Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Google Plus Hangouts and the Office Hours Problem

Today's college student is quite well connected, but it is surprising how limited they are in understanding the full range of what is available to them. Most are using Twitter and Facebook, but Google Plus is only now making inroads, at least among the students I have surveyed here in Texas.

Google Plus offers several useful tools that can enhance teaching. Hangouts were the first to be practically useful. I have found them to provide an excellent means of conducting office hours. Most universities require professors to maintain set office hours during which students can drop in for assistance or just to talk. I find two problems with such a policy. First, if the time does not fit the student’s schedule, and it often does not, they are effectively cut out. Second, access to the professor is “first come, first served.” Thus, the second or third or fourth student may find the wait too long. Besides, waiting in the hall is an inefficient use of time.

I have always permitted office hours by appointment, but that also requires that I be on campus, in my office during those times. While I spend a lot of time on campus, there are times I will work from home or be on the road. An alternative solution is required.

The University provides Adobe Connect as a means of connecting with audio, video, and chat. It requires some front end work on the part of the university and the professor to enable, but is not particularly difficult. However, Google Plus Hangouts seem to provide a light weight capability that enable more immediate access.
I make it clear to my students that I am available to discuss class issues at most any time. There are practical limits, of course, such as late in the evening or on weekends when I am busy with private family events. However, I have conducted virtual office hours on every day of the week, as early as 7:00 am and as late as 10:00 pm.

The advantage of virtual office hours, of course, is that it can be conducted regardless of the physical location of the student or the professor. All it requires is a laptop (or even netbook under the right conditions.) Using a mobile phone is limited right now, at least from the professor’s point of view as a hangout presently cannot be initiated from a mobile unit. However, a student can certainly join a hangout and, I suppose, if a student initiated a hangout, the professor could join from a mobile device
In most cases the normal Hangout environment is sufficient to talk to the student. However, as one might expect, Hangouts with Extras is particularly useful, especially when dealing with an essay or other written material.

Thoughts for Google that might help make the Hangouts more flexible:

  1. Ability to lock a room to prevent any more participants from joining
  2. Ability to split modules apart, such as the video and chat windows, to enable optimizing the desktop, especially when dealing with multiple students in the same Hangout.
  3. Ability to save all work at the end, including the chat dialogue and the audio/video. Any documents brought up are already savable into Google Docs, so that is good.
  4. For first time users, a quick dialogue that pops up asking the user to check to see if all necessary software is present to conduct an audio and video chat. Adobe Connect has such a module that will automatically install any needed extensions should they be missing.

I enjoy Google Hangouts and find them easy to navigate, easy to train a new user, and exceptionally useful in communicating with our increasingly technically saavy students. Using this technology actually provides more flexibility and freedom to both student and professor in meeting the student’s needs.

I look forward to future improvements and I will enjoy hearing from other professors about their experiences and I will update mine as I continue my use of the technology and research.