The newest Google product to hit the scene is Google+ (aka Google Plus). I approached Google+ with hesitation, having been excited about, and then subsequently disappointed by, Google Wave and Google Buzz. Haven’t heard about Wave or Buzz? Well, it’s no surprise… they were terrible. However, I was still giddy about getting an invite to Google+. This is, after all, what Google does. They hand out select invites, and then the invitees can invite a certain amount of people, making everyone with an invite feel like one of the “chosen.”
What is Google+? The short answer, and what you’re most likely to hear/read, is that it’s Google’s Facebook competitor. However, that is too much of a simplification of its features. These features, I’ll add in advance, have wonderful capabilities for instruction! The key difference is that you can “stream” information to select groups, which Google+ refers to as “circles.” So, the first thing you do is set up your circles. Preset circles are friends, family, and acquaintances, but you can add your own (think “students,” “ED 101 Class,” or “Science Colleagues”). Once you have circles, you can post (as you do in Facebook), but indicate to whom you would like the post to appear. So, I can choose all my circles, just my friends, friends and family, students, etc. As with Facebook, you can share pics, videos, and links as well. The ability to set up a circle for, and stream information specifically to, a course or group of students presents excellent possibilities for classroom sharing and collaboration.
Another feature that separates Google+ from Facebook (in a big way): the “hangout.” Anyone can start a hangout, which allows people to connect using a webcam and mic. When you start a hangout, you can invite anyone in your circle, but you can also invite via link. I was in a hangout last night and, while there are some kinks that Google needs to work out (mostly associated with sharing YouTube videos), it was pretty slick. The audio was crystal clear, and the video worked great. When someone speaks, Google puts that person’s image front and center. Participants without audio can communicate via chat. As it turns out, one of the folks in my hangout took a screenshot last night. Don’t ask me why I’m not looking at the screen, but at least you can see what it looks like!
We now have WebEx, which is the recommended way for instructors to host virtual office hours, but students cannot initiate their own WebEx meetings. If they were all connected in Google+, a student could start a hangout, letting other students know that they are available to study together, collaborate, chat, etc. You can have 10 people in a hangout at one time.
A final feature of Google+ is “Sparks.” Sparks allows you to get streaming information about topics in which you are interested. So, for example, “Instructional Technology” might be one of my sparks.
Initial thoughts on Google+…
I really like the ability to stream information to specific groups of people. Obviously, one should still assume that everything on the Web is public, but it at least allows you to target your posts. The hangout feature has great potential for simple collaborations, but will not support interactions that require more advanced sharing features (i.e. desktop sharing, file sharing, whiteboard, etc.). These types of meetings are best reserved for more sophisticated apps, such as (at Concordia) WebEx. Will it replace Facebook? I doubt it. People are pretty immersed in Facebook and most of them, hearing that Google+ is simply another Facebook, probably won’t even bother giving it a try. However, if I wanted to establish a social/collaborative environment for a specific group, I would bypass Facebook and head straight to Google+.