There are abundant opportunities to embed networked communities in STEM education. Especially, both virtual field trips (VFTs) and interactive virtual expeditions (IVEs) offer authentic learning opportunities for students in the classroom. Both technologies are valuable in terms of providing students with real-life experience and engaging learning process. Niemitz et al (2008) reported that “the use of interactive virtual expeditions in classroom learning environments can theoretically be an effective means of engaging learners in understanding science as an inquiry process, infusing current research and relevant science into the classroom, and positively affecting learner attitudes towards science as a process and a career (p. 562).”
In addition to authentic learning experiences, virtual field trips and IVEs can take students to locations that are too far away to travel to or too expensive to visit. Virtual field trips can take a student back in time, into outer space, or into the microscopic world, all of which are tours regular physical field trips cannot offer.
The availability of these technologies enables educators to design experiences that some students would otherwise not have access. In so doing, these technologies enhance and extend student learning. For example, having students visit the North Pole via live animal cams or explore volcano sites through Volcano World enables students to experience these natural phenomena and animals in ways they would otherwise be difficult. This brings the student learning process to life. The process can further be enhanced when educators incorporate interactions with networked communities as part of these virtual experiences.
The research has found that students should be able to acquire the same cognitive and qualitative gains if a virtual field trip is planned and conducted in the same meticulous fashion as a real-life field trip. The researchers also reported that virtual field trips can enhance learning (Cox & Su, 2004) and provide a supplement to actual field trips (Spicer & Stratford, 2001). VFTs can still “offer valuable tools for instructional augmentation and enrichment of actual field trips” (Klemm & Tuthill, 2002, p. 464). As such, VFTs should not be seen as a replacement for real-world field trips but rather as a supplement to them when real life travel is possible.
I believe that the success of virtual trips and expeditions depends on the level preparation for the learning experience and the quality of student engagement while on the trip. The trip should be followed by a carefully planned reflection to enhance the learning process (Cox & Su, 2004, p. 120).
Cox, E.S., & Su, T. (2004). Integrating student learning with practitioner experiences via virtual field trips. Journal of Educational Media, 29(2), 113-123.
Niemitz, M., Slough, S., Peart, L., Klaus, A., Leckie, R. M., & St John, K. (2008). Interactive virtual expeditions as a learning tool: The School of Rock Expedition case study. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 17(4), 561-580.
Spicer, J. I., & Stratford, J. (2001). Student perceptions of a virtual field trip to replace a real field trip. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 17(4), 345-354.
Tuthill, G., & Klemm, E. B. (2002). Virtual field trips: Alternatives to actual field trips. International Journal of Instructional Media, 29(4), 453-468.