Between January 12th and 17th Dublin School of English hosted the third Sonett (Grundtvig) Project Conference, with delegates from CCT Murcia and Santa Severina City in Italy. The conference consisted of meetings, lectures, specialised tech language classes and ICT training focused on integration of social media into the classroom.
Since summer 2012 we have been testing different on-line social media platforms as teaching tools. We looked at Facebook, Twitter, Branch, Buddypress and found them all to be too busy and limited. Finally, we investigated Google+, Google’s social media site, and specifically one of its communication applications – Google ‘Hangouts’.
Curiously, most people are unaware of the educational applications offered by Google Hangouts. This is probably because Google+ has had little traction in the social media arena compared to Facebook and Twitter. We also found that, like with most of their products, Google doesn’t make an effort to explain the platform, opting to allow users to discover them by themselves. Naturally, this presents problems, but, if you know what you’re doing, Google Hangouts are a hidden gem literally in plain sight. I like to call it ‘Super Skype’ – this is because it does everything Skype does, and then some! Effectively, it is a free conferencing tool, though Google is advertising it more as a social interaction facilitator – a way for friends to ‘hang out’ informally on-line, another reason it has gone under educators’ radars.
So how does it hang Skype and other conferencing tools out to dry? Rather impressively, you can have up to nine people in a Hangout. One might be forgiven for thinking that this would get messy, but the programme is incredibly intuitive; it adapts depending on who is speaking. The host (teacher) can also mute participants and display whom they want to see, allowing for effective classroom management. The interaction can be watched live and you can record the whole thing, automatically uploading it to your Youtube channel to view later.
This is pretty groundbreaking stuff for teachers and students; they can easily watch back over a class or a collaborative task to see what areas need attention. What’s more there is a ‘screen-share’ option where students can view resources – articles, blogs or even digital textbooks. There is also a Youtube screen to watch source materials, not to mention live document sharing using Google Drive, editable in real-time, acting as an interactive whiteboard, which is key for dynamic on-line teaching. This means students can collaborate on tasks under the watchful eye of their teacher. One can easily manage a number of different classes by creating dedicated ‘circles’, making it easy to disseminate tailor-made materials. For topics, teachers can set up ‘sparks’ using keywords and categories for students to reference outside class time. In short, the possibilities for an exciting engaging class are limitless.
On the Sonett Project we have been using Hangouts for class debates on a wide varied of interesting topics. It has worked well – just take a peek at our Youtube channel DSEYou to see for yourself. Feedback from students and teachers has been very positive so far and everyone is excited about the possibilities afforded by this new technology. The students in Murica got to know the DSE students virtually before meeting them in person in the school, demonstrating that virtual relationships can be every bit as real as meeting in person. With this type of real-time communication there is no disconnect in interactions; it is as tangible an experience as the virtual world can offer at present, only it is an enhanced experience with all of these tools at their finger tips.
We are currently working on digital lessons we plan to run over the coming months with the teacher conducting classes on-line in Ireland, while the students enjoy Spain’s considerably more clement weather. This free technology will drive a shift in education, opening classrooms up and bringing learners together globally. The Internet has made the world a smaller place, but education, aside from some on-line university courses, has remained largely a local affair. Google Hangouts are a real game-changer; the challenge now is how we approach eLearning and virtual classrooms. It must be in a structured manner that capitalises on the technology rather than being distracted or overwhelmed by it.