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Distance Learning: It’s for Everyone, Near & Far

Distance Learning: It’s for Everyone, Near & Far

By Erin Dreps, School Programs Manager at Butterfly Pavilion

Field trips are no doubt a magical experience during which even the shortest bus ride feels like a stardust-powered transport to another world. While delivering lots of fun, they can also inspire excitement about learning and provide real-world insights into classroom topics. The win-win nature of this arrangement for students and teachers reinforces the magical quality of field trips.

We see this happening every day at Butterfly Pavilion: over 30,000 students pass through our doors on field trips every year. But increasingly, the wizardry required to pull off a field trip is getting more complex as teachers face ever greater obstacles when transporting students off site. The rising cost of buses district transportation, “blackout” dates, needing longer travel times in the thickening gridlock – these are just some of the barriers cited by teachers we work with who want to take their students on a field trip.

While Butterfly Pavilion has always offered outreach programs, in which an educator travels to a school or community site to meet folks where they are, this can still pose logistical challenges for schools and it does not avoid the travel costs altogether. Even with scholarships offered to qualifying groups, the costs and challenges taken together have some teachers looking for alternatives. Then, of course, there are the students who simply live too far from Butterfly Pavilion to enjoy a field trip or an outreach.

Enter distance learning. Distance learning (DL), sometimes called “virtual field trips,” offers classrooms the opportunity to connect with Butterfly Pavilion educators via interactive videoconferencing. This avoids travel costs and hassles of all kinds while still enabling students to connect with experts and welcome a virtual “visitor” to their classroom.

Butterfly Pavilion has been in the DL game since 2016, offering both “point-to-point” programs (connecting with one classroom at a time) and webinar-style programs (connecting with lots of classrooms and homeschoolers all over the world simultaneously). Despite initial trepidation about the types of interactions we could facilitate as a face on the screen, we’ve learned a lot quickly:

First, because the instructor is not physically in the same room as the students and because it’s not very practical to share props or materials with the students, each program builds in some sort of hands-on activity with a low materials requirement – printouts and basic classroom supplies that teachers can easily provide. These printouts can be a bigger-than-life size diagram of a tarantula whose anatomy students label during the program, an aerial view of Butterfly Pavilion with bee sightings map which students inventory as a simulation of citizen science data collection, or a map of North American on which students trace the monarch butterflies’ migration as they imagine themselves journeying alongside these impressive insects. Including a hands-on element for the students to interact with helps to offset the fact that facilitating actual physical movement via videoconference is not necessarily feasible. Next, while the instructor, with the in-classroom teacher’s help, is able to call on and hear from some students in point-to-point programs (and students or their teachers can participate via chat boxes in the webinars), this process is not as efficient as it is in person. So, instead, we build in turn-and-talk moments so that students still get to share their ideas, even if not with the entire group.

While there may not be a magic school bus moment in a virtual field trip, DL still supports student learning and engagement and supplements the regular classroom curriculum while introducing a bit of novelty (once, getting ready to sign off, a student ran up to the camera and asked, “Are you on TV??”). The care we’ve put into ensuring these programs are interactive and meaningful has been reflected in the awards bestowed upon them by the Colorado Distance Learning Association (2016), the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education (2017), and the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (2018).

Want to bring DL into your classroom or homeschool? It's easy.

Email us at education@butterflies.org with any questions!

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