Oh, the places we will go! Running virtual field trips

Dr Ruth Larsen, University of Derby

This blog is based on a presentation at the EMC History Teaching in the ‘Age of Covid’ workshop which was held in January 2021. It was also posted as part of the History UK Pandemic Pedagogy series.

For staff and students alike, one particularly enjoyable element of some modules is the field trip. Study visits can provide a great opportunity for applied learning as well as being a great way of creating a sense of cohort identity. However, with many museums and heritage sites closed, and the idea of squeezing students into minibuses feeling like a distant dream, it can feel like the only option is to cancel planned trips and offer ‘yet another zoom lecture’. However, in recent years, and especially on the last twelve months, museums, galleries and other heritage sites have created more and more online provision, which means that there are viable alternatives. This short blog is a guide to running a virtual field trip, and provides a brief guide to some useful resources.

Setting up a virtual field trip

In much the same way that running a ‘live’ field trip requires preparation and consideration, it is important that virtual field trips are properly prepared and introduced to students. Before running the trip, do make sure that you reflect on its purpose, consider its role within the module, and focus on what you want students to get out of the experience. In order for it to be an effective part of the students’ learning you may want to:

  • integrate examples about the place and its collections into the module before the go on the virtual trip. This can include some discussion about the ways in which collections are presented or history discussed within museum and heritage sites.
  • give clear instructions to students: guide them to certain elements of the virtual site, or set them particular questions to consider, so they know why they are there.
  • create a short guide or video ‘walking’ students through the site (especially if there is no help section on the providers’ website). Many of the virtual sites can be a little difficult to navigate at first, especially those which have a virtual reality element or are very large.
  • provide guidance about how long to spend on the exercise, which is especially important if you are visiting one of the bigger museums which have numerous virtual rooms.
  • consider the students’ diverse learning needs, and think about how the accessible the virtual site is for all learners on the module.

Where can we go?

One of benefits of running virtual field trips is that it possible to go to places that would have been previously inaccessible due to time and/or financial constraints. In particular, the opportunity to visit museum and heritage sites overseas is now open to many more students, meaning that field trip is not the preserve of British history modules.

One of the best collections of virtual museums is provided by Google Arts and Culture. This site includes virtual resources for a wide range of heritage sites, archives and other cultural institutions from around the world. They have tours of some museums, including Rijksmuseum, and the National Museum, Delhi. Other institutions provide virtual exhibitions, such as this one from the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, which can be a really rich resource for students to engage with.

For other institutions, you have to get directly to the museums’ websites; this includes large museums such as The Louvre and The Vatican Museum. There are numerous guides to virtual tours, but one of the best for British heritage sites is curated by the Art Fund, which is regularly updated with information about new exhibitions. The provision is expanding all the time, so it worth rechecking the website of a favoured institution to see if they are offering virtual visits, guides or exhibitions. 

Follow up activities

In my experience of running virtual study visits, I have found that students have generally got a great deal out of the experience. However, it has been the post visit discussion and activities which have been central to embedded the learning. By setting up the field trip carefully you can then use the experience in later sessions in the module; this can help to stop the exercise from feeling like ‘busy work’, and instead help students to understand how it was integral to module.

As one of the benefits of running a conventional field trip is the ways in which it can help to form a sense of a student community, you may want to consider running small group activities following a trip. These could include collectively writing a review for the site, sharing ideas about a learning resource for school children, or maybe collectively curating their own exhibition based on objects that they identified in the virtual field trip.

While there can technical teething issues at first, by guiding students, embedding the learning from the trip fully into the module, and by using it as an opportunity for group working, virtual field trips can be a really positive addition to a module. The chances to visit sites from across the world, to compare and contrast different approaches to public history and to get access to places that are normally out of the reach of the students means that virtual field trips, along with their traditional counterparts, may remain part of the way in which we teach in the long term.

Dr Ruth Larsen, University of Derby

R.Larsen@derby.ac.uk

@RuthMLarsen (Twitter)

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