Electronic Field Trip: Incorporating Desktop Videoconferencing in the Elementary School Classroom

Article excerpt

Traditional Field Trips

Over the years, educators have come to appreciate the instructional importance of field trips. Linking the classroom to the real world, field trips provide students with an opportunity for intellectual growth through experiences with a diversity of people, places, and technologies that are difficult to assemble in the classroom.

Field trips also enable teachers to share in the new experiences and to stay abreast of current business and industrial processes and techniques. The contacts made through field trips also help teachers identify speakers and role models who exemplify a cross section of career paths.

However, there are many issues which make the planning and execution of field trips by elementary teachers difficult. Due to increased awareness of child safety and school liability issues, it is becoming increasingly difficult to take children out of the classroom for field trips. The problems involved with taking children on a field trip can be overwhelming: the principal must approve the trip; parent approval forms must be signed for each student; chaperones or teachers aids must be recruited; a bus and driver must be approved and scheduled; and the visit must be scheduled with the business or organization hosting the field trip. The expense and preplanning of field trips causes many teachers to give up before they even begin the process.

Guest Speakers and Outside Experts

An alternative to typical field trips is to invite interesting people or experts into the classroom to talk with students. These sessions are most common at career day activities when parents or relatives are invited in to share various aspects of their jobs. Although extremely beneficial to the children, it is another scheduling burden both for the teacher and the guest speaker. The speaker often must take considerable time away from work and drive long distances at his/her own expense just to spend a short time with the children.

Recent technological innovations allow us to overcome many of the obstacles of field trips and the challenges of scheduling guest speakers and outside experts in the elementary classroom.

Advances in communications hardware, software, and delivery methods now allow individuals and groups separated by great distances to communicate quite effectively without having to leave their businesses or schools. The technology captures audio and video signals, electronically compresses the signals, and then transmits them through sources like satellites, digital phone lines known as an Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN), or personal computers hooked up to the Internet.

Until recently, the majority of video conferencing technology has been cost-prohibitive in both hardware and communication costs for most education institutions, especially the elementary schools. Furthermore, teachers are hesitant to use technology that is complicated, undependable, and frustrating. One example of current communication technology that has the potential to provide a significant alternative for the elementary classroom is "desktop videoconferencing."

The Desktop Videoconferencing Alternative

One desktop videoconferencing system currently available is the ViaTV videophone by 8x8, Inc. of Santa Clara, California (http://www.8x8.com). It uses standard telephone service and promises ease of use as well as greater dependability and lower cost for schools.

For approximately $300, one unit of the videoconferencing system can be established in a school library or classroom that has access to a standard telephone line connection. An identical $300 unit representing the other end of the system can be conveniently mailed to the person or company participating in the videoconference. Each unit comes complete with everything necessary to communicate except a touch-tone phone and television monitor. The four-inch by six-inch camera/processor unit sits unobtrusively atop the TV monitor and connects to the touch tone phone using standard telephone lines. …