Google+ in the Classroom, One Year Later

When Google+ made its debut last July, the social-networking site—which includes collaborative features such as videoconference “hangouts” and interest-based “circles” networks—was heralded as a potential boon for education technology and a possible alternative to traditional learning-management systems. But while some professors have incorporated it into their teaching, adoption appears more limited than its early fans predicted.

This week we put out a call on our social networks, including our Wired Campus Twitter feed and personal Google+ account, seeking professors who had integrated Google+ into their courses. Plenty of people spread the word, but only one professor responded with an example. That’s hardly scientific, of course, but others said they were skeptical of the claim that Google+ is changing higher education.

“Any technology has potential to be used in education, from pencils to spaceships, but this is a lot of hype,” said Karen Schneider, university librarian at Holy Names University. “I’ve had people say to educators, ‘Are you using Google+?,’ and my question is, ‘Why and how?’”

Ms. Schneider said she saw value in the site’s collaborative tools, but “piece by piece, there’s nothing you can do with Google+ that you couldn’t do with other technologies.”

One use that some professors have found is virtual office hours. Daniel Dickrell III, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Florida who holds virtual office hours in addition to in-person ones, began using Google+ last fall, after being approached by a Google student ambassador (a liaison between Google and his or her university) who showed him its videoconference and screen-sharing features.

Mr. Dickrell said that virtual office hours provided another option for students, especially those who live far from the campus, to have more contact with him. Some of the larger courses at the University of Florida, including his, are hybrids in which physical attendance is not mandatory, and students can watch recorded lectures online.

“The downside is that you want to make sure people who want human contact can get it,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I looked at Google+, because it enables me to reach out and get in touch with students who I might not ordinarily meet or see.”

About 500 students typically enroll in Mr. Dickrell’s class. Of those, 50 or 60 students, spread out over two hours, often attend his virtual office hours, he said, noting that the student response has been enthusiastic.

Laura Guertin, an associate professor of earth science at Pennsylvania State University at Brandywine, said Google+ had helped her campus become fair-trade certified, a sign of its use of products that meet defined environmental and labor standards. Ms. Guertin created a Google+ profile for an environmental-studies seminar and required her students to post links and updates about fair trade.

None of her students had used the site before, and they wanted to use Facebook instead, she said, but she chose Google+ because of its circles option.

The problem with a class Web site or a Facebook account, Ms. Guertin said, is that it’s hard to get word out about the project. When the students started joining circles and being added to fair-trade circles themselves, the built-in network of people with similar interests helped the site spread more quickly, she said.

“What I wanted to do is, as the students were learning, have them interact with people involved with the fair-trade movement at large,” she said. “We were noticed more by the larger community through Google+ than if we had a regular Web site. When someone would comment on one of those posts, the students would go nuts.”

The Google+ page also fulfilled the fair-trade certification requirement of providing evidence of continuing conversations about sustainability, Ms. Guertin said. She has since started using the videoconference hangout feature to meet with students who live far from the campus, and will use Google+ again for a forthcoming class about climate change.

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