©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Virtual Field Trips and Newsrooms:
Integrating Technology into the Classroom


Elizabeth K. Wilson, Margaret L. Rice, William Bagley, M. Keith Rice

In this article, we present two classroom exercises that use computers and the Internet as tools for learning social studies content. The first exercise, the Virtual Field Trip, requires little preparation and relatively little technology beyond some computers with access to the World Wide Web. The second exercise, the Virtual Newsroom, is more complex, and would require the teacher and students to be familiar with specific software, like Microsoft PowerPoint. Either exercise could be done with middle or high school students, but the second requires that students be able to apply themselves to a group research project.


Virtual Field Trips

An Internet “field trip” can provide students with a first-hand learning experience that might not otherwise be possible, given the expense and logistics of planning a real field trip across the country. Teachers are fortunate in that today there are many websites that would lend themselves well to a social studies virtual field trip. If students simply “cut and paste” text from a site, however, they are probably not learning much content. The challenge is to provide questions that lead students to explore a site thoroughly, analyze the information critically, and present their findings in their own words.1 During the trip, the teacher acts as a facilitator, monitoring student use of the Internet and assessing student performance and learning.

In this more-structured exercise, the teacher checks all sites that students will visit. Sometimes, the precise address
(Uniform Resource Locator, or URL) of a website will change, so it is always worth checking close to “show time” to see that each one is still valid. Also, teachers should preview websites in the same manner as they would videos, films, books, and other resources. Many sites are poorly constructed, contain inaccurate information, or are inappropriate for children.

Many schools provide explicit policies for students and teachers to follow. Some have policies requiring that parental consent forms be signed and that students first pass a test relating to the proper use of the Internet in school. Some use commercial software that aims to screen out inappropriate websites.

The teacher can prepare a Virtual Field Trip Guide for each student. The guide should be in two parts: one electronic, the other on paper.

n On the computer, enter the home page address (URL) of each website that students will visit on the journey. This information should be stored as web links (bookmarks) or as a simple text document, from which URLs can be “cut and pasted” as needed. If Internet addresses have to be typed by hand, then they must be typed exactly as written or the site will not appear on the screen. Some students may not be able to retype a long URL without errors, and lots of time can be wasted in the attempt.

nñDistribute a handout that gives basic directions and key questions that students must answer in their own words, using information that they will find at the site. Searching for the answers to these questions is the heart of this exercise.

n Provide (on paper) some instructions for touring any website that is unusually complex or puzzling. Because many websites are quite intricate, students may spend a great deal of time determining which pages within the site to explore, rather than spending time gaining important information from the site. Providing the students with some of the key places to visit within a site can get them on the right path. (For example, “From the home page, click on ‘Biographical Information.’”) Of course, one could provide the precise URL of each screen that students should look at, but this would remove some of the fun and challenge of using the Web. Looking around on their own, students might even discover new web pages (within a particular site) that the teacher had not seen that contain useful information.

n The guide might also list a few prohibitions. We do not recommend that students download text or graphics from the Web for this project, as this can consume a lot of time, tie up a printer, and distract students from answering the questions in their own words. We do not recommend general searches of the Web (to find new, relevant sites) as part of this limited exercise.


“Visiting” Mount Vernon

At the conclusion of a unit of study on the American Revolution, students took a virtual field trip to Mount Vernon. This one-day field trip was an opportunity to use some of the knowledge that had been learned in the more conventional classes, and to research the life of George Washington in more detail.

Students met in the computer lab and were divided into groups of three, one group for each of seven computers. Each group had at least one student who had some familiarity with using the Web. The teacher reviewed the schoo#146;s Internet use policy, then distributed Virtual Field Trip Guides (see box).

Students booted up their computers and “traveled” to the Mount Vernon website (www.mountvernon.org) to begin their research. The teacher strolled from group to group, monitoring their progress. At the end of the day, the teacher collected the guides, which were now filled with students’ notes and answers. On the next day, back in the classroom, students discussed what they had learned about George Washington, as well as what they thought was valuable (or not) about visiting this particular site.

Students were assessed on their written work (answers to questions on the guide), their participation in the class discussion, and how they applied themselves in the computer lab. Extension activities could include students (1) creating a poster, a collage, or other appropriate work relating to the life of George Washington; (2) performing a “historical newscast,” in which student reporters would “interview” George Washington on the eve of an important event, such as the crossing of the Delaware River or the first meeting of the Continental Congress; or (3) visiting other related websites (such as Colonial Williamsburg, at www.colonialwilliamsburg.org or Monticello, at www.monticello.org) and creating their own travel guides.


Virtual Field Trip Guide for Mount Vernon



Name:_____________________________ Date: ___________________


> Objective: To learn about George Washington by traveling on the World Wide Web to “visit” his home at Mount Vernon, Virginia.


> Grading: This tour guide will be collected at the end of the period. You will be graded on how well you use your time in the lab and on your written answers.


> Procedure: Go to the Mount Vernon site, www.mountvernon.org. Click on “Educational Resources” and then complete the “Online Quiz.” Return to Educational Resources and click on “Biographical Information” and other links (such as “George Washington and Slavery”). Explore these various pages in order to answer the questions below.


1. When and where was George Washington born?

2. How did Washington learn the skill of surveying?

3. Who did Washington marry and when?

4. To what position was Washington named in 1775?

5. Describe Washington’s personal opinion about slavery.

6. Explain why Washington resigned from the Continental Army at the end of the Revolutionary War.

7. Describe Washington’s role at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

8. What was Washington’s reaction to being elected as the first President of the United States? What concerns did he have?

9. What made Washington a good leader and manager?

10. Washington was also known as a “first farmer” of America. Describe two agricultural practices that he was one of the first farmers to employ, and explain their importance.

11. Now that you have explored the website, does it seem like a good place to learn about Washington? What organization sponsors this website?

12. Finally, in paragraph form, describe what you think is the most important thing that you learned about George Washington in this activity.


Virtual Newsrooms

Students can create multimedia presentations, describing historical events as if they are currently taking place, acting as “reporters” as images of a historic event appear on a screen behind them. This activity probably works best as a culminating exercise in a unit of study, not as an introduction. The newsroom exercise described in this article took two weeks. It is quite a bit more ambitious than the virtual field trip exercise, because it calls for students to conduct global searches on the web, use presentation software (like Microsoft PowerPoint), write dialog, and act—and to create a presentation that credibly and accurately recreates a moment of history.

The equipment and technical knowledge needed to create a virtual newsroom are more extensive than that needed for a virtual field trip. We used the Internet lab and library for three class periods to conduct research. For the final presentations, a screen was positioned behind a “news desk,” which was decorated with a TV news logo. For a class of twenty students, a teacher would need four multimedia computers with Internet access, a multimedia projector, and a slide screen, as well as appropriate software such as Word, PowerPoint, and PhotoEditor, all from Microsoft. PowerPoint is a program that helps the user organize and format a presentation, rather like a slide show. Students can create images (for example, a chart, graph, or cartoon) or download images from websites for using in their presentation.

Students are divided into four groups of five students (with one computer for each group), and each group is given a historical event to report on. Each group chooses its own reporters, news anchors, and (optionally) citizens who are “living” the event. The teacher provides a few key websites that everyone should visit, but also invites students to search the web for sources of textual information (for their reports and interviews) and images (for saving and then projecting onto the screen) specific to their event. Students are graded on the quality of their final presentation as well as on their efficient use of lab time.


“Covering” the Civil Rights Movement from the “Virtual News Room” of WWW-TV


Day 1:

1. On the first day of the exercise, the teacher reviewed the schoo#146;s Internet use policy and then gave an overview of the project, explaining that the objective was to learn about the Civil Rights Movement by creating a five-minute multimedia presentation in the style of a television news report. Students were to work cooperatively, use research skills, and employ critical thinking. The computers were to be used for research (the Web being a source of text and images) and for organizing and displaying the images for the presentations.

2. Assessment was described at the outset. Students would be graded on how well they used their time and resources in the library and lab (20% of the grade); on the quality of each group’s final presentation (60%); and on a final test that would cover all of the events presented by all of the groups (20%). A rubric was developed for assessing the performance. With regard to content, a high-quality presentation should attend to historical detail, reveal what people’s experiences and opinions were at the time, and explore the possible causes of events. With regard to form, a presentation should employ all the members of the group and use the technological components to tell the story in a logical and believable (not comic) way.

3. The teacher grouped students into four teams, taking into consideration the individual skills needed in each group (computer use, writing, and speaking).

4. Each group selected (or groups can randomly draw) an important historical event from a list provided by the teacher. For our unit on the Civil Rights Movement, students chose from among these events: Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), Montgomery Bus Boycott-Rosa Parks (1955), Desegregation at Little Rock (1957), Sit-ins beginning in Greensboro, North Carolina (1960), Freedom Rides (1961), University of Mississippi Riot (1962), Birmingham Protest March (1963), Bombing of the Sixteenth Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama (1963), March on Washington (1963), or Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama (1965).

É. Each group agreed on a general strategy for researching its topic and developing the multimedia presentation. (The teacher moves from group to group, guiding the discussion and making suggestions.)


Days 2 and 3:

1. Several books and websites were recommended by the teacher. Students visited the library to begin researching their topic.2 When they had a basic outline of the event and the participants, and a rough draft of the narrative for the news show, they returned to the computer lab.

2. Students made a quick introductory trip to the recommended websites.3

3. Students conducted their Internet search using the Hotbot search engine (hotbot.lycos.com). One group began by searching on the term “civil rights,” which resulted in a list of more than 100,000 sites of possible relevance, which was clearly unwieldy. The group then searched the Internet by trying out key words for each topic (for example, searching on “Rosa Parks”), which yielded more manageable lists. Several of the recommended home pages also had “interna#148; search engines that led students to relevant pages within a site.

4. Students took notes by hand on the people and conditions surrounding their chosen event. From the many images available, key pictures were downloaded onto a disk for later use in their presentation. (Five was the recommended number of images to use in a presentation. Our image files were deleted after this project to respect copyright laws.)

5. Guidance was needed from the teacher at this phase, so that students would not consume all the time just surfing from site to site. One of the challenges in using the web is getting a feeling for when to pause in the search to write down key points or download an exceptional image.4 It is easy to spend hours drifting from site to site, finding interesting things, but having nothing to show for it—not even a record of the sites visited. Pausing to write down (or download) nuggets of information is a research skill of the information age that students may need to practice.


Days 4 and 5:

1. Students used the materials that they gathered on the Internet and in the library to make a rough draft of their presentations with the use of the PowerPoint program. The teacher continued to move from group to group providing suggestions and keeping students on task.

2. Once the rough draft was finished, two students worked on the computer developing the PowerPoint presentation and finding any additional information on the Internet needed to complete the dialog, while the remaining three members worked on details of the script and dramatic sequence of the news presentation. Students coordinated pictures on the PowerPoint slides to match the dialog to be presented from the news desk.

3. The final script had lines for each member of the group, including the anchors at the news desk, on-site reporters, and interviewees.


Days 6 and 7:

All members of the group worked together in their “newsroom,” with the computer and notes at hand, and went through trial runs of their presentation. The narration was fitted with timing of the images projected onscreen by PowerPoint.


Days 8, 9, and 10:

1. The news teams went on the air! Those groups not acting were the home viewing audience. Some students took notes. The best news broadcasts included reportage from the scene, an interview with a participant, and discussion and analysis by the anchors. One reporter stood in front of an image of marchers on their way to Selma, Alabama, describing the scene and explaining why some people were engaged in this protest, and why others were reacting angrily to it.

2. It is always wise to have a “Plan B.” Let students know that, if a technical problem arises (for example, the images do not project), they can proceed with the newscast as if it were a radio broadcast.

3. After a presentation, the group asked the “audience” questions about the historical event covered in its presentation. Then members of the class were invited to ask the actors details about that event. The teacher provided clarification and elaboration (being sure, for example, that course of study requirements were covered).

4. Students in the audience critiqued the presentation with regard to its social studies content as well as technical and theatrical quality.

5. After all of the presentations had been given, a test was given on the historical material covered in the news reports and follow-up discussions.



1. See the special issue of Social Education, “Bits.Bytes.Bugs: Social Studies Education in the Digital Age,” volume 63, number 3, April 1999; E.G. Cotton, “The Virtual Tour,” in J.A. Braun and C. Frederick Risinger, eds., Surfing Social Studies: The Internet Book (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1999), 33-40.

2. Recommended books on the Civil Rights Movement include Richard Kelso, Walking for Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott (Austin, TX: Raintree/Steck-Vaughn, 1993); Glenn T. Eskew, But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); Townsend Davis, Weary Feet, Rested Souls: A Guided History of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998); Peter B. Levy, The Civil Rights Movement (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998).

3. Recommended websites on the Civil Rights Movement include: Civil Rights: A Status Report (www.ghgcorp.com/hollaway/civil.htm); Civil Rights in America (www.macontel.com/special/rights/html/r.htm); National Civil Rights Museum (www.midsouth.rr.com/civilrights); photo tour of the movement (www.seattletimes.com/mlk/movement/PT/phototour.html); and Africana Black Studies site (www.africana.com)

4. Some of the websites used by our students in their presentations included: 1963 Bomb Kills 4 Girls; a photo showing church after the bombing (www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/churches/photo3.htm); Rosa Parks, The Woman Who Changed a Nation (www.grandtimes.com/rosa.html); 1963 Bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church (www.useekufind.com/peace/links.htm); Thurgood Marshall, as a young black lawyer in Brown vs. Board of Education (www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/3515/brown3.html); a photo of Rosa Parks boarding a bus during the Montgomery Bus Boycott (4civilrights.4anything.com/network-frame/0,1855,2364:72337,00.html); a video of the original nine black students entering Little Rock Central High School in 1957 (www.centralhigh57.org/movie1.htm); a photo of a riders on a bus (and National Guardsmen protecting them) during the Freedom Rides (www.wmich.edu/politics/mlk/rides.html); a photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a Birmingham jail after the Protest March in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 (4civilrights.4anything.com/network-frame/0,1855,2364:72337,00.html); a photo of Martin Luther King, Jr., giving his “I Have a Dream” speech (4civilrights.4anything.com/network-frame/0,1855,2364:72337,00.html); audio of Martin Luther King’s speech; a sound file download (www.digisys.net/users/hootie/brown/bground.htm); and a photo of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, 1965 (4civilrights.4anything.com/network-frame/0,1855,2364:72337,00.html).


Elizabeth K. Wilson is Chair of Secondary Education in the College of Education at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Margaret L. Rice is an assistant professor in instructional technology at that college. William Bagley is a social studies teacher at Cullman High School in Cullman, Alabama. M. Keith Rice is a social studies teacher at Northwest Whitfield High School in Tunnel Hill, Georgia.