Google Plus for Educators

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.)

Circles

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.)

Hangouts

“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.

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Videoconferencing

by Steve Taylor

Not long ago, the idea of live two-way video communication seemed futuristic. For years, phone companies dabbled with video-enabled telephones, but the bandwidth of a telephone connection just isn’t up to the job. With the nearly ubiquitous high-bandwidth Internet connections of the present day, however, one-to-one video conversations  via computer have become commonplace.

By far the most common system for this at the moment is Skype. Skype began as an Internet-based phone system (“voice over Internet protocol” or VoIP), but in 2006, added video capability. You can use Skype to connect to someone’s standard telephone (without video, of course), but there is a charge for that. When communicating Skype-to-Skype, voice-only or with video, there is no charge. That’s true for international calling, too, which is especially compelling, given the cost of traditional long-distance phone calls.

Apple’s iChat program also supports videoconferencing, including multi-party conferences, but only operates on Macintosh computers.

In education, one powerful use of videoconferencing is for a class to be able to converse— in real-time— with a highly regarded author, artist, or scientist, for whom it would not be practical to arrange a site visit. Children in elementary schools use videoconferencing to chat with authors of their favorite books.

Vassar students in Prof. Jeremy Davis’ Experimental Animal Behavior class used Skype to interview authors of articles they were reading. Students would read several articles by a single scientist, then prepare some questions. They would discuss the papers in class, then call the author, to ask their questions. Both students and scientists enjoyed the experience.

Since most recent-model computers have built-in cameras and microphones, Skype is easy to use for one-to-one videoconferencing. Using it for one-to-many conferencing is more difficult. Although it’s easy for a class to see and hear the remote person via a classroom’s projection system, the classroom computer’s built-in camera and microphone don’t work well for a room full of people. With funding from the Fergusson technology fund, Prof. Davis purchased a conference microphone, which made it easier for the class to speak to their remote scientists.

Another way to use videoconferencing in education is “many-to-many,” in which one class interacts with a remote class, often in another country. This technique has been used by Prof. Silke von der Emde’s German classes and Prof. Hiromi Dollase’s Japanese classes, to share knowledge with students in other cultures.

This type of videoconferencing calls for a more sophisticated system. There is a special communications protocol (H.264) that enables high-quality, real-time video and audio communication, but must be done using a specially designated device, rather than a standard computer. Many colleges and universities, as well as hotels and conference centers, have rooms with these devices. Vassar has such a system in College Center Room 204. A centrally located microphone picks up voice from anywhere in the room. The videoconferencing device— located above a 50-inch LCD display— includes a video camera that can be pre-programmed to pan and zoom to a dozen different locations in the room, so that the remote viewers can see the individual who is speaking.

In order to make use of Vassar’s videoconferencing facility, you’ll have to reserve the meeting room via Campus Activities and arrange for an operator via Media Resources. It’s advisable to arrange for a test-run previous to the conference day, to make sure that everything works on both ends.

Vassar’s newest player in this field is Adobe Connect Pro. Connect Pro is essential a web conferencing system, which is to say, a system for sharing computer screens and text chatting, which has for many years been used as a way to provide training or product demos to groups. But Connect Pro also includes voice and video channels and the ability to record sessions for later playback.

Please contact your ACS liaison to get started on any of these systems.

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