Using Google Hangouts (with extras) for Office Hours: Fall 2011

Last Updated: 05/30/2013

Alison Hicks: Romance Language Librarian, University of Colorado, Boulder

During the OIT sponsored Teaching with Technology seminar that took place in Fall 2011, one participant mentioned that they used Skype (http://www.skype.com) to hold office hours. As the liaison librarian to the Romance Language departments, I had recently started Office Hours, held for two hours a week in ALTEC (Hellems) While the program had been moderately successful, several students indicated that they could not make this time due to teaching/class commitments. Many other students were working on a tight schedule and it was hard for me to make time to meet with them in person with short notice. I was therefore interested in another way to reach these students that was more flexible and inclusive.

During a snowy day, the seminar participants used Google + Hangouts as an alternative to the physical meeting. Google + (https://plus.google.com/) was launched in mid 2011 as a social media service, a rival to Facebook. However it was clear very soon that Google + integrated many other unique features, including allowing account holders to join up the functionality of their Google account (eg Google Docs, etc) with the social media platform. Google + also enabled a much more robust set of privacy controls, recognizing that social media plays a variety of roles in people’s lives and that it is important for many (educators included) to be able to distinguish between groups of friends, acquaintances, colleagues and students.

The “hangout” is Google’s equivalent of a Skype call on steroids. Up to 10 people can video conference, IM, share screens, and even, for the month of Movember, add fake moustaches to their face. Google + “hangouts with extras” involves documents sharing and editing. Thus, when the seminar participants joined the Google + hangout, not only were they able to join in the physical seminar, but they were also able to see each other’s faces, share web screens and also Google documents. The success of this trial gave me the idea to try Google Hangouts as an alternative Office Hours.

Accordingly, in Fall 2011, my colleague Caroline Sinkinson and I tested using Google + for this function. What follows is an analysis of our steps so far as well as further examination of the strengths and weaknesses within this project. We hope to launch the alternative office hours in January 2012 and have applied for IRB approval in order to be able to survey patrons after their use. We eventually hope to present or write this project up more fully.

Strengths

*Screensharing: As a librarian, my office hours normally involve more specific research questions, such as an appropriate database to use or access problems and, as such, require both the student and myself to manipulate the library webpage or databases. Furthermore, it is important that attendees work from their own screen/computer if possible, to enable the storing of links and PDFs but also to get practice in working the research resources. Thus, Google + enables me to show what I am doing, but also to see what the student is doing- and where the bottleneck lies.

*More than Text: The libraries already runs a popular IM reference service which works well for many types of questions. However, by relying on this text based service, challenges involve having to type out complicated steps, or failing to understand where each person is on a screen. Google + allows for the visual viewing, as well as chat and voice to help resolve issues.

*Record of work: Students may not always recall which resources or keywords we work with during the office hour session. Google + allows for the collaborative editing of a new document which is shared between the two participants. This serves as a reminder document as well as a way for students to reflect on the steps we took and the progress they made.

*Free: Skype charges for video calls for more than 2 people.

Weaknesses

*Google account: Students need a Google account and to have enabled the Google + account. Many students do not already use Google accounts on a regular basis, or are unaware of the potentials. Many students may have been banned from using a Google account at school, or were encouraged to use more standard office applications. Students also need to have enabled (set up) Google +, which is still more of a niche application. The jury is still out on whether Google + is a Facebook killer, but it is evident that many college students are still wedded to Facebook.

*Plugin: When using Google + hangouts for the first time, a small download is necessary. This takes time, and students using institutional computers may not have download permissions.

*Joining the hangout: It is possible to create a public hangout, which anyone can join, but students always need a google account to participate in this service. If you want to have a private hangout with a student that is just limited to the two of you, each of you would have to be in each other’s “circles” (Google’s equivalent of Twitter followers or Facebook friends)

*Privacy: If you start a public hangout, more than 1 student could technically join at once. This may have privacy implications.

*Google + Page v Personal account: Users can sign up for their personal account or they can create a Page, which is a more neutral (non-personal) way for institutions or business to provide service via Google +. Therefore I could create a page that just had professional resources embedded on it rather than personal information. There are several benefits and drawbacks involved with creating a page. Firstly, badges are only available for pages right now. Badges (or visual quick links) can be embedded on your webpage and create a quick and easy way for students to find you and to join the hangout. Unfortunately, if you create a page, it is impossible to share documents/screens with Pages right now. This will likely be fixed in future. Right now though, there are two options.

**Create a Page (Bonus: more distance; add specific class based resources and links, ie keeping work and personal completely private; easy linking badge. Downside: No collaborative document or screensharing functions)
**Keep personal account (Bonus: Collaborative documents. Downside: no badge/easy linking for students to join hangout, harder to include class specific resources)

Steps taken to establish office hours

*Set up Google + account, download plugin. Test with colleague.
*Establish Office Hours (specific time of week or by appointment)
*At specific time, start a “hangout”. Make this public if you have set up a general time when you will be available or invite students to join a private hangout if you have an appointment with them.

For more information see Google + Help pages. (http://support.google.com/plus/bin/static.py?hl=en&guide=1257349&page=gu...)