Skip the school bus: Our tips for planning a virtual field trip

As a national museum, we serve students all over the country through lesson plans, interactive resources, and virtual field trips. Naomi Coquillon shares lessons learned from our most recent virtual field trip, Decoding History, a collaboration with Scholastic.

At a recent meeting of our teacher advisory team, a teacher from South Dakota told us the story of what could have been a disastrous classroom moment. When she tuned in to the live "Decoding History" field trip with her students, they ran into technical difficulties. The teacher kept her cool and had her students watch the archived version instead.

Was this a disaster? Nope. "What mattered most," she said, "was the content and the fact that the kids were excited to do something new."

Part of the reason the lesson went so well was that the teacher used a super smart strategy: she made the virtual field trip as much like a "regular" field trip as possible. She had several classes watch together and she got them excited about the program as an event, not just a video that was a regular part of class.

The 39 Clues Decoding History Virtual Field Trip

Like our teacher adviser, when planning a virtual field trip, you can build excitement and anticipation in a similar way to a "regular" field trip. Follow a few steps to make your virtual field trip the best ever:

  • Test the tech: Use the time and effort you would take on coordinating buses and other logistics to be sure you have the equipment you need, including internet connection and speakers. Poor connection and audio quality are as bad as rain on field day. 
  • Have "chaperones:" You may not need additional adults to monitor the students, but you could recruit a few extra hands to assist with technical issues and activities during the virtual trip to make sure things run smoothly. 
  • Do it together: Coordinating several classes to take the virtual field trip together will help your kids recognize that this is a special event. 
  • Get a new perspective: Take the virtual field trip in a space that's not your classroom—whether in an auditorium or a meeting space, give students a change of environment to support the lesson. 
  • Rotate with activities: Classes are often broken into small groups during field trips and many incorporate a series of activities. In my former museum, we had "field trip days" in which we had related activities taking place throughout the building, with students from different schools in small groups. Have students participate in the virtual event, then break out into smaller groups to extend or unpack the experience. 
  • Use technology to enhance the experience: Have a class hashtag or create a backchannel that students can use to post questions and comments during the event. If you're doing the event with other classes, use these channels to help students connect with a wider community of learners. 
  • Give your kids a goal: As with a regular onsite field trip, there will be an instructional purpose. So, express it to the kids. How will this virtual trip enhance their understanding of the content you're studying in class?

Students in Oklahoma watch our National Youth Summit on the Dust Bowl
Students in Oklahoma watch our National Youth Summit on the Dust Bowl


Not sure where to find a virtual field trip? We have a collection of archived programs that you can find on Smithsonian's History Explorer, including the Decoding History virtual field trip for grades 3-5. We also host a webcast National Youth Summit each year for middle and high school students. You can register now for this school year's program on Freedom Summer that will be held on Digital Learning Day, February 5, 2014.

There's Skype in the Classroom, which brings speakers directly to you (check out the offerings from Smithsonian Affiliate Museum the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, especially for resources on Plains Indians), museum outreach programs such as the interactive video conferencing programs from the Minnesota Historical Society or the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and video programs such as the electronic field trip series from Colonial Williamsburg.

Happy field tripping!

Naomi Coquillon is the Manager, Youth and Teacher Programs at the National Museum of American History. She has also blogged about non-virtual trips for families, such as this Star-Spangled Banner trip.