seeing the world.

This enthusiasm has encouraged a cottage industry that often is far from the exciting, realistic experience that teachers want for their students. When I search the Internet, it seems any site with a camcorder and multimedia resources calls itself a “virtual field trip.” Truthfully, many of them are a waste of time. Sure, I like the pictures and the movies, but I don't feel like I'm there, immersed in history or geography, with a life-changing experience that will live in my memory for decades to come.

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Intellectually, I know there are good ones out there. These next nine virtual field trips cover topics from geology to history to the human experience.

See what you think:

360 Cities

What's not to love about a website that starts with these words:

Welcome to Earth! It's a planet having an iron core, with two-thirds of its surface covered by water. Earth orbits a local star called the sun, the light of which generates the food supply for all the millions of species of life on earth. The dominant species on Earth is the human being, and you're one of the 6 billion of them! Humans have iron in their blood, and their bodies are composed of two-thirds water, just like the planet they live on.

Enjoy your stay, and try to stay calm.

360 Cities contains the Internet's largest collection of uploaded panoramic images.

The website provides specific (free) instructions for how to create these amazing panoramic images, and then accepts submittals from anyone who can meet their standards. That has resulted in a vast, crowd-sourced collection from all over the world, including geography, historic sites, world maps, cities, outer space (Mars), undersea, interiors of famous buildings, skylines, and more.

Education uses: From my several visits to this site, I saw nothing that wasn't G-rated. Everything I viewed I would be comfortable sharing with students. What I did see will excite their imagination as no other picture can.

3D Toad

This is a fascinating look at all sides of a select number of topics, including skeletons (human and other animals), coral reefs, geology, dental hygiene, and fossils. Start with, say, a coral reef, then, click and drag it all directions to see every side, every surface. The only thing you can't do is touch.

The folks at 3D Toad offer several videos on using the website and how it fits into your classroom. I found it interesting they have low-brow banjo music to accompany such high-tech image presentations. For me, that was great!

Google World of Wonders

This Google site takes you to more than 150 places around the world. You can join Street View Guy and walk an area, view pictures, including historic images, and read an overview text on the site. You can visit random locations or places containing themed collections (Hiroshima and Versailles). Additional parts of World of Wonders are the Google Art Project and Historic Moments -- a look at a collection of extraordinary moments in history.

Education uses: There is no better way to explore a wonder of the world than through this site. The only shortfall is that students won't find the typical locations that fit nicely into the box of their curriculum. Inquiry-based classrooms: You will fall in love with this exploration of the world.

Sistine Chapel

This 360-degree virtual tour, created by students and faculty in the communication and computing science departments at Pennsylvania’s Villanova University, explores one room of the Sistine Chapel. Thanks to liturgical music, a zoom feature (which allows for close inspection) and the bright realisim of the photography, you would have to walk through its front doors to feel more there. 

Besides the Sistine Chapel, the website includes five other tours:

Virtual Body

Medtronics’ Virtual Body allows viewers to explore select parts of the human body, including the brain, the skeleton, the digestive track, and the heart. Each option can be visual or narrated, animated or realistically viewed. They're well-done and intricate enough to satisfy most curious minds.

Another virtual human body--and better known -- is Zygote Body (formerly Google Body Browser). It provides a simple interface--the human body--from which visitors select what they want to investigate--muscles, nerves, bones, more--each layered atop the former until you have the entire body. Click any part to get its name, zoom in or out.

Medtronics has better in-depth analysis, but Zygote Body has better optics. Best classroom management idea: Use them together.

Virtual Cockroach

If you're interested in the annoying cockroach, this is your place. It includes in-depth images of the head, thorax, and abdomen, presented in a scholarly manner. You can investigate the circulatory system, digestive track, endocrine, muscular, excretory, nervous, reproductive, and respiratory systems. I have to admit -- it might be more than I wanted to know about the buggers, but for those who aspire to be an expert on cockroaches, this is a great start.

Virtual Zoo

This is a cute tour of a working zoo designed to address K-3 learning. Its virtual map takes visitors to see amphibians, mammals, vertebrates, reptiles, birds, and ocean animals. Each animal grouping includes movies, images, sounds, a webcam, a map of their habitat, and more resources for those who want to dig deeper. The teacher page provides worksheets that help students maneuver through the animals and aligns material with ISTE standards.

All that's required is headphones, speakers, and a computer that plays video.

Walk through the Forest

This interactive site opens with forest sounds--birds singing, water flowing, insects chirping. This engages students as the site loads its hefty background information--which does take a while. No complaint here, because the wait is worth it. Once all is up, viewers can tour a real Finnish forest and learn about forest planning, harvesting, regeneration, respacing, thinning, transport, recreation, training, berry picking, bird watching, hunting, fishing, natural forests, valuable habitats, deadwood, forest structure, water, and native tree species (selected from the main menu or arrived at on the virtual hike).

The photography and audio are amazing -- you feel like you're there. The explanatory text is non-intrusive, made up of small, bite-size pieces that don't detract from the immersive experience. Each of the six scenes has hot spots (like you'd find on Thinglink) which visitors click to explore more videos, images, sounds, and text.

The White House

There are a lot of White House tours, but none quite so fascinating as this one through Google Earth. You type in the address, zoom over to DC, drop the Street View Guy on the roof of our Commander in Chief's house, and you're in! From there, you walk around all the rooms open to the public, and see who you can spy as you travel.

Street View offers lots of walk-throughs of buildings, restaurants, even hotels, but not a lot of education-oriented buildings. I know: I've tried to find them, especially after I discovered the White House tour. And my students tried. Not a lot of others out there. All the more reason this stands out as a must-see virtual tour.

A few other virtual field trips you might like: JPL offers one for young explorers, Plimouth Plantation is a popular Thanksgiving virtual destination, and this list of 20 online museums and virtual field trips from Educational Technology has a few more that will catch your attention.

What's your favorite?

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of dozens of technology training books that integrate technology into education. She is webmaster for six blogs, CSG Master Teacher, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, a tech ed columnist for, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out next summer. 


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