Google continues to develop it’s social networking platform (Google+) by adding a bunch of new features to make the tool more social and collaborative. This week, I thought I’d outline some of the new features and how the features can be used in education. While some people may be happy to hear that Google has recently added games like Angry Birds to the Google+ plaform, I’m really excited that they’ve incorporated more communication and collaboration options in Hangouts. For those of you who might not know, Hangouts is Google+’s collaboration commons area. With this tool, a Google+ user can create a Hangout and invite some friends. Inside the Hangout, the group can chat, video chat and watch Youtube videos together. A Hangout can support up to 10 friends simultaneously, which rivals sites like Skype. When Google+ first came out, I thought the Hangouts feature was really promising and hoped they would expand its collaboration ability by adding connectivity to Google Docs. I figured it was a natural progression to the site and would allow the Hangout to be more work related and less of a place to …. hang out.
Google+ has added Google Docs connectivity (and several other features) be releasing a “Hangouts with Extras” option which can expand the ways we interact with another and with our students. Imagine you want to meet with a group of students online. If all of the students are on Google+, you can invite them to a Hangout, open a file from Google Docs and the group can edit the document together. This would be great for groups who are writing a paper together or collaborating on a group project. A teacher could also use this feature to lead small group lessons by pulling presentation slides from Google Docs. The teacher could also let students give their presentations to the rest of the group in the Hangout or use the slides as a means for displaying artwork for critique.
My only real reservation with the Google Docs feature is that individual users control what they see in their Hangout. Even though I can share a presentation with an entire group of students in a Hangout, each student individually would need to view the presentation and advance the slides on their own. This is hardly ideal and would create some confusion with students undoubtedly being on different slides or advancing the presentation at different rates. I was, however, able to use another new feature (screen sharing) to conduct a presentation that was a little more pedagogically sound. With screen sharing, a user can replace their video feed with any window on their computer. This would be great for demonstrating some computer function, showing some website, walking through manipulating some file or for conducting a presentation. To show a presentation, I opened a Google Doc slideshow in a new window and then chose “screen sharing” which displayed the presentation to everyone in the Hangout. While they could no longer see me (my video feed was replaced by the presentation), they could still hear me as I advanced through the slides. While this functionality is certainly available in a bunch of commercial course tools (Eluminate, Wimba, etc), Google+ is a free resource and is available to a wider audience. In fact, Google+ has appropriated some other features from commercial synchronous course tools that would be helpful. For instance, you can now invite people into a Hangout by calling their phone number, which would be great for bringing guest speakers into an online class or for involving students in an online discussion who might not be near a computer. Besides these features, Hangouts also offers a collaborative Sketchpad and a Notes page. All of these extra options are only available when you click “Hangouts with extras” when you log in. Used in concert, however, these “extra” Hangout tools can allow us to create productive learning environments for our students, even when we interact and teach online.