Like many kids, I reckon, field trips were some of my favorite and most memorable happenings at school. Field trips were great, in no small part, because they involved missing school. Schedules and lessons were interrupted so that we could all pile into school buses or parents’ cars and venture out into the world.

I remember in first grade visiting a classmate’s granddad’s ranch where I got to feed a bum lamb. I remember annual trips to the local planetarium. Other regular destinations for a student growing up in Casper, Wyoming: the Werner Wildlife Museum, the Dave Johnston Power Plant, Fort Caspar. I remember a longer drive to Fort Laramie and one to the Wyoming Territorial Prison. I remember the year all the elementary students in the city sat in the bleachers at the Casper College gym and listened to the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra perform Peter and the Wolf; I remember because Pete Williams – yes, that Pete Williams, then a reporter at a local TV station – narrated, and our music teacher Ms. T played the bassoon. The bassoon in Peter and the Wolf plays the Grandfather’s part. The Wolf’s part is played by the French horn. I remember that too – not from watching the Disney cartoon or listening to the story and soundtrack on an LP at home. The instruments and the animals stuck with me, some 35 years later, from that field trip.

These days, field trips are on the decline. According to a 2012 survey by the American Association of School Administrators, 30% of respondents said they’d eliminated field trips in the 2010–2011 school year; 43% indicated they planned to eliminate them for the 2012–2013 school year. Museums and historical sites around the country also report that the number of school field trip visitors has fallen dramatically over the past decade.

The blame for this drop is often placed on a combination of school budget cuts and increased admission fees at museums and other popular field trip sites. Many schools increasingly offset the cost of field trips, in whole or in part, by asking parents to foot the bill. That means that access to field trips is an education equity issue, as affluent schools (and affluent parents) can continue to provide this sort of cultural enrichment while low income schools (and low income parents) cannot.

Field trips are sometimes dismissed as trivial distractions and unnecessarily deviations from the curriculum, but the enrichment they offer is actually quite important, particularly for low-income students who might not otherwise have the opportunities their wealthier peers do to visit museums and the like. According to one recent study:

One consistent pattern in our results is that the benefits of a school tour are generally much larger for students from less-advantaged backgrounds. Students from rural areas and high-poverty schools, as well as minority students, typically show gains that are two to three times larger than those of the total sample. Disadvantaged students assigned by lottery to receive a school tour of an art museum make exceptionally large gains in critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance, and becoming art consumers.

Other research has found that field trips have a long-lasting impact on students, most of whom can still (like me) recall significant elements from the outings – who was there, what they saw, what they did – even years later:

The early-elementary-school field trip recollections of 9-, 13-, and 20+-year old individuals were virtually identical in the categories of items and/or experiences recalled. These findings strongly suggest that museum field trips – regardless of type, subject matter, or nature of the lessons presented – result in highly salient and indelible memories. These memories represented evidence of learning across a wide array of diverse topics.

Also reinforced by this study were the strong interrelationships between cognition and affect, cognition and the physical context, and cognition and social context.

But let's be honest: virtual field trips are not field trips. Oh sure, they might provide educational content. They might, as Google’s newly unveiled “Expeditions” cardboard VR tool promises, boast "360° photo spheres, 3D images and video, ambient sounds -- annotated with details, points of interest and questions that make them easy to integrate into curriculum already used in schools." But virtual field trips do not offer physical context; they do not offer social context. Despite invoking the adjective “immersive,” they most definitely are not.

So when Google says, as it did onstage today at its annual developer/marketing event Google IO, that its new tool will “take your students to places a school can’t,” let’s ask more questions and not simply parrot the tech giant’s PR.

Let’s ask why certain students from certain schools can’t go places -- even local places -- anymore (if, indeed, they ever were able to). Let’s consider how equating viewing 3D movies in the classroom with experiential learning off-campus could give even more schools an excuse to cut back further on funding actual field trips. And, please, let’s not conflate providing students a VR viewer made out of cardboard with actually addressing how education technology exacerbates inequalities.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

Back to Archives