School Field Trips by Video Conference: A Cost-Effective Solution to a Dying Tradition

Video conferencing can help students explore the world via virtual field trips.

This year’s third-grade field trip to the zoo has been canceled due to a shortfall in funding.

Instead, students will visit the moon.

This is the school newsletter headline of the future.

As the ripples of the global financial crisis of the previous decade continue to affect their budgets and planning, many schools simply cannot afford the gas, admission, and insurance costs for trips to the museum, zoo, or even local park.

Instead, schools are increasingly turning to virtual field trips, where no one leaves the classroom, and no one need pay for 25 special lunches. With more than 30 percent of U.S. schools now equipped with video conferencing technology, these virtual trips are near realities.

A GFC Casualty

The global financial crisis dried up liquid assets around the world.

And some of the hardest hit institutions were schools that rely on donations, volunteers, and public funding to power their extracurricular programs.

Almost a third of school administrators responding to a survey by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) during the economic downturn said they had eliminated field trips from the curriculum due to financial pressures.

When AASA checked back with those respondents five years later, just 12 percent said they had returned their field trip budget to pre-recession figures.

What’s lost in all those missed trips to the planetarium, the art gallery, and the local theater is the opportunity to energize students, to allow them to make emotional connections to what they’re learning, and to show how their lessons are applied in the wider world.

Fortunately, virtual field trips are already helping return some of those unbounded life lessons to the curriculum.

Educational Virtual Reality

Last year Google started delivering its Expeditions Pioneer Program to schools.

Through the novel use of Google Maps, cardboard “virtual reality” glasses, and some repurposed smartphones, students are able to explore any place on the face of the Earth that has been mapped by the internet giant, which is pretty much any place on Earth.

NASA has joined the party too, offering free, downloadable virtual expeditions that let school kids follow along with real scientists as they go about their work on real scientific research sites.

Both initiatives immerse children in a spherical view of these virtual worlds, which are navigated by head movements and can be customized by the teacher. It’s like taking a walk through Capitol Hill or Cape Canaveral without ever leaving the classroom, or having to navigate through tourists and traffic.  

But what these programs lack is interactivity that can account for the questions, imaginings, and impulses of a young mind.

Augmented Video Conferencing

By embracing the real-time, two-way communication of video conferencing, and adding a few tricks from the augmented reality world you can get one giant leap closer to letting students run wild on the moon.

Firstly, school field trips by video conference let students take a tour from real tour guides. Opening multiple chat windows on any video conference call would allow an expert to answer student questions and direct their attention to events as they unfold, while leaving another window opened to a shared screen containing a view of the surroundings. Students could safely wander in this new world as curiosity takes them, with the narration of their guide still clear in their ears.

Or, rather than have students do the telecommuting, artifacts, animals, entire rooms, or even actors resurrecting history’s most famous events could be placed inside the classroom and accessed through augmented reality.

AR is the star of the current Pokemon Go craze, and essentially lets digital elements walk all over your view of the real world.

In an educational setting, the entirety of the Elgin Marbles could be laid out on the desks of students for them to examine and overturn, with the help of some cheap VR goggles.

Take your goggles off and the Marbles disappear. Put them on again, and though your view of the desk in front hasn’t changed, the Greek wonders have returned.

Video Conferencing on the Moon

So, back to the moon.

With a textured lunar surface supplied by NASA’s very detailed maps and videos, an enclosed, augmented view of the moon supplied by VR goggles, and expert guidance supplied by a real astronaut, students could soon be running their hands over moon rocks.

That’s how you restore the emotional impact and physical awe of the traditional school field trip. How better to forge into memory Earth’s place in the Solar System than by letting students watch the planet rise over a lunar landscape?

Even just visiting Earth’s celestial sidekick in a virtual setting is far closer than any of us will ever come to strolling its surface, and, with video conferencing software and hardware falling in price, it’s cheaper than visiting the local zoo.

And you don’t have to worry about taking a head count before rocketing back to reality.

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