As school districts across the country reevaluate their plans for field trips in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some educators are turning to electronic options as a substitute for travel.

“I wouldn’t take [my students] into Boston right now,” said Mary Larcome, a third-grade teacher at Golden Hill Elementary School in Haverhill, Mass. Lancome’s desire to safeguard her students could lead her to a virtual field trip of the kind she used two years ago.

At that time, her students visited the Cincinnati Zoo with help of videoconferencing technology from PictureTel Corp. in Andover, Mass. With equipment stationed at each end of the interaction, students were able to see animals—such as panda bears—up close and interact with a teacher stationed at the zoo.

The ability to see things not available locally was one reason Larcome opted for an electronic field trip. “We don’t have those kinds of animals available [nearby],” she said.

Providers of virtual field trips report a heightened interest among schools since the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We’ve gotten hundreds of calls from people wanting to use our facilities,” said Sarah Lake, director of electronic field trips for PictureTel. Lake also said content providers for the trips report a greater than 50-percent increase in interest during the same period. Other content providers, such as NASA’s International Space Station and Johnson Space Center, have found a continual demand for their experience that is independent of the recent concerns about travel. “We’ve always had a waiting list,” said Susan Anderson, program lead, who estimates that NASA’s Distance Learning Outpost program serves 800 point-to-point connections each year.

Collaborations between technology and content providers can give students access to experiences that are not available to anyone in person, regardless of physical location or security concerns. For example, through Project DIANE (Diversified Information and Assistance Network), students in Tennessee can visit the Elephant Sanctuary in Honewald, Tenn., an animal reserve off limits to any visitor.

Most client schools from Tennessee can visit for free, thanks to a variety of state grants; schools in other states may be asked to pay a small fee to the content provider, however. For schools looking to replace a trip to New York or Washington, Classroom Connect offers options to study these areas online. The Field Trip option, available with a subscription to Classroom Today, offers focused experiences that are easy to integrate into the curriculum, such as a study of the Lower East Side of New York in 1900 compared with 2000, part of a study on immigration. The company’s Cybertrips option also includes a virtual field trip to Washington.

Even Classroom Connect’s Quest program, which sends explorers to remote parts of the globe to transmit experiences back to students, has been affected by the attacks. “We’ve seen an increase in interest [among] our online community in learning more about the Middle East,” said Seija Surra, director of online curriculum for Classroom Connect. “[People have] always been concerned about going on large field trips. Now there is an urgency about it,” said Andrew Casey, director of INET.

Part of New York City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunication, INET has worked with VBrick Systems Inc. in Wallingford, Conn., to use videoconferencing to link 25 schools in the area to cultural sites, including Lincoln Center and the Museum of Natural History. A similar system already links all of the K-12 and higher-education institutions in the state of Utah. “There has been a dramatic increase in interest since September 11. Our web hits are up 70 percent,” said Rich Mavrogeanes, president of VBrick Systems.

As with other videoconferencing providers, he finds that quality of transmission plays a large role in the acceptance of the technology. “If students aren’t given what they’re used to—TV—they’ll miss the educational message,” he said, comparing the quality of transmission to broadcast television. Technology is on the horizon to bring the cost of videoconferencing—and virtual field trips—down even further. Debby McDonald is chief executive officer of Vugenix, a company that is working on using MPEG-4 technology to transfer broadcast-quality transmissions over internet protocol (IP) networks or via cable modem. This solution will require no new hardware (except, perhaps, the addition of a camera on each end).

McDonald expects to bring point-to-point compression software to the market for around $50; the software is expected to be released by the end of the year.

No one expects virtual field trips to replace in-person visits, but electronic travel offers educators another way to expand students’ experiences—even in perilous times.

Links:

PictureTel Corp.
http://www.picturetel.com

NASA Distance Learning Outpost
http://learningoutpost.jsc.nasa.gov

Project DIANE
http://www.diane.tnstate.edu

Classroom Connect
http://www.classroom.com

VBrick Systems Inc.
http://www.vbrick.com

Vugenix
http://www.vugenix.com