While most K-12 schools host open-house nights each fall for parents to visit classrooms and see district facilities, Onekama schools in Michigan encourage people to drop by all year long, at any time of day.
Onekama is among the growing number of districts that offer virtual tours over the Internet so visitors can walk through schools vicariously from the comfort of their homes. People choose the places they want to visit by clicking on a floor plan that calls up photos for each location and can follow links to related information, such as class Web pages. Barbara Eldridge, who led the teacher-made effort there, scanned a copy of the school floor plan and prepared pages for almost every room in the building. "This was my first attempt at a virtual tour," she says.
Other districts are adding multimedia and virtual reality elements to online tours to make them even more realistic. For example, Michigan's Romulus school district features 360- degree panoramic views of classrooms, labs, cafeterias and gyms. Similarly, the tour of South Fayette High School in Pennsylvania includes videos of selected locations. South Fayette school Superintendent Linda Hippert says the online tour was developed with students as a learning experience, which "adds to their pride in our district."
Serving Alumni and Voters
Virtual online tours of school facilities offer countless information and public relations to benefit districts. Tours allow extended families and alumni to keep in close touch with their schools, show voters some of their tax dollars at work, establish needs for referendum and fundraising support, and enable staff and students to see how other schools throughout the country are organized.
Virtual tours can also help acclimate new students and parents to the district, and make it easier for relocating families to choose communities where they want to live. While online resources such as The School Report provide statistical profiles on schools across the nation- with comparative information on test scores, class sizes and dropout rates- virtual tour technologies add important "look and feel" dimensions to gauge school environments.
Basic tours consist of photographs linked to a building map or a list of locations, but may also be sequential slide shows. Though not as glitzy as other types, substantial tours can be developed with just pictures and text, and are good ways to get started. The informationpacked tour of Ohio's Mason City Schools is an excellent example.
Virtual reality tours use various panoramic technologies that may require plug-ins such as IPIX, PIXmaker, QuicktimeVR or Java, and installation instructions are often included in the presentation. The QTVR tour of Wisconsin's School District of Beloit is a striking example.
Integrated multimedia tours use video, audio and animation at various times to deliver sight and sound experiences as close to actual visits as possible. These may require Shockwave, Flash, RealPlayer and Quicktime technologies, and may even include taped interactions with staff. The most compelling models are still at the college-level, as listed in online resources such as CampusTours.
Since most districts have Web sites, it is a relatively small step to develop a basic online tour-using in-house, consultant or student expertise-and enhance it later with new features. Mason City Schools Public Information Officer Shelly Hausman says the district used a Web designer initially, and is revamping the tour with panoramic views.
But virtual tours can also backfire if not maintained and kept up-to-date, and links at too many school sites are no longer working. Every district needs to develop, enhance or update an online tour that puts its best foot forward.
Odvard Egil Dyrli, firstname.lastname@example.org, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the Univ. of Connecticut.