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Google+ Hangouts in Online Education: A Capable, Low-Cost Solution

by Rebecca Bodrero

July 23, 2012


by Rebecca Bodrero

July 23, 2012

“Effective use of any tool is most typically the result of how it is used, not the fact that it is used. Procedural and logistical aspects should be part of planning for use of a tool such as Hangouts. For example, it’s common knowledge that in-person meetings and small group activities are more likely to be effective when facilitated and driven by purpose. The same principle applies to video conferencing.”

Have you considered using Google+ Hangouts in education or training? Building on the ideas presented by Jeremy Vest in Google+ Hangouts: Six Practical Uses for Online Education, in this article I describe how we put Hangouts to use in one online graduate environment. I also propose additional applications for Hangouts and similar technologies in education and training.

The setting: small group graduate projects

Boise State University’s Instructional and Performance Technology department offers graduate and certificate programs in a completely asynchronous distance environment housed on a Lotus Notes platform. Many of the courses are project-based, requiring students to plan and execute real-world projects in groups of three or four. While the asynchronous classroom environment works well for the class itself, for the team-based project work students tend to prefer synchronous communication methods.

Such was the case for my spring 2012 Needs Assessment class. Given that I typically teach once a year, and that students tend to use the latest available free technology, I guessed that some of my 2012 students would have already started using Google+ Hangouts in their coursework. As it turned out, a few had, and the rest were amenable to trying it out.

In his article, Jeremy Vest points out two limitations of Google+ Hangouts: (1) inability to record the sessions, and (2) a limit of 10 people at a time in a hangout. Given the circumstances, these were not limitations in our environment. The project teams’ primary needs were real-time collaboration to discuss and produce class assignments, which included developing a needs assessment plan, executing the plan, documenting the results, and discussing team-based quizzes that reviewed course content. (Note: Towards the end of the semester, Google rolled out “Hangouts on Air,” which provides options to live stream, record, and post to YouTube and Google+ profiles.)

And thus the semester began. The initial reaction to Hangouts was excitement. This was the first time many of the students had used video and document sharing in an educational environment. The learning curve for basic functions was small. Students commented that the environment felt natural and similar to being in a room together. The reaction to being able to see each other was mostly enthusiastic. Overall, in comparison to previous classes, I felt that video sharing helped teams form a little faster, and that the more personable environment reduced tension that might otherwise exist. I observed more laughing and more exploratory conversation (the kind where learning occurs) than in previous classes where the course design used asynchronous methods or synchronous technologies such as conference calling.

While being able to see each other was mostly beneficial, if a team was in poor health, it added a derisive element I hadn’t previously witnessed in a distance environment. One group stormed in tempest manner at the beginning of the semester; included in the complaints about each other was negative body language in Hangouts. Another group liked being able to share documents, but didn’t feel that being able to see each other contributed to the communication.

From newbies to adopters: the benefits outweighed the glitches

The teams used both Google+ Hangouts and Hangouts with Extras. Hangouts with Extras was in Beta when the class began, and phased out in the middle of the semester as the extras features “graduated” to Hangouts proper. Because Hangouts is maturing so quickly, I make no attempt in this article to distinguish between current features, only relate how we used it in this distance education environment and explore other uses for Hangouts in training and education. You can learn about Hangouts at this Google site:

While Hangouts was easy to connect to, there was no shortage of technical issues with the service. Common glitches during our spring 2012 class included:

  • People regularly getting kicked off, particularly when joining by phone or when more than four people were in a hangout
  • Freezing video
  • Once someone joined by phone, no one else could join over the Internet
  • Echoing and feedback, particularly when participants used mobile devices
  • Loss of data when sharing Google Docs within a Hangout session due to the document not saving correctly
  • Often Hangouts would simply shut down for no apparent reason and participants would have to start a new session

Google posted fixes to some of these issues during the semester, and all indications are that Hangouts will become increasingly reliable. During the semester, these glitches resulted in frustrations, work-arounds, and wasted time. However, despite the technical challenges, the teams valued the benefits enough to continue using Hangouts. Features students appreciated about Hangouts included:

  • Being able to see both each other and their work products
  • Integration with Google Docs, enabling them to work on the doc simultaneously
  • Screensharing
  • Whiteboarding
  • Chatting within the hangout window (useful for posting links or other items relevant to the discussion)

Of the four teams, three were still using Hangouts at the end of the semester. The fourth team transitioned to conference calls on Skype early in the semester, largely because they couldn’t find a solution for the issues they experienced with mobile devices (the only option for one team member); additionally, this was the group that was less interested in video sharing.

Looking ahead: seamless applications for education and training

Effective use of any tool is most typically the result of how it is used, not the fact that it is used. Procedural and logistical aspects should be part of planning for use of a tool such as Hangouts. For example, it’s common knowledge that in-person meetings and small group activities are more likely to be effective when facilitated and driven by purpose. The same principle applies to video conferencing – just because a group can “be together” doesn’t mean they should do everything together. One student commented that Hangouts were most useful as a weekly calibration tool; a scheduled time to report back on individual tasks and plan for the coming week. For complex projects such as this class assignment, the team should decide what they could best accomplish individually and what how time in meetings is best spent.

Logistically, inviting people to a Hangout session is a one-step process when all the members of the group are in a Google+ Circle. Google is taking steps to integrate Hangouts with Google Calendar, which will simplify scheduling. If desired, you can keep Hangouts private so they don’t show up on Google+ profile streams. Groups can also create a URL for their standard “meeting place.”

Hangouts provide a platform for conducting many learning activities that you typically find in a face-to-face environment. Suggestions for education and training applications of synchronous video-sharing applications such as Hangouts include:

  • Icebreakers or get-to-know you activities. Even with online profiles it can be difficult to get to know each other. For maximum benefit, you should plan and facilitate these activities just as they would be in a face-to-face setting.
  • Discussion forums such as debates, problem solving, brainstorming sessions, or diagramming processes. Examples from this class include diagramming systems and discussing group quizzes.
  • Inviting guest speakers  to present and interact with participants.  You can stream sessions to a larger audience, or record and save them for replay in future classes.
  • Small group training for skill development where practice and expert feedback are crucial. Examples include learning complex software applications, obtaining feedback on graphic arts designs, practicing common customer scenarios, giving speeches, and performing a multitude of motor tasks.
  • Study groups and tutoring sessions, particularly where there is a good deal of interaction and a variety of documents, tools, and Websites that may need exploration.
  • Recording of sessions for later review by current students or those who were not able to attend. Additionally, in a large corporate or undergraduate environment, teachers and/or trainers may want to stream and/or record an interactive small-group session to make it available to the larger audience. Discussions or talk-show formats often spark more interest than recorded lectures or written documents.
  • Execution of assignments and gathering data.  You could use Hangouts to conduct an interview or to “tour” a place. The video element allows for real-time observations of just about anything that you can pick up with a small camera. Focus groups, which typically aren’t effective when participants aren’t co-located could work well in this environment if aptly facilitated. Hangouts could also be used as a tool for remote usability testing.
  • Office hours. A time and “place” for one-on-ones, small group discussions, or Q&A sessions with the teacher/trainer.
  • Use of the Hangouts API to build custom apps, add gadgets (polling applications, for example), or other functionality.

These are just starter ideas. How can you use Google+ Hangouts?

Special thanks to my spring 2012 students, particularly Chris McQueen, for their assistance with this article.

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Appreciate this!
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Great info. Thank you.
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