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.

Using Social Media in the Classroom — An Introduction

UH Digital Archives

Consider the following — you’re lecturing in Agnes Arnold Auditorium 1, about three weeks into the semester. Students have settled into a routine where they show up (generally) on time, sit peaceably, watch your slide presentation and dutifully take notes. You’ve got an exam scheduled for next week and now would be a good time to informally assess student understanding. So, what do you do?

You could remind students of study groups available.

You could remind them to ask questions of their lab instructor.

You could give them a study sheet to prepare for the exam.

Or you could ask them to immediately tweet short replies to a pertinent question you pose, and have those tweets display on the video projector. You can immediately get a sense of what students are thinking en masse and see variants of responses. Within one minute you can have dozens or hundreds of real ideas from real students for everyone to review and comment on, even after class.

If you choose the latter option, you’re using social media in the classroom to engage students in their own learning — low (or no) cost, simple interactions between you, the course material, and the students

Definition, examples
Social media is the use of technology to build, sustain, and improve communities and to communicate interests and information within the community. The best-known examples of social media include Web 1.0 applications such as AOL and most Web pages (including most course Web sites), as well as Web 2.0 applications such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and on-line discussion forums.

Your Teaching Philosophy — Why Use Social Media ?
Technology per se and social media in particular should only be used to support the presentation of course content, assess student learning, and facilitate student inter-communication. As with any technology and any media, social media should be used to engage students in learning, not to detract from it. This sounds obvious, but is often overlooked. For example, there is a world of difference between using a PowerPoint presentation to read to the students, and using one to illustrate content to students.

Instructors choose to use social media not because they find it intimidating (it’s not) or because they can’t find time to use interactive media in their instruction (they can). They utilize social media to enhance the classroom and lab as students participate more, vocalize their understanding more often, and engage with their peers in learning scaffolding strategies.

UH Digital Archives

Why Not to Use Social Media in the Classroom
As with any technology, social media can be abused and grossly misused if the larger purpose of engagement is forgotten. Sometimes we see professors use response technology as a “gee-wiz” toy — just to show the students something different without enforcing actual learning. Other misuses of any technology include making the students busy just to keep them busy. It would be a mistake to believe that just because “this generation expects technology,” we must use it outside the real purpose of learning. Technology should only be used for real engagement — wherein the student is actively learning with measurable results.

Problems with Using Social Media in Learning
The immediate concern with using social media in the classroom is the digital divide — some students having easy access to devices, communication, or software that others do not. This is an important consideration at the University of Houston with our students — many come from homes that simply do not have all the gadgets that others have. To insist on using technology outside of the classroom that some students cannot afford would be incorrect — though we can require students to purchase a text book or a clicker, we cannot require them to purchase a new smart phone or Mac. This series of blog postings, however,  will focus on social media tools which are free or so easily accessible on campus that every student can participate.

Again, it’s about student engagement — really involving the student in his own learning using tools that he is likely already using for other facets of his social or academic life, but to strengthen his learning in your classroom.

In the comments, please feel free to offer your experience, suggestions, and questions about using social media in your classroom. We’ll respond in comments below, and in future posts.

Next: Class Engagement in 140 Characters or Fewer

Thanks to all who attended the Faculty Workshop on Getting the Most out of Blackboard: 4-21-11; UPDATED

[today’s attendees came from over 10 departments and 4 colleges, as well as the library]

[Prof. Holly Hutchins presenting]

[Prof. Lindsey Schwarz presenting]

[Dr. Simon Bott presenting]

In the Faculty Senate offices today, Dan Wells helped facilitate a faculty workshop on “Getting the Most Out of Blackboard.”  Our presenters were Holly Hutchins (who is also a member of the CTE board), Martha Dunkelberger (a UH teaching award winner this year), Lindsey Schwarz, and Simon Bott (also a teaching award winner this year).

Here are some of the highlights of the discussion; readers are invited to submit additions, corrections, or additional comments or information to this summary.

  • Holly Hutchins stressed the need for those teaching on Blackboard to remember that technology cuts two ways, amplifying the effects of either good or bad course design.  She also urged instructors to learn the mechanics of any platform they intended to use, so that they could design the course with better knowledge of the platform’s strengths and weaknesses, and so that they would be able to update or resolve any problems that came up without too great delays.
  • She showed certain modules, like a Welcome module, “Getting to know you” assignments, and a student-run “Graduate Cafe,” that were added for the sake of greater engagement.
  • She argued for the importance of addressing any questions students had about the format as early as possible, preferably before the semester even began, to allay anxiety.
  • She reminded the audience that the principles of adult learning (which was her course’s content, as well as its organizing principle) dictated that the adult students be given reasons for every stage of the assignment, so they could learn to follow directions and monitor their own performance.
  • Finally, immediacy and responsiveness from the instructor, along with the lead time necessary for good thoughtful course design, were crucial for the success of a Distance Education (DE) or hybrid-style course.

The next speaker was Martha Dunkelberger, who talked about how she taught writing in the context of Communication Disorders.  She stressed the use of asynchronous chats for their writing assignments, which gave her and her students additional opportunities to discuss assignments and whatever problems they were encountering.

The third speaker was Lindsey Schwarz, who presented her techniques of conducting classes using Wimba technology, which enables instructors to conduct classes using microphone headsets, a “whiteboard” that can be drawn on, private messaging, and pdfs and ppts with predesigned content.

The final speaker was Simon Bott, who talked about his experience teaching large Chemistry lectures using BB as a way to foster engagement.  One of the biggest issues for Bott is the problem of the bank of test questions, which need to be generated much more frequently than he initially expected.  Bott does not provide notes to his course, but he does conduct weekly review sessions that he makes available to students, while also selectively providing students with accommodations some support with additional teaching materials from his lectures.  He also encourages his tutors to come onto his forums to help ask and answer questions online during the weekend.

The meeting broke up around 2:30, with the promise that CTE would host additional workshops on topics of interest to those teaching using technology in the coming year.


UPDATE: Mr. Bruce Martin, our very capable assistant at the CTE, has investigated one of the questions that came up, and reports as follows:

A question was asked about automatic forwarding of Blackboard mail to personalized mail. This can be done by the student through his “My Settings” once logged into BB.

My Settings > My Tool Options > Mail > Mail Forwarding

The e-mail address is maintained under the student’s profile, which is located within the Roster. This means, then, that the Roster must be enabled and visible to students to use.

From within the course > Build > Designer Tools > Manage Course > Tools > Roster

UPDATE #2: Lindsey Schwarz has provided the pdfs for Wimba, one for instructors, the other for the students:



via ProfHacker: Teaching Carnival 4.7

From the Chronicle of Higher Education’s invaluable ProfHacker, I’m passing along a link to the latest Teaching Carnival, which is a forum for higher education teachers (at every level) who wish to share their thoughts and strategies about virtually every aspect of teaching and learning.  You’ll find, for example, interesting pieces on handling difficult situations, giving feedback to writing assignments, and the proposed legislation for guns on campus.  Take a look, and let us know if you find anything interesting, helpful, or infuriating.

Have a good weekend,


via ProfHacker: Teaching Carnival 4.1

For those of you unfamiliar with ProfHacker or the newly revived Teaching Carnival, the academic bloggers at ProfHacker assemble the best recent posts on teaching that are circulating on the web.  The latest is by Billie Hara, an assistant professor of English at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi, and it’s got plenty of useful stuff about the beginning of semester, assignment-design, assessments, and other kinds of pedagogical and professional issues for all teaching professionals.  Bookmark it, and take a look.