Online field trips boost reading scores

A free collection of online field trips and other web-based learning materials has been shown to boost reading levels and help improve test scores among middle-school students, according to the results of a scientifically based research study from Maryland Public Television (MPT).

Approximately 400 seventh and eighth graders from two Maryland public middle schools–one urban, one rural–participated in the study, which took place during the 2003-04 school year and was released in late April. The study showed that seventh and eighth graders who used three online field trips–each specifically developed by MPT for social studies and language arts–scored higher on a national standardized reading comprehension test than those who used traditional learning methods alone.

Though relatively small in size and scope, the study’s findings could have national implications for educators who embrace the internet as a tool for learning, executives at the nonprofit television station believe. Every teacher across the country, they say, can access these same resources at no cost by logging on to MPT’s educational web site,

“The study shows that some of the new ways we are teaching with technology are helping our students to succeed,” noted Cathy Townsend, principal of Salisbury Middle School, one of the study’s participants.

Specifically, the control-based experiment showed that use of the online field trips in classroom instruction improved students’ reading performance on the Gates-MacGinitie Standardized Reading Test–a popular K-12 assessment used in several states.

“Students who used the [electronic field trips] performed better on the unit tests than the students using only traditional methods,” researchers found. Results also showed improved reading comprehension among poor and economically disadvantaged students.

The news bodes well not only for MPT, but for hundreds of educational service providers and nonprofits that have begun offering online field trips and other digital media, including streaming video, as a substitute for the first-person experience.

Across the country, teachers increasingly are turning to the internet to provide students with glimpses of places they might not otherwise have the opportunity to see. Students in rural Nebraska, for instance, now can visit New York’s famous Bronx Zoo without ever leaving their classrooms or begging their parents to sign a permission slip. Another popular virtual tourist attraction, Colonial Williamsburg, gives students the chance to chat live with historians and observe what life must have been like during the Revolutionary War. NASA offers a similar program for aspiring astronauts and scientists.

But educators should use caution when choosing their next virtual destination, warns Suzanne Clewell, faculty associate at Johns Hopkins University and former coordinator of K-12 reading for Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools: Not all virtual field trips are likely to produce such glowing results.

For a virtual field trip to be successful as a learning tool, Clewell said, it has to come equipped with targeted instructional materials that are both engaging for students and helpful for educators.


“If they don’t have the support of the teacher, [students] are not going to succeed,” explained Clewell, who added, “It’s exciting to see how teachers’ eyes open up” once they see firsthand the effect of the technology.

As part of its Thinkport program, MPT worked with reading experts–including Clewell–to develop lessons and resources tied to three separate online field trips: (1) Pathways to Freedom: Maryland and the Underground Railroad; (2) Exploring Maryland’s Roots; and (3) Knowing Poe: the Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe. Each virtual expedition was accompanied by a selection of specially designed teaching materials, including vocabulary lists, primary-source materials, teacher support strategies, and other instructional devices.

Educators used the accompanying lesson plans and classroom activities to help build phonics skills, vocabulary, and comprehension of content knowledge.

Clewell attributed much of the project’s success to the interactivity of the lessons. In all three cases, she said, students were allowed to work independently and make their own choices–a freedom she believes leads to deeper thinking.

“The lessons that were selected were very motivating,” Clewell said.

The evaluation was conducted by ORC Macro, a Maryland consulting firm, as part of a $2.2-million “Ready to Teach” grant awarded to MPT by the U.S. Department of Education in 2002.

“This research was a great opportunity for teachers to contribute to scientifically studying what materials and strategies are most effective for their students,” said Helene Jennings, the technical director at ORC Macro.

“Kids are critical consumers of electronic media. We designed the online field trips to teach, but they also had to be very sophisticated, fun, and relevant in order to capture the students’ interest,” said MPT Vice President and Chief Education Officer Gail Porter Long. “Since we began our digital projects in education using our public television resources, we’ve believed that the web can help teach. This study now backs that up.”

Thinkport is a K-12 web site for educators and families developed by Maryland Public Television and Johns Hopkins University Center for Technology in Education.


Maryland Public Television

Colonial Williamsburg


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