Online Field Trips: creating meaningful engagement in Distance Learning

This Museum Studies Certificate class is entirely asynchronous and attracts students from all over the world. Since such classes traditionally take museum field trips, the challenge was to create similarly valuable experiences for distance learners.

Each week we discuss origins and ethical issues related to a different type of museum: Natural History, Science, Local History or Art, for example. The students’ assignment is to locate such a museum near them, conduct their own field trip, and post to the discussion board an account of their visit with photos or video.

This creates an unusually rich, multi-layered learning experience, still part of the online class, but unshackled from the computer.

One of the major criticisms of distance learning is that it is confined to virtual experiences through reading and links. By opening up the course to include in-person museum visits we can help to address that. This is not the same as attempting to re-create a classroom experience by hosting “virtual” field trips for a class online, but gives the students a reason to physically and personally connect with museums in their area. Many Museum Studies students are active museum professionals, but they too often have museums that they have been “meaning to visit”or haven’t had a reason to go to for years.

The Clarke Art Institute

“My college-aged daughter came along with me on several of the weekly museum visits for this class. I was surprised and assumed she was looking for an opportunity for a good meal. At one point, she reminded me about the summer when she and her brother were much younger and I had taken them to a different museum every week to “try to get them to like museums.” I was surprised again; I vaguely remembered the museum-going stint, but I was certain that I did not have any specific motive of trying to coerce my children into liking museums. Then it occurred to me that I had succeeded in my non-motive, because here was my daughter at age 19 voluntarily coming to museums with me!” (Kim) 

Since the upgrade of the class this Spring we have also incorporated interactive maps of museums throughout the United States.

Sending students out to participate in museums in their own area which they may not typically visit also creates an awareness, for the whole class, of museums which they have never heard of not only here but in Brazil, Japan or Qatar.

The importance of this assignment is that we free the student from their study/basement/kitchen and send them out into their community to actively participate and interact with museums. Such interactions often lead to volunteering and connections in the world they may be transitioning into.

Using the new interactive maps, students are exposed to a far greater range of museums than may have seemed obvious to them initially. The revisions to Canvas have meant that students can return to share photos and videos from their trips.

I organized the site by modules, each of which had an assignment to visit a particular type of museum. Below (in purple) are the assignments for a sampling of the modules, along with examples of photos, video or text responses from the course.

Please visit a Natural History Museum near you. You can use the Museum Maps page to help locate one. How is it dealing with the issues of displaying culturally sensitive material? If possible, please share photos or video of your visit.


Please visit a Science Museum in your area. You can use the Museum Maps page to help locate one. Is the museum displaying potentially controversial subjects and material in a balanced and neutral way?

“Though it is a small museum, the miSci does an excellent job at engaging its visitors. Being primarily aimed at families and younger children, there is no controversial exhibits. The miSci remains neutral in the majority of its exhibitions with the exception of the exhibit on electric motors verse combustion engines. This exhibit, while remaining absolutely factual, shows just how much America consumes in fuel and points to the influence of the oil shortages of the 1970s in development of the electric car, as well as the subsequent stalling of development electric cars after the oil shortages ended.” (Adam)

“Two exhibits in particular did not address their controversial nature: the Coal Mine and the Farm Tech exhibit. They both lauded the progress made in mining and agriculture, discussing the various uses for products.” (Marilyn)

Please visit a History Museum in your area. How well does it tell its stories? Is there also a local museum that does not address history? How do the different museums interact with the community?

How does your particular example of a modern art museum deal with the issue of staying “modern”? Does it collect at all? Does it have a policy of disposal?

Please visit a Living History or House Museum near you. How is it addressing accuracy or inaccuracy not only in what it says, but through what is implied in the displays and by the interpreters?

“Patricia, It was SO awesome to get to read a little behind the scenes from someone who actually works in a house museum. I may have to sneak over to your museum next time I’m in Florida so that I can see it all for myself. It sounds like an interesting property! And from the pictures on the website, it looks beautiful. It’s very disheartening to hear about the budget cuts that pretty much gutted the staff… The story about the docents also sounds very frustrating, especially since they’re basically fighting history.” (Abigail)

A rose by any other name… Are they museums, science centers or play-spaces? 

Most students have not given Children’s museums much thought either way, and to a certain extent it is a question of semantics. But even that is an important question in terms of why museums do or do not choose to use the word ‘MUSEUM’. To some it may add gravitas and the possibility of more funding. To others it is seen as having connotations of “stuffy and boring” and is avoided in favor of Exploratorium or Discovery World.

San Diego New Children’s Museum

Real Conversations

The result is the huge value of conversations that have a real, interactive, engaging subject. Consequently there is lively conversation between fellow students as they compare and contrast experiences.

“Hey Abigail, I visited the website – Houston and St. Pete’s are relatively the same age – Wow they are like day and night – St. Pete’s has a wonderful user friendly website — engaging, interactive and timely… thoughtful educator resources…bookmarked!  Many Thanks! “ (Nan) 

“Hi Patricia, The photo exhibit about the American road trip sounds like it would have been interesting! Robert Frank’s photographs were the inspiration for my entire final year project in college. I like the Road Trip Playlist they have links to on their website – I notice that museum staff and their Facebook followers compiled the song list together, which I think is a really great way to engage with people on social media.” (Jennifer)

“Steven, I enjoyed your description of the EAM.  There is something very refreshing and unrestrained about a museum that focuses on contemporary art and challenges visitors to see and think differently.  I also agree with your response to Janelle’s report on the Boise Art museum, small museums are accessible and unaffected.  I don’t like that nagging feeling I get at a large museum, when I think I might have missed something I shouldn’t have.” (Kim) 

“I was also remembering a trip to the Jorvik Viking Center in York, England, where the museum has included sound and smell to enhance their exhibits. My husband remembered visiting when he was a child, and those additional sensory stimulations definitely made a lasting impression on him. “ (Jennifer) 


At the end of each semester we can update the Maps to make sure that any museums that have been omitted can be added and any that are wrongly categorized (or no longer in business) can be corrected, to ensure we maintain a useful usable product.

For more about the process of designing and creating the interactive maps, see:  Museum Maps: Using Google Maps to Create Field Assignment Resources in MUSEUM 370

(Throughout the semester a virtual tour is an option if a physical visit is not possible.)


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