Should Your Class be a Google+ Community?

Google+ CommunityAs Google continues to seemingly connect all the things, Google+ Communities are making their way into education. Through my work with eLearn Magazine over the past several months, I’ve been more immersed in Google+ than ever before. At some point it occurred to me that these tools could help structure online communication in an academic course.

After meeting in person with a large group of editors, we developed smaller working groups and decided that a Google+ Community was the preferred way to keep us connected as we work at a distance. We are sharing and editing documents, getting to know each other better through our profiles, and posting announcements to others in the group. Sound familiar? These tasks are not unlike those we encounter among instructors and students.

A Quick Tour

Having received prior invitations to join other Google+ Communities, I was avoiding “getting involved” with yet another online group. But as I delved a little deeper, I found some helpful and easy-to-use features. How can this platform work for a college-level course?Google+ Communities

Privacy Settings: When we consider using web-based technology use with our students, questions about privacy often come up. Google+ Communities offer public and private options, which are established when the community is created. Only members who have been invited and approved can access these private spaces.

Categories: Community moderators can add categories within the community to help organize the communication that is taking place. Some communities include “introductions” and “discussion” categories, for example, but you can be more specific. Think of these as separate forums, each focused on a topic of interest.

+1 Button: Have you ever wished you could “Like” a discussion post or reply in your online course? This happens to me frequently, but threaded boards don’t offer this kind of social feature. Google’s +1 button serves this purpose allowing users to register a positive reaction with one click. Narrative comments can also be added to a post, and those can be +1′d, too.

Hangouts: This is a video conferencing tool that can be used by up to 15 people per session. LearningSolutions Magazine offers six practical uses for hangouts in online education, including screen sharing and one-on-one meetings. These sessions can be launched from multiple Google logins (Google+, Gmail, etc.) to hold live review sessions and virtual office hours. Students can launch their own Hangouts to meet in small groups.

Balancing Benefits and Challenges

The more I learn about Google+ Communities, the more I find myself comparing the platform to learning management systems (e.g., Blackboard, eCollege, Moodle), as well as other social media options (i.e., LinkedIn Groups, Facebook Groups). In a lot of ways Google+ Communities bring together usability components of all of these tools. But deciding whether they will be helpful to you and your students, means weighing the pros and cons, as you identify the best resources for your courses.

Benefits

  • If you and your students are already using other Google applications, such as Mail and Google Drive, additional sign in/login isn’t required to access Communities. Everything is available through the main Google toolbar.
  • Students can use these tools on their own to organize group projects and study sessions. My students raved about their discovery of using Hangouts and Drive together last semester. It was efficient not only for them, but also for me since I didn’t have to set up individual sessions in the school’s live meeting system.
  • There’s a lot of flexibility for when and how you might use Google+ Communities. Creating a public group, as a supplement to a traditional class or online course site, could encourage students to engage in current events and conversations with leaders in the field. An article from The Chronicle of Higher Education includes examples of Google+ tools in action, including a public page set up by an earth science instructor to “have [her students] interact with people involved with the fair-trade movement at large.”

Challenges

  • If your institution is already using Google Apps across campus, integration of some support materials and services might be possible. Otherwise, adding links to the library and other resources could be time consuming if you decided to use a Google+ Community as a primary hub for your course. Administrative activities that are usually integrated with the LMS, such as grading and attendance rosters, would also have to be completed outside the community.
  • Students and instructors not already using Google applications, such as Gmail and Drive, will have to sign up for a Google account. This means making decisions about what information you’ll share in an online profile, as well as learning how to navigate the interface and locate the tools.
  • Once you’ve established a community as either public or private, this status cannot be changed. So, consider how you plan to use and organize the platform, and who you want to have access to this area, before you get started with the set-up process.
  • Allow some time for everyone to get oriented to your Google+ Community. Some tweaks in settings and notifications may be required as members get used to interacting in this space. For example, students need to have you, the community moderator, in their Circles, in order to receive your invitation notification. I experienced this first hand when I was late to my eLearn community after I heard via email that invitations had been sent out. I was able to search my profile for invitations received and then join.

Tips and Guides

In addition to the “how to” links I’ve included above, you may find this additional advice helpful as you explore the possibilities of using Google+ in your classes:

  • Explore Google+ for Schools. This guide from Eric Curts, a Google Certified Teacher, includes detailed tips for conducting Hangout sessions, as well as implementing other apps. Each feature has settings and tools to learn more about.
  • Browse examples. School librarian Linda Lindsay presents a collection of Google+ Communities for and by Hawaii Educators. EdTechMagazine.com lists 28 Google+ Communities for educators, instructional designers, and technologists.
  • Join an open Google+ Community. Test out all of the features and experience the environment for yourself as a participating member of another group. Google Apps for Education is a public community with more than 24,000 members sharing resources in 13 categories.
  • Create a new community. EducatorsTechnology.com illustrates the steps required to create a new Google+ Community. Annotated screenshots walk you through the process with notes about the details you’ll want to have ready when you start your community.
  • Consider Google+ for Study Sessions. EduHacker also addresses the steps required to create a new community space, and provides tips for customizing with images and categories.
  • Talk with your students. Communicate that you are new to the Google+ Communities platform and ask them to join you in the learning experience. You don’t have to be the expert here, and may find that more experienced students have helpful hints for you and the rest of the class.

While not a replacement for a full-featured course site, Google+ Communities may fill a few gaps related to communication and collaboration. Have you used Communities or other Apps to augment your courses? Please share your ideas and recommendations with us here in the comments area.

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Image credit (top): jonrussell, Flickr, CC:BY-ND

Source: Inside Online Learning Blog