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School of Ed Tests Out Google+ Hangouts

A student teacher at Grand Valley State University in Michigan undergoes two semesters of field work in a public school classroom to obtain a credential. During those stints, the student teacher receives multiple observations, at least three of which are performed by somebody from the university. While most education students do their student teaching in the same geographic area where the main campus is located, in Grand Rapids, some students may choose to be placed farther away--nearer Detroit or Traverse City, a couple of hundred miles from the university. In the past, those long distance classroom observations have mostly been performed by university-hired generalist adjuncts that happened to live in the area where the student teacher was working. But last year the College of Education made a policy change; student teachers in a given discipline--such as math or science--would be reviewed by a content expert in that subject. That made observations more difficult to "farm out" to adjuncts, because so many were needed, says Jon Hasenbank, assistant professor of mathematics. That meant that Hasenbank and others in his department faced the prospect of making all-day trips to spend a couple of hours observing and then debriefing a student teacher.

Hasenbank, who's new to Grand Valley, happened to be sitting next to Joe Godwin, associate vice president for academic affairs, during a new faculty orientation, and the conversation veered to the need for cost savings. Hasenbank mentioned the time and cost dilemma of the logistics involved in observing student teachers when they were working on the other side of the state. Around that same time, Math Education Department Chair Ed Aboufadel spoke with Godwin regarding the use of technology to save money. The VP offered to fund a "mini grant" if the Math Ed department were willing to experiment.

Math education professor John Golden had just tried out Google+ Hangouts, a free application that allows people to do video chatting and conferencing, similar to Skype, and he suggested the college try that. The mini-grant--a whopping $250--purchased an $80 Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920 and a $170 wireless lavaliere microphone. The idea was to outfit a student teacher in the classroom with the mic and the webcam; then, instead of driving all morning to do an observation, the faculty member could sit in his or her office and perform the observation virtually.

Experimenting Closer to Home

To try out the set-up, the college decided to go local first. Golden enlisted student teacher Caitlin Grubb to act as the test pilot. From September to December 2012 Grubb was student-teaching math, algebra, and geometry to eighth graders at Creekside Middle School. Zeeland Public Schools, where Creekside is located, has a reputation at Grand Valley for being a district that has invested a lot in its technology infrastructure, including a sizeable iPad one-to-one program and substantial broadband capacity and wireless access.

The university checked in with Grubb's coordinating teacher, Tara Maynard, in whose class she was teaching, as well as the principal and the school's technology coordinator, all of whom approved of the experiment.

The plan was this: John Golden would sit in his office at Grand Valley and handle the video conferencing aspects and participate in the observation remotely. Hasenbank would show up on the day of the observation to Maynard and Grubb's classroom to set up the webcam and wireless mic and to participate as an observer. Maynard would act as an observer and also adjust the direction of the webcam plugged into Grubb's computer so that Golden could see what was going on in the classroom via the Hangout. And Grubb would do her best to concentrate on teaching.

The plan actually unfolded that way, with just a few details going awry. For example, Hangouts provide two-way audio. So when Grubb turned off her wireless mic in order to display a video from her computer onto the board at the front of the class, that computer shared the audio from the video that was playing as well a bunch of sounds being generated back at Grand Valley, such as Golden setting down a mug and typing on his computer--all of which Grubb's students heard too.

Also, even a high definition webcam lacks clarity when it's streamed over the Internet "due to compression," says Hasenbank. So the viewer online may not be able to read what the teacher has written for students on the board. "Sometimes that's important. Sometimes that's one of the things that we're watching when we're watching a student teacher."

Likewise, says Grubb, a downfall of the virtual approach to observation is that remote observers can't see how students are solving problems as she walks through the room and works with them one on one. "I'd ask questions about something a student had written down on their paper and then say, 'How did you get that? What made you think of that?'" While Golden could hear her questions, he couldn't see what was on their papers. In an in-person observation, the observer can simply walk around and look at student papers directly.

Finally, at some point early in the process, Hasenbank and Golden realized that the $170 microphone being worn by Grubb wasn't actually doing anything. The audio input wasn't set to listen to the port that the mic was plugged into. That turned out to be a "fortuitous" discovery, Hasenbank notes. "We were getting audio from the webcam, not from the wireless microphone. The webcam mic was sensitive enough that we were able to hear everything that Caitlin was saying. It pointed out that we probably don't really need the wireless mic, which does simplify the setup process a lot."

Although Maynard acted as the videographer to point the webcam in the right direction to capture classroom activities, Hasenbank isn't convinced it'll always be necessary to do that. "If we had had a separate laptop that was being used to stream the video put in a corner of the room, I think that would be sufficient."

As a student teacher Grubb handled the technical snafus "extremely well," Hasenbank observes. "We benefited from her being a technology expert." Some novice teachers, he notes, "would be overwhelmed by trying to make sure the video is working and the appropriate audio input is selected and all of those things."

Grubb laughs to hear herself referred to as an "expert" in technology. Before her final semester of student teacher, she was anything but technical. "I really kind of had a fear: I know how to do it this way, so why should I go this extra route that's going to take me a long time to learn and might not work out? Then someone told me, ‘Whose future are you preparing your students for--yours or their own?' That goaded me. I have to try as hard as I can because that's what I'm trying to do here--prepare kids for their future."

Grubb suggest that anybody going through virtual teacher observations try it on for size without the class, "so you don't have to tinker with stuff when you'd rather be teaching."

Hangups with Hangouts

Some schools may not be well suited to go the video conferencing route for teacher observations, Hasenbank explained, particularly if Internet access is at a premium or the network is so locked down that nobody can venture outside of the firewall.

Another potential issue concerns privacy. Although a teacher observation is a mostly private activity--only involving those in the classroom and anybody who reads the evaluations afterwards--there's an advantage to having a recording of the event so that the observers can refresh themselves about what they saw and so that the student teacher can review and reflect on it. Google+ Hangouts has two modes: Hangouts, which is private, and Hangouts on Air, which is public. The advantage of the latter is that after the session has ended, it posts a recording to YouTube. Grand Valley wanted the private nature of a Hangout with the recorded aspects of the Hangouts on Air. Golden eventually handled the quandary by setting Hangouts on Air to be private within his Google Circle and monitoring to make sure he was notified should anybody from his Circle happen to join the session; nobody did. And then once the video recording was posted to YouTube, he set that to be unlisted and viewable only by those who had the link to the video.

The privacy aspects were doubly important because Grand Valley had made assurances to the school that the observation would be private. "You can add that to the list of obstacles to overcome," notes Hasenbank. "In some schools, video is strictly forbidden. In other schools they a have a much more open policy." Where video recording of students is an opt-in event, any students in the classroom who haven't returned a permission slip have to stay out of the webcam's view.

"Really, the school has to buy into this and recognize that we're doing this essentially as part of the observation--we're not going to share it. That's something most principals will accept. But it's something that has to be done ahead of time," he says. "That's a little beyond what we'd normally have to do if we were going to have to go over there in person."

One way to resolve such hurdles, Hasenbank added, is simply to make digital observations a "precondition for placement." If the placement is at "one of these faraway places, we don't place [our students] there unless we know [the school] is going to be open to the idea and that the technology is going to support it."

The Possibilities for Google+ Hangouts

Shortly, the Grand Valley faculty will sift through their observations to sort out what was observed on the video versus what was observed in person. There's a benefit, Hasenbank notes, to be able to stop the video and back it up to play something over again.

Hasenbank doesn't want to eliminate in-person observations, "because you get to shake hands with the cooperating teacher, you get a sense of the school setting." But in situations where the travel time is longer than the observation time, he believes the video conferencing approach would have an obvious advantage. "Even if it's 90 percent as good, it's certainly worth the tradeoff to save a day of faculty time driving to the other side of the state and back." The video equipment would simply be sent with the student teacher at the beginning of the semester.

Maynard, the observing teacher in whose class Grubb worked, believes Google+ Hangouts offers a lot of potential for student teachers. "They could sit down with professors and supervising teachers and analyze lessons much easier," she says. "I like how multiple people can be invited as well. In the past there has been just one professor from the university sitting in the classroom observing." With Hangouts, multiple people could participate in the observation--including other student teachers. Plus, she added, the recordings could be useful for new teachers; they could simply take it to a job interview and share it. "That could be a huge part of interviews in the future."

Then after the job is won, concludes Golden, Google+ Hangouts could be a powerful mechanism for allowing teachers to work together. "One of the things we know is that the best way to improve teaching is to have teachers get a chance to collaborate and discuss with each other." Hangouts, he says, is "really just an interesting tool for making a record of teaching and for teachers being able to watch each other. It's very difficult to get time off during the school day to go watch another teacher teach; but during your prep hour, you might be able to turn on a Hangout and watch somebody who just opened up their laptop and started it at the back of a classroom."

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