Virtual Tours Are Taking Off. Here’s How to Integrate Them Into Your Teaching

Educator James Fester wrote this post.

It is said that every place tells one story better than any other place.

As a volunteer educator at Angel Island State Park in San Francisco, I came to appreciate this more deeply. I was lucky to have such an excellent teaching environment. The park, which covers an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, tells a multilayered story. It has been the site of Indigenous settlements, Civil War fortifications, World War II embarkation facilities, and the U.S.’s main West Coast immigration station from 1910 to 1940. The visitors who participated in my program were surrounded by an environment full of resources that I could leverage to illustrate my points and that they could explore to fulfill their own curiosity. I’d always wished I could duplicate in my classroom the kind of learning that took place in the park.

Fortunately, California State Parks developed the PORTS Home Learning Programs, which provide distance learning to students across the state. The creation of a virtual tour took this concept a step further, allowing students to explore parts of Angel Island on their own.

These resources weren’t unique to Angel Island, with many other parks and museums creating their own virtual experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic for learners of all sorts to use. Educational sites and organizations that previously catered to visiting student groups were forced to close down, but like classroom educators, they didn’t give up. Rather, they began rapidly adapting to distance learning, and the result was an explosion in virtual tours.

As a park volunteer, I saw this occur firsthand. The same pivoting that occurred in thousands of classrooms also happened at parks, zoos, museums, and aquariums across the United States, and the result was a rapid increase in interactive and virtual experiences that engaged students and promoted deeper thinking.

These kinds of resources aren’t backed up just by anecdotal evidence. Multiple studies have shown that the inclusion of virtual tours and trips in curriculum increases reading comprehension, helps promote global awareness among isolated or rural populations, and can be used to effectively engage and reduce dropout rates for at-risk populations of students.

However, even the fanciest website, with all sorts of interactive buttons, isn’t automatically a valuable learning experience. It is just a resource unless you pair it with a method. The tour needs to be supported by a framework that encourages the kinds of exploratory activities that give learners the opportunity to find and construct their own answers.

Creating activities that both incorporate virtual exploration and connect to the National Geographic Learning Framework can be done in a lot of different ways. Here are a few:

  • Similar to exploring a physical environment, exploring a virtual environment requires observation. For example, students learning about differences between how people live today and how people lived long ago might take this 3D tour of Hampton National Historic Site. They could record their observations in a Venn diagram or share them during an all-class discussion.

  • Students can be given a question or inquiry challenge, then can collaborate in pairs or small groups, discussing what they are learning as they navigate through an experience. For example, students can use this interactive tour of Carlsbad Caverns to learn about the site’s complex cave ecosystems, then get into small groups to construct annotated diagrams of ecosystem features based on what they learned.

  • Virtual tours help promote awareness of distant cultural resources and natural wonders. Without virtual tours, archeological marvels like Mesa Verde National Park were inaccessible to millions and millions of people. Now, through platforms like YouVisit, global audiences can experience this place and hopefully turn that awareness into empathy for its protection and preservation.

  • When virtual exploration is structured along inquiry-based lines, student curiosity becomes the driver, allowing for choice and interest to guide learning. Using a broad, open-ended question like “How do monuments communicate meaning?” and allowing students choice as they explore memorials and monuments helps them learn how sculpture and symbolism convey meaning. 3D models of locations like the Lincoln Memorial and Mount Rushmore help students stay engaged and investigate more deeply.

These great resources will get you started teaching with virtual tours:

  • Google Arts & Culture has an extensive collection of resources you can use to create immersive virtual experiences for students interested in exploring the natural and cultural wonders preserved by the National Park Service!

  • CyArk is a fantastic site that includes amazing virtual tours that are navigable and narrated, as well as terrific 3D models that are manipulable. They also curate great collections, like this collection focusing on social justice and equal rights.

  • The National Park Service provides a multitude of options for exploring virtually. Visit their website for a selection of virtual tours and multimedia resources, or check out the Virtual Passport Cancellation activities offered by a nonprofit partner of the park service.

  • Finally, my COVID-19 Remote Learning Emergency Fund project, funded by the National Geographic Society, allowed me to create resources that can be used by any teacher to develop their own Google-powered virtual tours and explorations! I wanted to create exemplary virtual tours that could be used either on their own or by teachers interested in making their own virtual tours. Check out my webpage to learn more about how to build your own virtual interpretive tours!

For more on the National Geographic Learning Framework, read the overview on and enroll in our free, 90-minute mini-course “Developing a National Geographic Explorer Mindset with Your Learners,” open now.

James Fester is a consultant and author passionate about project-based learning (PBL) and experiential learning. His educational experience includes classroom teaching, instructional coaching, technology integration, and, most recently, serving as a member of the PBLWorks National Faculty. In addition to his consulting work, James is a National Park Service volunteer who collaborates on educational programs for parks across the country. His writing has been featured by National Geographic, TED-Ed, KQED, and in a recent book on PBL and environmental science published by ISTE. He currently resides in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. Learn more about his work or how to work with him on his website!

This post references a project made possible in part by an award from the National Geographic Society’s COVID-19 Remote Learning Emergency Fund for Educators.

In the featured image, a caver lights up a gypsum chandelier in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, one of several parks educators and students can experience in a virtual tour hosted by Google Arts & Culture. (Dr. Jean K. Krejca, Zara Environmental LLC – For Public Use)

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