Using Google+ Hangouts for Video Conferencing with Students

Google Plus debuted this summer as an alternative social media platform to Facebook. Because of its hundreds of millions of registered users in other Google platforms, such as Gmail and Google Docs, Google Plus quickly enrolled over 40 million users. Some users were simply tired of Facebook’s lax privacy policies, others tired of the games, and many others simply eager to see their other Google apps integrated into one central hub, which is apparently what is happening, gradually, at Google Plus. Immediately as it was released, professors began seeing the advantage of Plus in their classrooms.

Here, I’d like to discuss the most obvious tool within Plus for teachers — the Hangout feature. Hangout is a simple video application that allows users to conference with up to ten users simultaneously, with additional tools such as text chat and YouTube sharing that can help teachers, especially, connect and conference with their students.

Overview of Hangouts

Why Use Video Hangouts

Consider one of the primary influences of student success — out of class contact with her professor. Establishing regular office hours is standard for all of us, but the reality is that often our schedules do not work with student schedules, especially UH students, who often work and most often commute to campus. Getting to a professor’s office for the one or two hours she’s available can be not only very inconvenient, but also imposing, especially for our large-class sections.

Instead, I can use Google Hangouts to establish either a fixed time every week to video conference with one or more students or even set small-group supervision meetings with them. The student needs only create the Google Plus account (with any e-mail address), and with a PC with camera, will be able to consult with me from wherever she is, and from wherever I am — office, coffee shop, or back porch.

One immediate concern is privacy — just as we would not discuss a student’s grades with a group of people, we need to maintain strict privacy with our Hangout conversations as well. I first establish the simple rule, then, when using video conferencing with my students:

In any group setting, I will not discuss grades. Period. I can discuss lecture notes, assignments, and give feedback, but not specific scores.

This is no different than a meeting in the office — we can discuss grades individually, but if two or more students are present, we simply won’t. Using video conferencing is no different here.

One advantage of Google Plus, however, is that the Hangout can be open to all in your circles, a smaller circle of just class students, or individuals. This is immediately one of the advantages of using Google Plus over other social networks — you control who sees what and who you talk to. So, I could start a Hangout with just one class, all class sections, or a small student group of five students working on a group project. Google Plus allows you to control all this.

Some Quick Homework Before You Begin

When using Hangouts, review the Help section first, to understand the (simple and free) technical requirements, and how to limit your hangout to your selected audience.

And finally, consider other uses of Hangouts for engaging students, encouraging collaboration, consulting with experts, and otherwise strengthening the learning environment of the course.

High Impact Practices: how to incorporate them into hybrid as well as face to face classes?

After our discussion, I received the following question from Rex Koontz,

My big question regarding high impact practices is this: as we move to a more hybrid/blended system of course delivery, how can we build high impact practices into every level of hybridization?

This, I think, is a really good question. If we are moving to more hybrid or non-synchronous forms of course delivery, how do we make sure these practices are incorporated into those courses as fully as in face to face instruction?

This was my response to Rex, which I hope those of you who have taught hybrid or distance courses will comment upon.

In terms of the increasing hybridity of instruction, I’m not sure if this trend is advancing, or advancing in the right ways if we want to satisfy the equally compelling demands for better learning, improved graduation rates, post-grad success and so forth.  We would probably need better forms of assessment, for both hybrid and face to face courses, if we wanted more definite answers about this question.

All my courses, for example, use WordPress courseblogs, which is my favored delivery system. In all my courses, whether for undergraduates or graduate students, I use the course blog as a discussion forum, as a repository for required readings, as a portal for their online library resources, and as a space for their ongoing research results to be shared and reviewed.  There is no reason why this approach could not be emulated in BlackBoard, as many already do, or with other platforms.

These online interactions do not substitute for face to face interactions, but supplement them. My rule of thumb, which I have taken from the economist and NYT columnist Ed Glaeser, is that online interactions do not substitute for interactions, but supplement them, in more or less-powerful ways. This is a view that seems to be getting corroborated in at least some of the research that I have seen. (See, for example, this 2003 study by some sociologists at Berkeley).

In my view, if we are going to move towards greater hybridity, then we need to configure the online resources for optimal access, reliability and interactivity, and follow the same principles of pedagogy that we should have been using all along for face to face classes, but translated to this specific medium: these include active learning, independent research, authentic problem solving, group work, swift and detailed feedback, plenty of opportunities for practice, and so forth.

There are ways to do this with the online components of instruction, but they require development time and resources (and professional development for faculty), monitoring of what works and what doesn’t, and attentive revision and tweaking of course presentation over several iterations of the course. (and don’t forget IT support/course design infrastructures and possible additional personnel to provide high quality feedback and grading for large sections).

So building and sustaining the HIPs in the classroom necessarily entails careful planning and support at the front end, in the course design stage, and sometimes additional support during the semester itself, and then careful revision and updating at the back end, as courses are prepared for the next cycle.

At the very least, assignments have to be designed with these demands in mind, group work assignments and online forums for asynchronous coursework need to be set up beforehand.

Once the course is live and work is handed in, their work should receive some degree of peer review and instructor feedback. This feedback should prepare students to advance to the next level of difficulty with the material. And faculty need to have ways to communicate continually with students about their comprehension of the material, their concerns, and what questions they are developing.

In any case, those are my thoughts about how to develop a culture of teaching at UH that incorporates HIPs into every level and every aspect of interactions with students, both online and face to face. Best, DM

Thanks to all who attended our Faculty Workshop on High Impact Practices, 9/22/11

Prof. Dan Wells led a workshop on Thursday, September 22, focusing on the kinds of High Impact Practices (HIPs) that can help faculty create more engaged students and encourage better classroom interactions.  Dr. Wells began by providing a brief summary and overview of the literature regarding HIPs (linked here as a pdf), including these Faculty Senate presentations by Renu Khator and David Mazella, along with some of the recent research and scholarship concerning HIPs’ implementation in classrooms at CS Northridge (Huber) and elsewhere (Brownell and Swaner).  (For those interested in the original article regarding HIPs, please consult this 2008 study by George Kuh.)

Dr. Wells then led a group discussion regarding the HIPs currently being practiced throughout the university.  Below you will find a summary of the practices being tried by faculty who attended the workshop:

  • Clickers, polls, and other forms of instant electronic feedback were especially important for teachers of very large sections, because of their ability to help instructors monitor their students’ comprehension of the material.  Two techniques emerged from discussion:  polling the group about right and wrong answers to a question, giving students the opportunity to debate the answer for another 5 minutes, then repolling, which generally resulted in many more correct responses; asking a question mid-lecture about material covered about 15-20 mins. earlier, to make sure students are following the lecture.
  • Many faculty said they were de-emphasizing lectures, and emphasizing problem-solving of one sort of another, focusing on authentic problems from research or the workplace (examples included groups attempting to solve problems of a CEO/faculty member; or Math problem-sets; or in a literature course having students create an annotated bibliography over the previous 3-4 weeks’ reading, then trade bibs to correct each others’ work and report out to group; or having students analyze previous student work to see how they need to critique their own).
  • There was a considerable amount of discussion about building up students’ communication skills, either by using the Writing Center or by one’s own feedback on student essays.  Some also mentioned one-minute papers (i.e., “low stakes writing”)  at the beginning or end of class, to prime discussion or to assess students’ understanding of the subject matter. BlackBoard or Blogging forums also served a similar purpose of priming discussion or engaging students outside the classroom.  Other formats for teaching communication skills include the KWL method (What do you know? What do you want to know?  What do you need to learn?) and the use of snap presentations.  Even a relatively brief ungraded discussion segment regarding some “real world” dimension of academic work helps students to see the application of their studies to future goals and broader frameworks.  (e.g., human genetics and the ethical issues of cloning, stem cells, etc.).
  • There was also an extensive discussion of group work, including the difficulties of creating policies for monitoring and grading group work.  Some of those who practiced it said that though the benefits were clear, there were always some students who made their groups chaotic or dysfunctional and needed to be warned or removed from their groups altogether.  To counter these problems, some faculty suggested clear communications regarding the expectations regarding group work (up to and including specific training in group work), along with peer evaluations and ongoing progress reports from students.  to a grade for specific individual participation, seemed necessary to prevent some form of “social loafing,” perhaps the biggest single reason why students often resist group work.
  • There was a discussion of more synthetic courses or projects that allowed students to synthesize larger parts of their coursework.  This often occurs in senior-level “culminating experience” or capstone courses, but can it happen in the students’ first few years in college?
  • Finally, there was a brief discussion of attendance policies, and the desirability of enforcing or not enforcing such policies.

The meeting broke up at 4 pm.  We hope to continue to address these issues at our upcoming Oct. 14 conference, and at additional workshops.

Have we omitted something?  Still have something to say?  Please hit the “comment” link and let us know.