Corporation for Public Broadcasting
(Note: This article appeared in On The Horizon. Copyright 1995 Jossey Bass Publishing. May not be copied and/or retransmitted without the the expressed permission of Jossey Bass.)
As a group of scientists and researchers prepare for their next adventure into the heart of the Amazon, they pack the usual array of necessities for the trip: passports, photographic equipment, malaria medicine, maybe even a cellular phone. But thanks to recent advances in both telecommunications technology and curricular planning, these intrepid explorers may now include something that until recently would have been considered unheard of, if not bizarre: the e-mail addresses for several dozen middle school classes around North America.
Gone are the days when a class trip evoked images of parental consent forms, bumpy bus rides and ant bites - the electronic fieldtrip (sometimes referred to as a cybertrip) is now one of the hottest uses of computer networking in K-12 education today. The premise of the cybertrip is simple enough: scientists, teachers, and other experts go to a specified location equipped with portable computers, an Internet connection, sometimes a video camera for a satellite linkup. As they conduct experiments and observe their surroundings, the team interacts with young students by way of e-mail exchanges and other communicative means.
For example, Maryland Public Television and Geoff Haines-Stiles Productions, in conjunction with NASA's Ames Research Center, has begun a series of electronic fieldtrips know as Passport to Knowledge. The current adventure, Live from Antarctica, links classrooms in the U.S. with a team of scientists as they study the continent, from McMurdo Base to the South Pole. As the scientists examined polar climate, penguin feeding habits and other related subjects, the students conduct experiments tied to the work of the researchers. An automatic e-mail distribution system known as a listserv relays student queries to the team, while the researchers in turn respond with data. The teachers have their own listserv as well, in order to discuss possible new directions for the cybertrip. And to add additional flavor to the project, all the participants are united by way of regularly scheduled satellite telecasts, which are aired on close circuit TV, public television, and NASA's channel, NASA Select.
Cybertrips such as Live from Antarctica integrate two innovative trends in education: distance learning and collaborative learning. Assisted by a networked computer, a classroom may "take part" in a professional field experiment. The Internet, for example, is used to transmit text, audio, images, even video data to and from any part of the world. The students are able to talk with scientists, follow their research, and interject their own questions and concerns, while the scientists visit certain sites and discuss the students' theories. On-line interaction is blended with traditional lesson planning - each class may be required to keep journals, prepare similar experiments, etc. But no matter how a given cybertrip is arranged, one key component remains static - the students and the exploration team treat each other as colleagues. This mutual respect translates into a mutual gain of knowledge, so both sides are enhanced by this distant collaboration.
What is the future of student-researcher collaborations? Will they catch on, given that scientists are busy and may not have time to interact with young kids asking rudimentary questions? Won't a Stephen Hawking or a Roger Penrose grow weary from ever-increasing e-mails by 14-year-olds interested in black holes? Roger Schank, Director of Northwestern University's Institute for the Learning Sciences, noted this concern when he quipped "I, along with other professors I know, can't wait until there are hundreds of such questions a day" (Schank, 1994) Fortunately, the controlled environment of the cybertrip lessens redundancies. Discussions are moderated by teachers and project leaders and previously asked questions are catalogued onto the project server, so no researcher is swamped while trying to conduct scholarly work. In the end, intensive field research and student-scientist interaction can both be achieved in a well-planned project.
With each passing month, numerous organizations around the world sponsor new geographic cyberadventures for kids, but its potential goes beyond the mere exploration of the globe. Passport to Knowledge has definitive plans in the making for fieldtrips that are extraterrestrial (Live from the Stratosphere, Live From the Hubble Telescope), and they are even considering some that are chronological (Live From the Ice Age, Live from Pompeii). And as you can see from these titles, not all of these cybertrips are realistically possible, for no scientist can go back in time. But with the help of computers, they are beginning to create virtual cybertrips - instead of actually traveling to the Ice Age, project leaders run complex software and participate in role-playing scenarios that students can access in the classroom. From the students' point of view, virtual field trips mean new adventures across time and space, thanks to the creative implementation of virtual reality and telepresence. The students of today may not be able to thrive in this new environement just yet, but it is certainly around the corner, much sooner than we might think.
Schank, Roger. "Why Hitchikers on the Information Highway are Going to Have to Wait a Long Time for a Ride." The Aspen Insitute Quarterly. Volume 2, Spring 1994.