This week I had the first real chance to use Google+ Hangouts as a teaching tool on a pilot programme the English Language Teaching Centre (ELTC) are running to offer additional language support for international students at the university. I had previously used it for some one-to-one consultancies with distance students, but this was the first time using it as a classroom with multiple students. Anyhow, I just wanted to share my initial impressions
A little background....
At the ELTC we want to offer additional language support to both international students here at the University of Sheffield but also distance students. We needed some kind of video conferencing platform that was cheap and reliable. Over the last few months, I tested out a variety: Adobe Connect, Blackboard Collaborate, Global Meet and Any Meeting but they were either too slow (Any Meeting, Global Meet) confusing to use (Blackboard Collaborate) or just too expensive (Adobe Connect). The other issue is that these services favour more of a transmission approach rather like a lecture. All of them do have tools for interaction (chatboxes, polls, whiteboards) but it’s not really like a classroom. At the ELTC we favour a small group classroom approach.
So, it was useful that Google Hangouts became available recently because it met two of our needs: it’s cheap (free in fact) and it supports video conferencing for 10 people and this makes it feel more like a class.
Student access and technical issues
We decided to start piloting it this week with students who had signed up for one of our courses on Blackboard that offers additional language materials. These come from a range of departments across the university. An email was sent out with a link to a Google Form, they signed up for a particular session (we offered two on a day) and then I sent them an email confirming their place with a explanation of how to access the Hangout. This is not a trivial thing since they are not signed up by default to Google+ and I had to attach a visual guide to help them through the steps.
On top of that, I had to stress that they could not access this from a university-networked computer since they won’t allow the installation of the Google audio/video plug-in. So, really quite a lot of conditions and requirements for the students and I’m thinking that this could be a real barrier to access in the future. When you compare this with other conferencing software where all anyone really needs is a link to follow, this seems pretty complicated!
This was perhaps reflected in the numbers who actually accessed the seminars. We had two organised with nine sign-ups in each group, but in the first one only two managed to get in (and one of those was late due to technical issues) and in the second one only five (though there was one more who was trying to get in but was clearly having access issues)
Oh, and one other problem. I decided to create a Brand Page from my Google+ account called English Language Support and it was this account students were supposed to follow and then from there the Hangout would start. At the last minute I discovered that currently Pages does NOT support the Hangout with Extras feature. This is a special type of Hangout that allows integration of Google Docs and use of a Sketchpad (whiteboard) with the participants. By the time I discovered this it was too late and I had to go with the basic Hangout, which only supports screensharing.
I’ve been pretty negative about Google+ Hangouts so far, but on the plus side when you are actually in the seminars, it works really well. It feels more natural and conversational than some of the other video conferencing software available and the way the large viewing window changes focus depending on who’s speaking makes the whole thing feel more egalitarian.
The screen sharing function is decent, I had to show a variety of webpages to the students during the seminar and it was easy to do that. You have the option to screenshare your desktop or a particular window/application. The chatbox is useful, particularly so in our second seminar because one of the students could could only hear/see the seminar but didn’t have voice/video access so that was her way of communicating. I could also use the chatbox to get students to write answers to questions or for me to clarify spelling of words or send links to the websites I was showing them.
The quality of video/voice was really good as well. On some other video conferencing software I’d used there was significant lag in video/voice and during the screensharing, but this was very smooth throughout. However, I would suggest NOT using a wireless connection, particularly if you are running the seminar. The first one I did I was on wifi and I was kicked out of the Hangout several times, but in the second one I connected to the wired network and didn’t have so many problems.
I wouldn’t say it was my finest teaching hour as I’m still learning how to conduct effective online seminars but the students seemed reasonably engaged and a couple of them did ask when the next one would be - which is a good sign.
I can see definite potential for the use of Hangouts as a learning tool. The most obvious use would be to provide tuition/access to office hours for distance learning students at the University of Sheffield, but it could also be used in the same way for students at the university as well. Tutors could offer virtual office hours or conduct seminars through Hangouts.
The other use of Hangouts is as an informal conferencing tool between colleagues. In fact, me and Fergus Conolly, a technician from the Modern Language Teaching Centre have been using Hangouts quite extensively as a more personal alternative to online chat or phone calls and I could see this kind of usage expanding as a way of bringing together colleagues from different departments or universities for meetings and discussions.