Collaboration and Social Networking | Feature

Building Classroom Communities with Google+

How can you transform a classroom full of students into a community of learners? Betsy Page Sigman, a distinguished teaching professor in the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., has tried over the years to add new types of technology to her database and e-commerce classes to engage her students.

"For almost 10 years I had stuck new modules on the curriculum like ornaments on a Christmas tree, without looking at the overall impact the add-ons were having on the course," she said.

In 2011, with help from the Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarship (CNDLS, which is pronounced "Candles") at Georgetown, Sigman decided to introduce Google+ social media service to her Database Development and Management course with the hope of boosting collaboration among its approximately 45 students.

"I wanted to create lifelong learners about database topics," she told a session at the January Mid-Atlantic EDUCAUSE meeting in Baltimore. "I wanted to get students excited and get them sharing information and talking to each other. When they see something interesting, I want them to think about it in database terms. Because so much of the world runs on databases, I want them to start bringing that into the classroom. I wanted to find a way for them to communicate easily with each other and with me."

Sigman got lots of support from CNDLS. She was one of six faculty members chosen for a summer 2011 teaching, learning, and technology fellowship program. Fellows get a team of IT, instructional design and library support staff to help enhance and redesign their course.

Sigman and the CNDLS team first had to decide which platform would work best for what they were trying to do. After looking at both WordPress and Twitter, they decided that Google+ sounded like the best fit, even though it was only three months old. "I was excited about the notion that you could create these protected circles within which students could freely communicate and keep it private more easily," Sigman said. But she also recognized that social media can be a huge distractor as well. "I had to be cautious about overwhelming the students with a technology they didn't really understand and I was hesitant about giving them a new social media solution, because it can become difficult to manage all your social media sometimes."

Among her goals were to create communities outside the classroom and to keep students updated about each other's research. She believed that Google+ would allow students to communicate and share blogs, audio files, video files, and links to websites that related to the course criteria. The Google+ comment function notifies students when to respond to other students.

Once the class met in fall 2011, Sigman and the CNDLS team found that students needed one-on-one attention to get signed up for Google+. That has since changed, she added. "Things have gotten easier," she said. For instance, she recently got her e-commerce class up and running on it very quickly. Once students joined Google+, she created a circle and sent them invitations to join it; then she shared the circle with the group.

Sigman had to establish some guidelines about how students would use Google+. She set an expectation that they would use Google+ about once per week. "I wasn't as specific in setting expectations as I later learned to be," she admitted. "I just told them it would be part of the participation grade. They wanted to know what percentage of the participation grade."

Although many students posted and commented frequently, Sigman found that some were reluctant to respond to another type of social media because they already spend so much time on Facebook.

To get more interaction, she asked students to take part in Google Hangout video chats, to which she found them more responsive. Sigman believes the Hangouts are a wonderful way for students and professors to communicate. "I ran a tutorial last semester with two students who wanted to do an advanced social media individual study. We met almost exclusively on Google+ Hangouts. "There was very little difference between meeting in real life and in Google+ Hangouts," she said. "We did meet once physically, but we didn't really have to. We could see each other's faces and documents. It really worked."

At the end of the first semester, Sigman and CNDLS used Google Forms to conduct a qualitative survey of the students. They sought to understand if and how Google+ enhanced student engagement, communication and learning. The response was mixed. The survey found that 49 percent of students found it useful, while 46 percent did not.

One student said, "There have been several instances of classmates messaging me through Google+ and I find the posts enjoyable to read. It has developed an outside community to the extent I thought it would."

But another wrote: "Since I rarely sign in to Google+ (due to it not automatically being linked to my normal email), I find it hard to keep up with what is being posted. Instead, I only look at the account when I am posting material for class." Another said, "It's definitely an interesting idea, but I don't think there is much interaction among students in reality."

A few students made brief videos about their experience. "I think the Circles aspect is really valuable and differentiates Google+," said Brendan Viola, a junior. "But I think there is a learning curve for Google+ that did create problems for a lot of students. They didn't really want to adapt to Google+. They didn't want to put in the time to understand how the service works."

Jonathan Rabar, a junior, said, "I think that Google+ enhances the classroom experience and allows us to create a discussion forum. It helps us keep really up to date with the things that are happening now and gets us outside our Georgetown bubble."

Sigman was not discouraged by the mixed reviews and continued integrating the platform into her classes. She used Google+ with an E-Business and Social Networking class in the summer of 2012 and created a very active community, and is now using it in her Electronic Commerce class in spring 2013.

She has learned to be more specific about her expectations. Google+ will count for 5 percent of students' final grade. She tells students to pursue quality vs. quantity in their posts, to post an average of once per week, and not to wait until the end of the semester to post. She recommends they post items interesting to them and that they think will help classmates learn something.

Sigman said she has really just scratched the surface in terms of the possibilities for the uses of Google+ in the classroom. "I encourage students working on group projects to meet in Hangouts," she said. "Georgetown is looking at faculty office hours in Hangouts. There are lots of things we could do with distance learning," she added. "Imagine a French class setting up a relationship with a university in France and having the students talk to each other online."

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Informatics and Government Technology.

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