After three months of field testing, Google recently announced new features to enhance its Google+ social networking site. The biggest change may be that the service is now open to all users without needing an invitation. Users just need a Google account (Gmail address) to connect to other Google+ users.
Want to sign up? You can do it here.
Currently, membership in the service stands at 25 million, well under Facebook’s 800 million user base. Yet the combination of contextual relationships (your network can consist of relationships that aren’t limited to just “friends”) and video communication/sharing capability may make Google+ a better alternative as a classroom utility. So what’s new?
In Google+, each user has control over who sees the information they share by grouping people in Circles. For example, Circles can be created for co-workers, classmates (even separate Circles for each class), close friends, relatives, etc.
One of the biggest issues new users found with Google+ was the inability to share Circles. Until now, users were left to create their own groupings; in situations where Google+ is used for collaboration, this created the possibility of inconsistent Circles (members are included in some Circles, but not all).
Now, users can easily share their curated groups with others. It’s an easy way for an instructor or TA to create a list of students, then share with everyone in the class. After you receive a shared Circle, you’re free to make edits, deleting from the list or adding members to additional Circles.
From the Circles page, simply choose which Circle you’d like to share. You’ll see the option to share, along with editing or deleting the Circle. You’ll be prompted to add the names of Google+ users to share with, and any additional comments to send.
Improvements to Hangouts
Hangouts are the Google+ version of video conferencing. Up to ten users can share a chat session, with options to mute others in the chat and share/comment on videos. A brief overview of some educational uses of Hangouts can be found here. Recent additions to this feature enhance the collaborative experience:
Access Hangouts on mobile
If your mobile device has a front-facing camera and is equipped with Android version 2.3 and up (iOS support coming soon), you can start and join Hangouts anywhere you have service.
“Hangouts on Air” allow users to reach larger audiences by broadcasting their webcam video publicly. Up to nine users can join the Hangout, but there’s no limit to the number of viewers. Students can view live lectures or presentations online while communicating through chat. This feature is currently available to a limited number of users, but anyone can tune in to a Hangout broadcast.
While still “under construction” and requiring users to opt-in, these four additions appear to be the most useful improvements. CNDLS staff members tested out the services and found them to be intuitive and responsive, offering practical ways to work with others online.
- ScreensharingMembers in a Hangout can share their screen, choosing which window others in the Hangout will be able to view. This is especially useful when trying to work through technical issues (e.g., “how do I log into my blog?”)
- SketchpadHave you ever wanted the ability to draw something online to explain the idea? Users have that now with Sketchpad, a shared space for Hangout members to digitally doodle. Tools like shapes, lines, and image embedding give users the capacity to creatively render pictures in a real-time, cooperative setting.
- Google Docs IntegrationGoogle Docs users have long been aware of the convenience and value of collaborative document editing. Add the ability to see and hear the people you’re working with, and the experience becomes even richer. While seeing what others are typing into a document is useful, being able to communicate “face-to-face” during the process eliminates ambiguity and allows for immediate feedback.
- Named HangoutsNaming your Hangout provides an easy way to join or find Hangouts around a specific interest. Making your Hangout public makes it easy for your students, and even anyone else interested in the topic, to observe and learn.
In addition to searching Google, you can now search within Google+. The main difference is that instead of returning links to websites and pages, Google+ search will return relevant people (including those outside of your Circles) and their posts, providing an extra layer of context to your search.
For example, performing a Google+ search on “blogging” brought back a crowdsourced question from blogging expert Darren Rowse about choosing why to blog (responses included), a link to the most popular free blogging apps for the iPad, and a post on blogging and trust in universities from an educational technologist. You can experiment with searching between Google’s regular search and Google+ search to find out which might be more effective for your queries.
Google+ at Georgetown
TLT Fellow Betsy Sigman, a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the McDonough School of Business, is experimenting with Google+ in her Development and Management of Databases class. She wanted to create a communication backchannel for her students to share news about database companies, with their activity to count toward class participation. Faced with the decision between Twitter and Google+, she chose the latter based on the fact that most of her students already had Gmail accounts. She welcomed the new collaborative features, noting that they worked “amazingly well.”
As you can read in her blog, Prof. Sigman is using several technologies this semester, and we plan to report back later with details of her experiences.
Are you using Google+ in your teaching, or are you considering using it? Please let us know in the comments!