Unveiled last summer, Google’s surprise social networking venture reached 10 million users in just over two weeks, making it an important player in the cluttered world of social media.
Google intends the service to provide an easy and accessible environment for building connections, focusing on specific interests, and managing the distribution of information between groups of contacts.
Some of those who adopted the site early have noted that Google+ is a better fit for curriculum-based teaching than its rivals, and many educators foresee an important role in higher education – from connecting college students online to conducting PhD research – for this fledgling social medium.
When first introduced, the potential of Google+ was difficult to anticipate. At first glance it seemed the site might suffer similar issues of privacy as Facebook and Twitter, where content is shared and reproduced almost indiscriminately. Quickly, however, educators have found that Google+ and its Circles feature are effective in delimiting who can view an update and how it can be shared. This is a real bonus for limited groups such as individual sections of a particular college course.
Michael McKisson, who teaches in the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism, says that he would like to integrate Google+ into his teaching next semester. Selective sharing facilitates collaborative work and group projects, and McKisson imagines students sharing their findings on a common research topic.
Educators also note the site enables them to interact with students without sharing personal content, maintaining the professional teacher-student relationship in what would otherwise be a very informal environment.
One of the most intriguing features of Google+ is Hangouts, its group video chat. Video chat is nothing new, but the Hangouts application is particularly intuitive because it identifies who is speaking and magnifies their video feed for the other participants. Initially, the Hangouts feature was used on an informal basis to facilitate group work, but more recently it has been used to hold lectures and teach classes.
Many classrooms are now testing the use of similar video conferencing applications such as Skype to host remote guest speakers. Some staff in higher education have expressed interest in using these tools to provide virtual office hours.
Jeremy Littau, professor in Journalism and Communications at Lehigh University, uses a scheduled Google+ hangout to allow students to ask questions about class material. Stephen Kelly, professor of Marketing at Century College, notes Hangouts allows group or private chatting simultaneously, allowing him to provide one-on-one advice while being available to other students as well.
Google+ is notable for its capacity to help higher education institutions and their staff stay connected and share information. Educators are using the platform to expand and diversify their personal and professional networks. This has resulted in a higher degree of collaboration between members of similar faculties.
For example, BJ Fogg, director of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University and a consultant member of the computer science faculty, says he intends to use Google+ for research project collaboration: “Probably every project in my lab will have its own circle.”
The process of change seems to be two-way. As higher education institutions begin to use Google+ in teaching and learning, the shape of the social networking platform is adapting in response. The Sparks feature, which aggregates related content in a variety of media, is developing rapidly as more schools and departments contribute to it, building a collaborative collection of specialist knowledge.
Google has promised to integrate this feature more fully with Circles, making subject-specific information easier to locate and share. At the same time, demand for integration with other social media tools being used in the classroom, such as Facebook and Twitter, has led to the development of Facebook plug-ins and the Extended Share add-on, providing crucial cross-platform integration.
While Google+ may not single-handedly revolutionize higher education, it is already having a powerful impact on the way educators teach and provide learning support to increasingly tech-savvy students, and promises some exciting developments for the 21st-century classroom.