by Steve Taylor
Google has “semi-released” a new service that many people consider to be a direct competitor to Facebook: “Google +”. Like Facebook– or Twitter, for that matter– it’s a social network, meaning that you identify other people that you’re interested in and you share information with them.
Nearly every college or university student uses Facebook, so it was natural for faculty and administrators to start exploring how they might take advantage of that to improve communications with students. But many found the idea of an instructor friending a student to be at best a little awkward and at worst, creepy. Part of the problem is that, in Facebook, a “friend” relationship is bi-directional: in order for a student to see her teacher’s postings, the teacher has to see hers. (That problem can be addressed with Groups and restriction settings, but creating those takes more effort than most people want to make.)
Google+ takes a somewhat different approach: relationships can be one-directional, more like following someone in Twitter. You create “circles” of acquaintances of different types: current friends, high school friends, family members, co-workers, etc. and include different people in one or more of them. They’ll be notified that you added them to a circle, but they won’t know the name of that circle and they won’t be obligated to add you to any of theirs.
As an example, an instructor could create a circle that includes all of the students in English 101. He can share websites or comments with that circle, so that they appear in those students’ news feeds. But he doesn’t have to share his comments or pictures from last night’s barbecue with that circle. And if none of them add the instructor to any of their circles, he’ll never see anything they post. Of course, if they also make “English 101″ circles with the same members, they can share things that are appropriate for that group.
Students could also create temporary circles for chatting and sharing materials among a project group. (As could faculty researchers.)
“Hangout” is the Google+ name for a video chat. At the moment, this is probably the slickest way for a group of people to do video chatting. It’s very easy to do, can accommodate up to ten people at a time, and it’s free. Though you can schedule hangouts, Google thinks of them as being spontaneous– like if you’re hanging out in the college center and friends bump into you and hang out for a while. But an instructor could use the hangout feature for online office hours or for holding study sessions. Or for collaborating with research colleagues. Or for interviews.
There are other features too, but circles and hangouts seem to be the most intriguing ones for educational use. As of this writing, Google+ is in pre-release, which is to say that it’s available to people who know someone who knows someone, but it should be generally available soon.