Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Google+ for Education

Guest Post by Lindsey Wright

Can a social network have a place in education? With the recent introduction of Google+, the answer may be yes. Some aspects and features of this new forum for online interaction may be useful tools for educators looking to enhance their students’ learning experience.

Google+ vs. Facebook: a Brief Introduction

It shouldn’t be surprising that Google is throwing its hat into the social networking ring. Facebook and Twitter have grown by leaps and bounds since first appearing on the scene. Google+ offers social media users yet another way to connect with friends, family, and colleagues as well as share information in an online setting.

What makes Google+ different from Facebook? The first, and probably biggest, difference is the concept of targeted sharing. On Facebook, users have to sift through the network’s convoluted privacy settings in order to change who can see what. Google+ works around this with a feature called “circles.” A circle is a user-created group of contacts that can be made up of anyone — friends, family members, co-workers, or people with common interests. Once a circle is created, users can choose to share things only with that circle. Circles may also be used to filter the main sharing stream so that users can easily view updates from specific groups.

Even outside the context of circles, Google+ prompts users to choose who they’d like to share things with, offering a greater level of privacy than Facebook. Instead of automatically granting “friends” access to all information like Facebook does when users “friend” each other, Google+ allows users control over how much their followers see. Users may follow others who don’t follow them back, but unless the people they’re following want to share, they won’t see any updates.

Other useful features include “sparks,” which is similar to Google search but with an added option that allows users to “pin” searches and keywords. Users can then return to these pinned subjects and quickly find information relevant to their interests and share results with specific contacts, circles, or the general public. Similarly, “hangouts” is a video group chat that can be used by up to 10 people at the same time. It can be used to bring together specific circles or contacts, or to simply spend a little time with friends online. YouTube videos can be shared in a hangout, allowing multiple users to simultaneously view the same content.

Google+ for Educators

What does this mean for education professionals? With a little innovation, the features of Google+ can be utilized at either a traditional or online school for teaching purposes as well as facilitating communication among educators. This in turn can translate to a better learning experience for students.

A learning environment is most beneficial when all teachers and staff are on the same page about what kids should be learning. The social aspects of circles can easily be utilized to share information between groups of instructors who teach the same subjects, deal with the same groups of students, or might otherwise benefit from staying connected. Additionally, hangouts may be used to conduct informal meetings or to get in touch with educators from other schools. As functionality improves, it may be possible to share more things via these tools, enabling a greater degree of connection between educators and administrators.

When it comes to teaching, use of the sparks feature allows teachers to discover new content relevant to class discussions on a daily basis. Integrating this content into lessons provides a steady stream of fresh information that is also pertinent to current events. Giving students such information allows them to more readily relate class subjects to real-life situations, something that's often a struggle for many kids.

Educators may also be able to make better use of Google+ for professional and occupational purposes as the tools develop. If the future of the network includes an option that can be targeted specifically to a school setting, Google+ could be more fully utilized as a safe, secure alternative to other social networks in schools.

Google+ in the Classroom

As long as Google continues to work to refine the parameters that govern sharing and interaction on Google+, schools could see the network becoming a valuable asset in the classroom. Elementary aged children already recognize and engage with Google applications on a daily basis, while most middle and high school students are active on social media. The familiarity of the platform makes it easier to introduce Google+ as a teaching tool.

Hangouts in particular may prove to be a boon to teachers and their students. The ability to video chat and share content within the chat environment opens doors to having guests in the classroom whom with students might not otherwise be able to interact. Professionals in many fields could give talks, share ideas and engage students in discussion without having to physically come to a school. Not only would this save schools money, it would also give kids unique opportunities to meet knowledgeable people whose expertise can enhance their learning experience.

Outside the classroom, the focused control of circles allows students to connect with their teachers in a way that’s more private than Facebook. The public nature of other social networks often makes kids reluctant to “friend” authority figures, but the targeted nature of Google+ circles means that they can keep school and personal lives separate on the network. The same goes for educators who wish to be able to contact groups of students quickly and easily. Rather than having to share every social interaction, circles lets students and teachers communicate in a forum specific to their classes.

One hangup is that Google+ is currently limited to users over the age of 18. Needless to say, in the context of using the new social network in schools this would be a considerable drawback. However, it's best to keep in mind that Google+ is only a few weeks old, and still in field trial. There's no reason to doubt that before long, Google+ will be available not only without invitation but to younger users as well (maybe the same 13-and-up range as Facebook). What's more, if Google continues its push to provide its products and services especially to educators, we might even imagine the possibility of a school-specific version of or layer for Google+ that would make the network available to students of all ages, as well as their teachers.

When the focus shifts from socializing to the sharing of information, a network like Google+ can become an invaluable teaching tool. With educators and students working together to make the most of the features, Google+ has the potential to enhance learning and create a positive environment that fosters student-teacher interactions. Since social media has already become deeply ingrained in society, its use in the classroom may be the next logical step.

Lindsey Wright is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.