Use Google+ Communities to run Google Hangouts with your tutorial groups in a large online course

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What’s Google Hangouts

Google Hangouts is a great free video service from Google for groups of up to 10 people to have an audio/video chat with each other while sharing their screens, watching videos together, or collaborating on documents.

This seems custom-made for the needs of an online classroom since one of the biggest issues online students report is a sense of disconnection.

So if you’re running and online course (like I am) and want the students to get together in support groups without your intervention (like running and scheduling a webinar), you can encourage them to run their own Google Hangouts.

How to start a Google Hangout (the easy and the challenging)

Just running a Google Hangout is dead easy.

  1. Get a Google Plus account
  2. Find some people you want to hang out this (they also have to have Google Plus accounts) and circle them
  3. Click on “Start hangout” link on your Google+ profile and invite the people from the Circle you want

But there is an inherent difficulty with this if you’re running a large class (like a MOOC or a miniMOOC):

The person organizing the Hangout has to have Circled everyone they want to invite. Which means that if they don’t know each other (which is the problem you’re trying to solve in the first place), they have to share their details with each other outside of Google Plus. Until recently, there was nowhere on Google Plus where you could have a sort of a public circle to which people can subscribe.

So the solution was to make the Hangout public and then share the link with everyone. This wasn’t necessarily as straightforward as it sounds because you can’t schedule a hangout for the future, so cannot share the link ahead of time.

But now Google introduced Google Plus Communities.

How to make use of Communities when starting Hangouts for classroom groups

This is also dead simple.

  1. Login to your Google+ account
  2. Click on the new Communities link in the right hand column
  3. Click on the Create Community button and start a group (give it a name, description, etc.) – you can choose whether you want anybody to be able to join or if you want to approve individual members (note, you will be able to moderate them later)
  4. Invite people to your Community: you can do that via G+ Circles, email or simply by sharing the link to it – e.g. https://plus.google.com/communities/110705159929742356502
  5. When you then start a Google Hangout, instead of inviting your circles, invite the Community. All communities appear at the bottom of the list of Circles you can invite. This means that anyone in the Community can join.

Using Community events to schedule hangouts

Another difficulty with organizing hangouts with groups who are not close, was trying to figure out the best time and then scheduling it.

Google doesn’t help with agreeing on time. But you can use a poll on http://doodle.com and share the link in your Community.

Once a time that suits most people has been agreed, you can use the Events feature. Simply on the events category under the Community name and add an Event. That’s it.

Or you can just create an event the old fashioned way and invite the Community to it.

Note 1: To make an event into a Hangout event, you have to got to Event options and click on Advanced, first.

Note 2: At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be a way of inviting communities to existing events. So if you have to invite a community, you have to invite it when you’re creating the event. I suspect that this is an omission that Google will fix.

What if your Community is too large?

You can only have 10 people in a Hangout so it’s possible that with large communities, a small group who planned a hangout get together can find themselves locked out of a hangout made available to the whole community. I can see several solutions:

  • Use the community just as a jumping off point for people to create their own circles or private communities for their tutorial groups.
  • Use the RSVP feature on events to get a sense of how many people might be coming and then simply have people who can’t fit create their own hangouts.
  • Use the Hangouts on Air to broadcast the hangout publicly. This means that people who don’t fit in can at least watch it and comment on it on YouTube. You can then rotate participants in and out. I can see using the Hangout as a sort of webinar with the Hangout just being a place you join when you want to ask a question or comment.

Other uses for Google Plus Communities

Now that you have a community, you can obviously use it for other things such as sharing links, discussions, etc.

But the only feature Google offers for organizing these at the moment are categories that the community creator can set up via Actions > Edit community. Anything posted to this group can then be sent to one of these categories.

Another nice feature is moderation. The community creator or Owner can nominate anyone to be a moderator. This person can then approve posts marked as spam or ban people from the community.

Finally, you can use the Communities ecosystem to have your students join Communities external to the course and learn there. There seems to be a cornucopia of quite active communities just a few days in. So it looks like Google Plus can finally live up to its potential for education.