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Opportunities to Enhance Online Discussions and Collaboration Using Google Hangouts

TL;DR Version: In this blog post I discuss a recent chain of events that has me really excited about the use of Google Hangouts in teaching and learning. I share a strategy that I believe would help you begin to use Google Hangouts to enhance online discussions and collaboration in your classroom.

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We're in the second series of courses in our IT&DML program. I have discussed aspects of the program here multiple times, and will continue to blog about what we've learned along the way, but this past weekend I had an important realization. We're in the middle of our Central Issues and Research in New Literacies class. The class basically is a guided tour through the wealth of opportunities that exist in the use of new and digital literacies in instruction. In terms of student work product we also begin building our digital learning hubs and start to master the art of facilitating online discussions. For the most part, teaching students how to facilitate an online discussion has always followed the same path...but recently something changed.

How did this use of Google Hangouts evolve?

I believe that there is a subtle art to effectively facilitating and assessing an online discussion. To build this necessary skill in students we have a weekly discussion in either Google Groups, Google+ Communities, or Edmodo. Each teacher in the class takes turns acting as a "Discussion Director" (DD) and they run the discussion for the week. It is their responsibility to read ahead, develop a series of prompts and a plan of attack to facilitate the discussion, guide and extend the discussion, and finally assess their peers using our rubric. I give the DD a lot of latitude in terms of how they facilitate the discussion for the week. Typically I suggest students follow the following course of action: start the week with a post or two at the beginning of the week; respond to, and extend the discussion when classmates respond; further extend the discussion halfway through the week with a new set of prompts; finally wrap up, assess their peers, and reflect publicly. This past week we took a different course of action as Nancy Atterberry decided that she wanted to use technology to provide a good mix of "real time discussion" with a follow-up discussion post in Google Groups. This week Joan Robinson is following Nancy's lead and holding a couple Google Hangouts on Air to meet with peers and have an initial discussion about the readings, and then leave time for colleagues to produce a written response in the Google Group.

I'm really excited about the ways in which students in the program have really latched on to the Google Hangouts as a way to communicate and keep in touch with each other throughout the different courses. I appreciate how Nancy and Joan have made a decision to mix video chats (i.e., Google Hangouts) and text-heavy threaded discussions. From my observations of the recorded Hangouts and the discussion posts it seems like the Hangout provide an opportunity for students to focus their ideas through real-time discussion before they have to provide a written response. Part of the beauty of the IT&DML program is that we are a hybrid program and therefore have a mix of online and face-to-face class meetings. We also believe in empowering students and faculty to "play" with technology and determine best practices for uses with these digital texts and tools.

How do we start folding in Google Hangouts?

So what is the first step? How do I start authentically and effectively folding in Google Hangouts (or other video conferencing software) into online discussions and attempts to promote collaboration? I think there is a gradual progression toward the effective integration of video into an online discussion. I've been using and teaching instructors how to use online video and video conferencing tools for years. I've also been teaching online, hybrid, and technology infused lessons for years. It was not until recently that the students in our program made this evolutionary leap, and I don't think we'll go back. Here is the continuum that I think worked for us...and may work for you.

  • Expanded view of text - I think the first step is that you need to work as the teacher or instructor to broaden and expand your own definition of "text" in teaching and learning. Students need to understand that your definition of text is very broad and includes not only text, but also multimodal content (e.g., images, video, audio, graphs). This also includes online and offline reading resources. This also branches into semiotics and sign systems, as seen in advertising. This first step might seem insignificant, but I believe it is hugely important. As instructors we need to equate, and "make a space" for these various forms of texts. In our own personal lives we (for the most part) differentiate between different texts. We need to do the same in our classes.
  • Provide it as an option - I believe the second step is to provide the use of Google Hangouts as an option for connecting and collaborating with peers. I espouse the virtues of Google Hangouts in all of our classes and interactions with students here in classes. I give students my Google Account info and suggest that they shoot me a message via Hangout, or video chat with me to quickly answer a question. Google Hangouts also provide a great opportunity for students to discuss group projects without having to actually drive in to a common meeting place. The challenge is that sometimes I feel like if the use of a digital text or tool is required....students will grudgingly use it...or not use it. If it seems like a great solution to a problem...then they'll dive right in. After all, this is the way that we address the use of technology in other aspects of our lives.
  • Use of the GAFE infrastructure - I know this really makes sense if you sign in, and use all of the powerful tools available in the Google Apps for Educators suite. In my own work I use Google+, Drive (Docs, Presenter, Spreadsheet), Google Sites, etc. Because of the growing connections and the infrastructure that is created within all of these Google Apps, it is possible to create entire learning ecosystems. I know...I've been doing it and loving every minute!!! By already using the Google suite of tools, teachers and students can interact, collaborate, and connect looking at the various forms of co-constructed text...while chatting in Google Hangouts.

Google Hangouts has always been a favorite tool of mine. I've been really excited over the past week at how much it has taken off in usage among the colleagues that I work with. I'm invigorated that students have been also singing the praises of this tool in their own work process and product. I've also been investigating ways to develop a "network" of colleagues globally that are using Google Hangouts and discussing ways to improve teaching and learning in our classrooms. More on that later.... :)

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