How Google Hangouts Could Shape the Online Seminar

Google Hangouts

Although Google hangouts, the flashy group-video chat component of Google+ hasn’t turned into the social-fabric-ripping (sewing?) force that Google hoped it would be, there is serious promise here for collaborative learning in a way that may make it the future of collaborative learning, the seminar, and (I hope) the dreaded online workshop.

For those of you unfamiliar with their work, the principle behind google hangouts is pretty straightforward- most free video chat services (skype, ye olde Google Video Chat, FaceTime) provide a one-to-one connection for two people, and… here ends the reading.  Skype provides what they call “group video calling” for about 8 bucks a month, but Google has been the first major provider to offer it at the much more affordable price of free.

The Implications for Online Education

The implications here are important- one of the most alternatingly tiresome and effective critiques of education technology by the education establishment is that removing instruction from the physical classroom robs the experience of, and I’m paraphrasing here, the spidey senses of faculty, who, elder statesmen argue, are able to sense misunderstanding in the facial expressions of their audience and respond to it immediately.

Setting aside for a moment the debatable claim that the typical faculty member changes instruction based on the facial expressions of the audience, there is, embedded in this claim, a very limited understanding of what the online classroom can entail.  It is true that “lectures,” as such, have typically been discussed by Clayton Christensen here and elsewhere as being more efficiently delivered to large audiences by experts in either live streaming or video form.  What that means, though, is that thousands of faculty hours previously dedicated to face-to-face yet one-way lectures can now be spent in interactive synchronous seminar-type discussions while the one way lectures can be delivered in asynchronous form, delivered at the student’s own pace.  2U (the artist formerly known as 2tor) has been leading the charge with this model in higher ed (check out this Inside Higher Ed Article on their MBA Program at UNC), although it carries a MAJOR up-front cost to the institution and is still very limited in scope (a big benefit of 2U is their upfront investment cost in technology infrastructure and “production” of videos that incorporate the content of faculty lectures- somewhat akin to third party dining services in education who spend tens of thousands of dollars renovating dining halls and menus in exchange for a multi-year contract)

These online seminars replicate some of the most vital elements of the classroom (which are actually often lost in the typical lecture), the ability of all participants (not just the “instructor”) to respond to one another directly, ask questions at the appropriate pause, and gather facial cues to aid in interpretation.  The reviewer in the Inside Higher Ed argues that synchronous version was actually a more engaged experience than the typical seminar or lecture because faculty are able to “call” on individual students at any time, expanding their video screen for the whole class to see, and even when not speaking a live video of each individual is clustered in the upper right side of the screen.  It’s unclear how widespread this form of instruction is, but the author also mentions a social dynamic akin to the best parts of the traditional classroom cropping up in this setting as well- a few students stick around after class to ask questions, and a couple of students continue their conversation after the professor has left- no need to worry about a parking ticket or clearing out for the next class.

It’s still not perfect, and for most folks Google Hangout will still be a bit of an adjustment.  One of the strangest things is the prevalence of near, but not actual, eye contact.  This can be avoided somewhat with careful positioning of the webcam, but it does sort of change the “everyone in class is looking at me” feeling into an “everyone in class is looking at my chin” feeling.  Unless you’re willing to drop some serious bank, there isn’t a real solution to this yet, but look out for more integrated fixes to this sort of thing as online video communication becomes increasingly important in the new economy.  Also, just like we have all had to learn cellphone etiquette (ok, we all should have learned cellphone etiquette.  You know who you are), there are some basics of videochat etiquette we’ll need to get used to as well, like positioning ourselves in a space with minimal background movement and distraction.

Still, this type of technology opens the door to the type of interactive learning that may one of the best uses of the time savings we gain from asynchronous lectures, and provides a more meaningful role for the truly great active teachers- those who are not only good saying things clearly, but those who are actually skilled at helping students learn.

Stay tuned for updates on this technology from Google.  Currently the free version supports up to 10 simultaneous users, similar to the average 2U class size, but that could increase in the years ahead.  Most recently, Google has announced that a feature they call Hangouts on Air, basically the ability to stream hangouts live to an unlimited internet audience.  If you’re tired of flying to conferences just to listen to panels in crowded hotel convention halls, this could be the next big thing.

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