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The Next Best Thing to Being Here

April 8, 2021

By Barbara McKean, Head of Education, Royal Botanical Gardens.

Behind the scenes at RBG Centre, one member of our staff does a lot of travelling in a year. A single workday can take her anywhere from Carcross to Costa Rica and Goderich to Guam. Like everyone else at RBG (pre-COVID that is!), she would arrive at the office each day, hang up her coat and store her lunch in the fridge. But then she would walk through a magic portal, turn on two computers and head off to some very far-flung places.

Magic portal?? At RBG Centre? Well, maybe it’s more like a supersonic travel machine. And actually, we just marked the 1st anniversary of it being temporarily relocated to her home. In real life, it’s called our Videoconferencing Studio.

Since joining the Education Department in 2006, Education Officer Karin Davidson-Taylor has taken RBG into classrooms around the world. Since then, we have managed to reach audiences on every continent except for Antarctica. We were one of the first Canadian organizations to reach out to schools in this way, and since then, our name has become synonymous with excellence in videoconference-enabled education. Our “virtual field trips” received recognition from the US-based Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration annually since we started delivering them, but last autumn, we received notice that RBG had been named to a new elite group comprising the world’s “best of the best” videoconference program providers. This recognition is based on having at least 10 years of consistent off-the-charts-great evaluations from program participants.

Despite these international accolades, our virtual field trips weren’t well known locally until the pandemic lockdowns introduced the world to other ways of connecting (and immediately ‘verbed’ the name of a software application we had been using to deliver programs for several years). There is no substitute for the impact of getting in touch with nature in hands-on programs in a special place like RBG, but as we say, our virtual field trips are the next best thing to being here. Meeting the curriculum outcomes of whichever school authority has booked, these award-winning programs are dynamic and engaging (and thankfully, they can easily go with the flow of in-class/at-home/hybrid learning that has been the reality of pandemic schooling – regardless of which online platform a school board uses).

Students standing around a large smart board screen. Karin is presenting on the RBG
Wrapping up a program with grade 9 students from Sioux Lookout.

Our online audience continues to expand with huge levels of demand from schools near and far. In recent years we’ve been working to diversify our ways of reaching homeschoolers, youth groups, shut-in seniors and other lifelong learners, and we have also expanded our program offering in French. With support from NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) and other partners, we been able to take more and more of our programs to remote communities across Canada’s north. The pandemic has opened doors in new places including local schools (with the support of our Green Angels program subsidy fund). And in an unusual collaboration last summer, we were part of the regular weekday rotation on the Chicago PBS TV affiliate for several weeks.

Other aspects of our education programs, from our day camps to our adult ed offering, have made the transition on online learning too. In fact, the recent Patrick Colgan Memorial Lecture set a RBG program registration record with 900 people signing up for the evening!

COVID-19 will eventually relax its grip on our world, and hands-on, onsite learning will return, but videoconference-based programming is here to stay. It is another tool that helps us grow our audience and support our mission of connecting people, plants and place in order to nurture and protect the natural world. To see part of a program in action, or learn more about our virtual field trips,  visit rbg.ca/virtualfieldtrips.

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