Social Education
Volume 62 Number 1
January 1998

Actual and Virtual Reality: Making the Most of Field Trips

Jennifer Marie Bellan and Geoffrey Scheurman

The very mention of a field trip often makes even the most reticent students excited. Field trips can provide that rare instance when history or government comes close to being “rea#148; for students. Unfortunately, most teachers have tales of field trips that ended in disaster or were fun but nearly void of educational value.
With the advent of the Internet, a popular new phenomenon in social studies classrooms is the “virtual field trip.” Ironically, many of the same concerns teachers express about actual field trips have their electronic counterparts. Bluntly stated, either kind of field trip can be a monumental waste of time. Figure 1 suggests five reasons why.
Despite their pitfalls, there are potential strengths associated with both actual and virtual field trips. Moreover, the strengths offered by one kind of field trip may help alleviate the concerns associated with the other. Indeed, virtual and actual field trips can serve as complementary components in a powerful instructional approach.
Living in the upper Midwest, we have enjoyed the “living history” approach created at Ft. Snelling Historic Site in St. Paul, Minnesota. We recently discovered that the fort is depicted in a website at A cursory look at the site suggests that it is nothing more than a glorified travel brochure. But then, it occurs to us that a cursory tour through the actual fort might lead an unprepared observer to believe that it, too, is nothing more than “just another history place.”
What if we used the virtual site to help students prepare for an actual trip and to extend that trip when we were back in the classroom? Better yet, what if we tried the radical notion of using the website, not as a resource to “get answers” about the real world, but as an instrument to write questions about it? What follows is a plan we have devised to harness students’ curiosity—often unbridled, chaotic, and without direction—in such a way that both actual and virtual field trips can realize their full potential.

Constructing the World of Fort Snelling
A. Teacher does advance search of the actual site

1. Anticipate positive student experiences at the actual fort site
Activities at this “living history” museum range from tea parties and 1820s immersion experiences to birthday parties. Advance planning to check for availability (and possible student birthdays) will help teacher field questions of “can we do that?”

2. Anticipate student frustration level during initial exploration of the actual site
Students will experience a vast array of buildings, constraints due to safety considerations, and museum workers who respond to their questions “in character” (as actors) or “in real life” (as docents). For some students, hypothetical thinking is difficult; therefore, they need help in preparing to ask

B. Teacher does advance search of the virtual site

1. Anticipate positive student experiences at the website
The site has a virtual tour, photographs, biographies, and sketches of outbuildings with basic historical

2. Anticipate possible student frustration level during initial exploration of the virtual site
Are the graphics too big? Will it take too long to download images and text? Is the readability level appropriate?

C. Teacher determines how the website can alleviate concerns about the actual trip (and vice versa)

1. As part of a three-column “Pocket Portfolio” (see Figure 2), the teacher prepares a “virtual tour guide” for students to complete while they are online.
Students will use the information on the website to record, in their own words, what they “expect” to encounter at various locations within the actual fort. The teacher may ask students to retrieve simple information (When was the fort built? Who was it named after and why?), to make narrative predictions, to create drawings of various aspects of historical life (What appears to have been the role of women at the fort?), and to anticipate other aspects of the actual trip (What unique things should we look for in this part of Fort Snelling? Are there safety precautions?).

2. Students turn the Virtual Tour Guide into an Actual Tour Guide to take on the trip
Pocket Portfolios should include notes from the virtual trip and questions for docents and “living” historical characters based on these notes. Students leave space to compare their predictions with actual observations and to make new drawings when they visit the actual fort. They also make space for other personal reflections—for example, on smells, tactile experiences, or funny things that happen to them.

3. Students become “experts” on a specific location within the fort
Prior to the actual trip, pairs of students download sketches of a specific building and summarize notes on the nature of activity that takes place there. These are made into placards and placed around the classroom. Students re-create the fort and take one another on an “in-class tour” that foreshadows the eventual trip to Fort Snelling. For example, students might anticipate their discussions with docents or historical characters by acting out hypothetical scenes at each station in the classroom. The class then helps each pair of “experts” think of good questions to ask on the day of the actual trip.

D. Students visit Fort Snelling using their Pocket Portfolios

1. If a regular tour or age-appropriate program exists, students may participate in it. If not, groups of four may complete their Pocket Portfolios during a specified amount of time.
Usually, historic sites have well-trained staff and a regular educational program. Providing educators at the site with a listing of students’ questions beforehand can help them direct their “speeches” or “roles” toward those topics.

2. Initial information-gathering efforts are discussed before “experts” proceed to their respective areas of study.
After the official tour (or at a pre-determined time), students re-convene at a designated place to share the results of their museum explorations and to get ready for their final task as “experts.” Partners then head for the locations they selected in class, where they interview historic characters and enter detailed drawings in their portfolios. This requires a certain degree of trust on the teacher’s part, as students may scatter to all corners in their quest. Parent chaperones assigned to certain “clusters” of students can help monitor the activity.

E. Students bring completed Pocket Portfolios to class for discussion and evaluation

1. Students return to the Internet and complete the final portion of their Pocket Portfolios.
During the initial virtual tour, students predicted and drew what they “expected.” At Fort Snelling, they recorded some of their actual observations and conversations. Returning to the website, they can reconsider what they expected and decide on the accuracy of their predictions.

2. Each pair of “experts” does a presentation on what they discovered at the fort.
Pairs may choose to conduct a brief re-enactment of their interview with a living historian, debate the accuracy of “history” as it is presented at the fort or website, or other possible activities. Teachers should have a rubric for scoring presentations and providing feedback to students.

3. Students complete a final writing project and prepare to submit their Pocket Portfolios.
Teachers may culminate the lesson with a creative writing assignment. For example, students might write two letters to the living historians they met at Fort Snelling—one in an imaginary historical role (conceived by the student or provided by the teacher) and another as a contemporary student sharing the highlights of their trip to the fort.

Does the virtual field trip replace the actual site? No. On one hand, no matter how sophisticated computers become, the tactile, olfactory, visual, and dialogical experience of an actual field trip cannot be replicated from hundreds of miles away. On the other hand, artifacts and images from books, readings, and now computers, can sensitize a student’s sense of touch, smell, and sight to the plethora of stimuli to be encountered at the actual site. Perhaps more importantly, the use of this information can help provide students with prior knowledge and questions that will enhance their conversation when they visit the actual site. Finally, just as an actual site can bring the flavor of history to the here and now, a virtual field trip can help students reach into the past in a more meaningful way.
The idea of interweaving curriculum objectives with resources on the Internet seems increasingly to be the goal of many educators. We think that using the computer for the sake of using the computer is misguided. However, if
intellectual rigor, disciplinary objectives, and appropriate assessment practices are maintained, there is a place for the Internet in helping increase the
authentic learning of students. What follows is a very brief listing of websites and lesson plan link sites (most created by teachers) that we have reviewed and found to serve many of the objectives described in this article.

Teaching Resources
Lesson Plans & Resources for Social Studies Teachers

Resources for Teaching About the Americas

Ask Asia from The Asia Society


Lesson Plans Page

Other sites that can start you on your own “virtual field trip” adventure:

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

US Census Bureau

World Heritage List

Teaching with Historic Places

End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center

Salem Witch Museum 1692

National Geographic Society

Ice Age National Scenic Trail

Jennifer Marie Bellan is currently a substitute teacher and a recent graduate with a Master of Arts in Teaching History. She has had experience working as a visual information specialist for the Smithsonian Institution. Geoffrey Scheurman is associate professor of teacher education at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls.
The authors would like to thank the educators and enactors at Fort Snelling for lending their costumed talents to her photographs.

Figure 1
Field Trips and Their Pitfalls

Actual Field Trip

Virtual Field Trip

Figure 2
A Sample Page from the Pocket Portfolio

Virtual Tour Guide

Next, you and a partner will select a single location within Fort Snelling and prepare to become “experts” on the functions and activity that took place there in 1823.

My partner is:


Our “area” of expertise is:


From the website:

My building looks like (sketch outside and some aspect of inside):

My expectations are (smell, sights, sounds, feelings):

Actual Tour Guide

Make a record of your observations at Fort Snelling.

Specific things you will look for (check off when found):

Sketch of the actual site (one person make sketch of outside, one of inside):

Questions for living historians (you may summarize your dialogue on the bus):

Follow-up Guide

Now you will return to the website for Fort Snelling and compare your expectations with your actual observations.

What did you find that was unexpected (i.e. not on the website)?

What aspect of your area was most like you expected?

How were your sketches accurate or inaccurate?

What was your “best” question (and why)?

What was the best “answer” (and why)?

What would you ask if you could go back again?

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.