Over the past couple of years I have been increasingly using online technologies to allow my students to learn, create, and communicate in hybrid learning spaces. In working with pre-service and veteran teachers in graduate level classes, or in professional development workshops, I try to provide an online learning resource that individuals can use after the day is over and they are back home.
I build these online learning resources and communities to be as device agnostic and location agnostic as possible. This means that you can learn, create, and communicate at work on a PC, on your couch on an iPad, or in line at the coffee shop on your mobile device. In my humble opinion, the best of these online technologies over the past year or two is Google+.
What is Google+ and how do I get started?
Google+ is a social network developed and run by Google. If you already use gMail, or Google Apps (Docs, Presenter, Spreadsheets), then you already have an account with Google+. There are many reasons to use Google+ in addition to Facebook or Twitter. One of the most important reasons is that it is run by Google, and if someone searches for information about you using the online search engine, Google will bump your Google+ content to the top. This is important as you create and curate your online brand. There are also many other features that make this a powerful, and worthwhile use of your time.
To create a profile in Google+ you need to navigate to https://plus.google.com/. If you already have a Google Account (e.g. gMail or Google Apps) then add this information and confirm some of the details that Google already has about you. Google likes this information to be as close to your offline identity as possible. Please consider the identity you most want to promote with this tool and include those details. If you do not have a Google Account, please click here and create one. When you first log in to Google+, it will ask you to “circle” a bunch of people. This is the equivalent of friending, or following people on Facebook or Twitter. Google+ will also ask you to join a bunch of Communities. My advice is to not circle anyone, or join any Communities just yet. Google+ will give you a warning that you’ll be “lonely and bored” if you don’t follow anyone. Ignore these warnings and follow my advice.
The next step of getting started up involves personalizing your profile on Google+ and creating connections to your other online identities. This is terribly important given my earlier indication that Google will bump up their own information about you when someone “Googles” you. Let’s face it, many of us Google ourselves. You can be sure that colleagues, potential employers, or parents and students will and do Google you. What information is online about you and how can you shape what is being said about you? Having a rich, thorough description on Google+, with tons of shared content and discussion is a great first step. So please take the time to create and review your Google+ Profile, and connect your account to other work you do online. Connect your YouTube channel, your cooking blog, and your Pinterest feed. This allows your online identity to be as exciting and robust as your offline identity. For more in-depth discussion about how to thoughtfully and effectively create and personalize your Google+ Profile, please click here.
Now that you’ve signed in to Google+, there are a ton of different things that you can do with this tool. I use Google+ to research, learn, and discuss new ideas with others.
Use Google+ to develop your Personal Learning Network
Once you’ve created an account for Google+, I would start looking around online for people to “circle.” A circle is the Google+ version of following or friending someone. You can also quickly add other people by adding a curated circle developed by some other people on Google+. I recommend add people from this circle by Martin Shervington and this circle by Rich Kiker if you’re interested in some great dialogue about teaching, learning, and technology.
Another quick way to use Google+ as your personal learning network is to find Communities to follow. A Google+ Community is the equivalent of a group in which the members all have a common interest. I’m an active member of a number of Communities, some of my favorites include the Connected Learning Community, Chromebook EDU Community, Rapsberry Pi Community, and the Using Google as a Free LMS Community.
By joining these Communities, the links and news shared in the group are automatically pushed to your home feed. I find these Communities to be invaluable resources to keep on top of new events in a field, or direct questions to a global panel of experts.
Use Google+ as a communication tool for personal and academic work
Because Google+ is facilitated by Google, you have access to the wealth of tools offered free in the Google Apps toolkit. This means that you can use Docs, Presenter, Forms, and Spreadsheets seamlessly within Google+. One of the most invaluable tools that is part of the Google+ ecosystem is Hangouts. Hangouts is a mix between an instant messenger and video conferencing communication tool, and it’s a powerful way to text chat, or video chat with colleagues and students globally. The tool is free and allows you to video conference with up to ten people.
The most powerful feature of Hangouts is that it is device and platform agnostic. That means that you can video conference with people using your computer, iPhone, iPad, Android phone, or Android tablet. You can now keep in touch with individuals almost instantly, no matter where they are. I use Hangouts to provide my students with an online office hour. They are given an hour two nights a week that they can use to drop in and Hangout with me to ask questions or get homework help.
Google also provides a function called Hangouts on Air. This connects to your YouTube account and allows you to live “broadcast” your video conference to your YouTube channel. After the show is complete, your broadcast is saved on your YouTube channel for peers or students that may have missed the original meeting. This is a great tool for lecture capture, help groups, and planning sessions.
Use Google+ to build your own learning management system
In developing classes for my pre-service teachers I prefer not to use Blackboard. The rationale for this is that I don’t see the reason to teach them how to get around the learning management system (LMS) if they’ll never be able to use or create one on their own for their students. As a result I only use free online tools in my classes.
One of the best LMS environments that I create involves a mix of Google Sites and Google+. Google Sites allows you to create high quality websites for free. By integrating Google+, I can keep some of the interactivity that is lost by not using Blackboard. An example of this can be seen at a MOOC that I just built and will be launching soon.
I developed the Online Research and Media Skills (ORMS) model along with Greg McVerry as a way to effectively and authentically embed the new Mozilla Web Literacy Standards into the Common Core State Standards. We developed a MOOC to teach educators what is included in the ORMS model, and share their work with others. The MOOC is open, online, and free. We’ve already had students enroll from around the globe.
Through the use of Google Sites and Google+, I was able to develop a slick looking, professional LMS...for free. I also built up the MOOC to provide an exemplar for my students to show what could be achieved through the use of free online tools and a little time. To learn more about the ORMS model and the MOOC, check out this blog post on a Hangout on Air I recently conducted.
What can you do with Google+?
Some of the wonder, and also some of the challenge, with this environment is that you really can do everything. So, with that I urge you to check out Google+. See what it can do for you. Please come “circle” me on Google+ and share your ideas...or just say hi.
W. Ian O'Byrne is an Assistant Professor of Educational Technologies at UNH. His research examines the literacy practices of individuals as they read/write in online spaces. You can read more of his work at his blog, Digitally Literate (http://wiobyrne.com/). You can also follow him online at Google+, or Twitter...or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2013 W. Ian O'Byrne. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.