Google Tools for Online Synchronous Classes!
Google+ "Hangout" provides a effective meeting place for teaching synchronous "online" classes. The visual presense of the students helps all of us develop a sense of community as we build our knowledge collaboratively. But, until recently, it was missing a way to keep track of group ideas. We used other tools, such as etherpads or google docs, which let all user modify and see changes as they are added to the document in "real" time. These interactive writing technologies are game-changers for collaboration. The use of these tools opens up channel of communication as everyone has the ability use the written mode to augment what is being heard in the verbal channel. This multichannel interaction also helps keeps multitasking students focused on the learning goal-- hopefully decreasing the pairing of classtime with facebook scanning. But finding a video, text and auditory channel that works well has been a challenge.
So when I went to teach this week, I was very happy to see Google+ Hangouts had extras. And knowing the Google owns the etherpad technology, I was pretty sure it would be something like an etherpad. I was impressed. There is file-sharing, whiteboard and notepads (google docs). The notes open up and are saved in your google document folder. This full word-processing environment that can be exported to word or other formats and any document can be added to the Hangout.
So in Google Hangout, you can open up any document or show anyting on the screen. I have added a screencast (made with JING- also free) to illustate the environment and talk a bit about how we use it to support learning online.
How to start a Hangout...
The second screencasts shows you around the interface and the tools that you can use.
With any beta version of applications, there have been some small problems but mostly it has worked well. I have had up to 10 students in class at the same time with minimal sound problems. It has a noise concellation feature that reduces echoes.
There is a feature we discovered during the screencast that did not make it in the demo. If you click on the name of the notepad or sketchpad on the left, it opens up in the center space which was what did in the video. But if you push the arrow, it opens up in the browser. This makes it possible to have the notes open on one part of the screen as you use the window as a sketchpad or powerpoint projector.
My wish list if any Google designers make it this way, is to make it possible for people to write in different colors and then have the option to selectively change the text to a single color. This would be great for seeing who contributed which ideas (as in etherpads) and for reviewing and commenting on text at a later point (the only left reason to use MSWord rather than google docs). What would make it better would be a way to integrate it with google sites (wiki-web sites). It would be great to be creating a web environment collaboratively. It has to be coming as it seems as if Google is working on finding the right integration of tools.
What I liked best about the environment is that it was NOT teacher-centered. There is moderator who gets to decide who gets to talk. No handraising or other markers of control. And while only one person can screen share at a time, when a new person starts, it ends the last person--similar to the verbal challenge. We have years of experience in the art of turn taking. I find that Google+ Hangout is shaping up as the right kind of tool for a meeting of learning circles-- a place where everyone leads and everyone listens.