The Whole is Greater than the Sum of Its Parts – GLOBE and Virtual Field Trips

  • How can learning be distributed and accelerated with access to digital resources and specialized tools and what are several implications of learning of math and science just in time and on demand?

Digital resources and specialized tools expand the diversity of opportunities available to students and teachers.  Limitations such as financial resources, geographic location, and student circumstances can be at least somewhat addressed through digital options. The building of learning communities helps promote distributed learning. Magdalene Lampert (1990) explains that a participation structure has been defined by Florio, Erickson, and Shultz as “the allocation of interactional rights and obligations among participants in a social event; it represents the consensual expectations of the participants about what they are supposed to be doing together, their relative rights and duties in accomplishing tasks, and the range of behaviours appropriate in the event” (p. 34).  Her article is focused on the social and student-led creation and experience of learning mathematics.  Community and discourse is central to her approach. This process and hypothesis-testing approach to learning mathematics can also serve to accelerate learning by enabling students to truly understand the learning process and the content, thereby increasing the likelihood of effective application.

GLOBE is an impressive application of learning that is distributed through a community.  Scientists and experts offer training to teachers and support and opportunity to students, and students are able to provide raw data for scientific projects. According to Butler and Macgregor (2003), “Students and teachers benefit from the scientists not only as sources of knowledge and modelers of scientific reasoning but also an inspiration and role models for students who may choose to pursue careers in science and technology” (p. 18). Students participating in GLOBE projects have a real and authentic purpose for their work, which should increase engagement and thereby encourage efficient use of class time and deeper student learning both inside and outside of the classroom. They have a real opportunity to be a valuable part of the scientific process.  Additionally, there is an opportunity for classes from various locations to team up on a project, thereby enabling each group to learn from the others and to share their own learning.  A true community forms as students, educators, and researchers are each able to be teachers and learners.

As a rural teacher, virtual field trips and webcams stand out to be as an excellent opportunity to engage in visual and experiential learning despite challenges of location, time, or money.  Being able to watch animal behaviour on camera, explore an otherwise inaccessible location, and interact with experts enables students to develop understandings that would not otherwise be readily available.  I agree with the students in J. Spicer and J. Stratford’s study, however, who felt that the occurrence of real field trips and virtual field trips should not be mutually exclusive.  “[I]nstead of allowing VFTs to be thought of as alternatives to ‘real’ field trips perhaps it would be best to explore how a VFT might either enhance preparations for a real field trip and act as a revision tool after a field trip, both approaches potentially giving ‘value-added’ to the real field trip” (Spicer & Stratford, 2001, p.352).  From a business perspective, virtual field trips can be more cost effective; however, the experience is not the same.  Both virtual field trips and real field trips offer students valuable learning experiences, but these experiences could be best implemented in complement to one another, as opposed to in place of one another, wherever possible.

As a whole, student learning will be accelerated by experiences that enable them to make insightful connections, understanding the reasoning behind learning, and feel like they are part of something greater than themselves.  Distributed cognition in which different participants in learning have different strengths and understandings to offer helps to reinforce the value of community in learning.  An effective teacher will recognize and create opportunities for experts to be involved in lessons.  Each member of the learning community can improve the learning experience, and the larger the community is, the greater the power of the distributed knowledge.  The whole is stronger than the sum of its parts.  Learning math and science on demand and just in time simulates the scientific and mathematical research processes in which research is conducted in response to a need.  As students are able to learn in timely contexts, they can be better able to make connections between what they are learning and the applications and importance of it.  This can be a challenge, however, when a need arises and the community of support is not available or accessible.  In these situations, students must be confident that they can rely on their own understanding of the learning process and their previous knowledge to help them explore solutions.


Butler, D.M., & MacGregor, I.D. (2003). GLOBE: Science and education. Journal of Geoscience Education, 51(1), 9-20.

Lampert, M. (1990). When the problem is not the question and the solution is not the answer: Mathematical knowing and teaching. American educational research journal, 27(1), 29-63.

Spicer, J., & Stratford, J. (2001). Student perceptions of a virtual field trip to replace a real field trip. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 17, 345-354.


  1. Hi Stephanie,

    I feel like the biggest impediment to the spread of knowledge is that there’s always someone that wants to make money off of it. This issue was something that I explored early on in the MET program – the advantages of open source software over closed source. There is so much more room for growth when students are given the opportunity to expand their knowledge with the larger community. The ability for classes to team up in GLOBE and share resources and ideas exposes the students to different perspectives of distant community of learners. As field trips can be quite time consuming to plan and arrange transportation, I wonder if having an in class field trip where students are just viewing videos is just as exciting for them? Maybe being able to experience the environment in a real-world setting has its affordances…

  2. Hi Stephanie, I don’t know about you, but I was very relived to read that the Spicer & Stratford study indicated that students prefer the actual field trip over the VRT, should there be but one option. As well, using the technology to enhance over replace an actual experience, makes a lot of sense to me. I think the same logic can be extended to doing virtual labs (say on PhET) over actual labs. Personally, I use PhET when I don’t have the means to experiment in other ways due to equipment and/or time restrictions. There is no question that virtual reality is becoming more and more ubiquitous in our society— heck, I just found an article on providing virtual reality experiences in pubs, in order to simulate golfing at world renowned courses, whilst having a few nibbles and sips. ( ) ~~~Something that caused me to pause in the VRT study was how students reported that there was too much text and too much information in the simulation, whereas instructors felt that there was too little text and too little information. 180 degrees opposite! This was a good reminder to me, as a teacher, that what is second nature for me, may be anything but for my students. Throwing them into a virtual reality, may be akin to throwing them into the deep end— some students may swim, others may be less fortunate. But this is where your point is particularly appropriate to reiterate. “The sum is greater than the whole.” Someone making these virtual reality experiences more collaborative, in conjunction with an effective teacher (as you mentioned), may allow the struggling learners to stay afloat in that virtual deep end. ~Dana

    1. Sigh— wishing I could edit my spelling errors in comments made in other people’s posts. Please change “relived” to “relieved”!

    2. I too was relieved! My students don’t have many opportunities for field trips because of our rural location, but I always do my best to integrate trips where possible, even just locally. My own students love these opportunities, so it was nice to read that students valuing field trips is a trend. Similar to your use of virtual labs when other means are not available mirrors my current use of virtual field trips. If I am unable to provide an in-person experience, that is when I turn to the virtual world for an option.

  3. Thank you Stephanie for sparking a discussion on Magdalene Lampert’s paper (an important foundational read) and the idea of “distributed knowledge”. Given your understanding of distributed knowledge, in what ways might this concept from your perspective, help address the issue about the virtual and the real. These questions (and our position on them) will impact how we design TELEs for our students.

    Looking forward to your thoughts,

    1. In terms of distributed knowledge, I feel that one of the goals of field trips is to provide students with opportunities to learn from experts in a particular field, whether those experts are scientists, historians, environmentalists, or even fellow students. From this perspective, a virtual experience that also engages students in this interaction for learning can be a valuable learning experience. Where I feel that the greatest difference emerges is in the student’s perception of their own role in the experience. Being able to actually touch the soil, test the water sample, or bounce the ball is a different experience from clicking a button, moving one’s head, or using a keyboard to virtually explore. For some students, the virtual experience can be easier to process, while for others, the tactile, face-to-face experience provides richer learning. The key feature is to ensure that regardless of the way in which the experience is accessed, students have a genuine opportunity to interact with people and environments, not simply skim them.
      Additionally, having students reflect on and share their learning after a face-to-face or virtual experience supports distributed cognition by allowing the students to learn from one another’s experiences. Different students will internalize different lessons and come to different understandings, and having the opportunity to come to a collective level of understanding allows each student to both share and receive, regardless of if their experiential environments were the same or not.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *