Google + Hangouts: Computer Mediated Communication After Hours

I’m not particularly fond of the name “Hangouts” – it suggests that Google designed this feature of Google + for anything and everything but education, which, undoubtedly, was the case anyway. 


Screen shot of a Google + Hangout with two students.

It seems almost seedy to ask students to schedule a “Hangout” with you. Semantics matter, and saying “Skype me” simply sounds better intentioned. 

However, after a few Google + “Hangouts” with students to help them prepare for assessments, I’m pretty sold on it as a platform for synchronous, computer-mediated communication in support of teaching and learning objectives. It is free and allows for multiple participants as well as screen sharing.

If you want to have a series of guiding questions on the screen during the session, then simply turn on screen sharing and your video camera cuts out. Your audio feed remains on – so you can still engage with participants – and you can watch what your students are doing during the session (taking notes, hopefully). 

Many schools have gone with Gmail for internal communication along with Google Apps for Education. Particularly for these schools, enabling Google + for “Hangouts” provides an opportunity to support groups of students outside of the classroom setting. 

As the saying goes, our students don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care. Those after-hours, more informal yet still structured “Hangouts” can be just the thing to demonstrate how invested we are as teachers in the success of our students and in improving learning outcomes. 


Peer-Peer Talk/Listen Protocols and the Repeat Timer app


Repeat Timer Free App

This will be a brief post tonight to note an app I learned of today that can be used to support an in-classroom protocol or three. It’s called “Repeat Timer,” and, while certainly not transformational in nature, it is a valuable tool to explore for the tablet-equipped teacher who likes to follow defined protocols. 

The app – basically a sophisticated timer – automatically resets and runs again upon the expiration of your pre-programmed time frame. You can also program it to allow for a timed break between these timed active-learning sessions, as well.  


If, for example, your speak/listen protocol in paired contexts is for one student to speak uninterrupted for 45 seconds – perhaps synthesizing, summarizing, analyzing a particular piece of literature while his/her partner listens and takes notes – when the 45 seconds expires and the partners switch roles, the app will automatically reset to 45 seconds for the next round and begin the countdown. If you want 10 seconds to briefly decompress between the next 45-second speak/listen session, that’s easily accomplished as well. 

Sometimes it’s the small things that make your preferred protocols run as you would wish. 

iBooks Author, Part 1: Maximizing the Potential of the Tools in Our Students’ Hands


Cover of a teacher-generated etext for the iPad

In previous posts here, as well as in publications and prior presentations, I have articulated my hope that educators everywhere will embrace the opportunity we have to take advantage of the powerful tools that our students are already carrying around to pursue a much-needed paradigm shift in teaching and learning

Transformational change doesn’t happen overnight, but begins instead with baby steps. Maybe it is teachers having their students voluntarily sign up for text messages to their beloved cell phones, one of the supremely powerful and supremely overlooked learning tools most of our students are carrying around, as I argue in my Educause article

Hopefully, though, it is much more profound (and cost-reducing) than that. 

If we are offering a 1:1 computer/tablet teaching and learning environment, then (perhaps paradoxically given the up-front cost of the tablet purchase) the potential to allow innovation to drive down the cost of education exists, provided we maximize the potential of the tools in our students’ hands. 

Tablets in the hands of our students, for example, mean we simply don’t need those costly clickers to conduct statistical sampling and see if they “got it.” Apps such as Socrative or free Web-based tools such as serve the same purpose. 

It means, too, that our students no longer have to pay the high prices publishing houses have traditionally charged them for heavy, outdated textbooks. But, while electronic versions of texts are cheaper, they are not yet available for all titles.

Opportunity knocks. Teachers answer.

If your school offers a 1:1 teaching and learning environment, there are now tools to tap into teachers’ creative instincts and general dissatisfaction with the offerings of textbook publishers. In my next post, I will look at iBooks Author and how it simplifies the process of compiling your own resources into a dynamic etexts for the iPad. 

As a teaser to my next post on this subject, I begin with this overview by a colleague at my school, who says the following of his noble effort to compile paperless reading resources for his Foundational Literature students:

“Of the many things we learned about the iPad in the spring of 2012, as we were laying the groundwork for our 1:1 iPad program, one thing that registered with me was that users could create e-Books of their own, using a piece of free Apple software called iBooks Author. I’ve always been intrigued in various aspects of the writing process, and though I’ve been the editor of a magazine for over a decade, I’d never dabbled in creating a book before. My first project, a reader for a unit on the literature of the Western US, was a huge undertaking– but turned out to be a very useful tool both for me and for students in Foundational Literature. It proved to be great for kids to have all of their readings for the term in a single, portable device–especially since they were already carrying their iPads at school, at home, and on the road with them. This year I added a couple of shorter e-Books to my Foundational Literature curriculum–excerpts from Homer’s Iliad, and some background reading on the Trojan War. Not only are these e-Book editions convenient, but they also allow me to include images, videos, or even hyperlinks in the text!”

Here is a teacher who perceived the potential of the iPad to meet the needs of his highly mobile student population. Beyond perceiving, this teacher acted. Change begets change, and the ball begins to roll in a direction more favorable to the present and future needs of todays’ students. 

Like this particular teacher, let’s find what tools and approaches work, and then work harder to maximize the potential of those tools and approaches. 

Statistical Sampling, Part 2:’s Presenter App

I presented recently at an educational technology conference where sales reps peddling expensive and flashy Clickers happened to be just down the hallway from my presentation. I began my talk with a few polls I had created on that allowed audience members to text in their responses to some “get to know the audience” questions via cell phone, iPad, or laptop. One of my audience members nodded his head, knowingly, and said, “This does exactly what those clickers down the hallway do, only with none of the cost.”

First of all, why conduct statistical sampling in the first place? As teachers, statistical sampling can offer us invaluable insight into the effectiveness of our lesson. For students, it can also be an instant engagement tool. You can begin your class with a series of multiple choice questions, free-response questions or (for language learning) sentence scrambles, etc. in order to assess what your students already know, then clear those answers from your polls and end the class after your lesson with the very same questions. Clearly, if there is no quantitative/qualitative improvement in your students’ responses by the end of class, your lesson plan did not lend itself to improved learning outcomes and needs rethinking. You know that further scaffolding is in order.

A good many of you reading this post probably know about, and, if you don’t know about it, I would encourage you to watch a few of the tutorials available on (what a gold mine YouTube is!). What a number of those tutorials don’t cover is the PollEv Presenter App, available for download on the site. This Presenter App is particularly effective in one-to-one tablet or laptop learning environments, for the following reasons:

  • students simply need to be at one Web site (which you will create when you set up your account) throughout your presentation;
  • students do not have to enter any text numbers and simply either type in for free-response style questions or click on their answer for multiple choice questions;
  • you can quickly and easily push out polls to all audience members and transition more effectively from one question to the next (Note the “Push to PollEv Page” in the images below – this is the feature that allows you to push the polls out to your students/audience).

I hope that the following series of images are self explanatory, but please feel free to contact me with any clarifying questions. Happy statistical sampling!


Upon launching the PollEv app, you will see this interface


Note the “Push to PollEv page” button – this is what you will click after starting the poll.


A multiple choice poll as opposed to the free-response poll pictured above

Statistical Sampling, Part 1: The Demise of the “Clicker”


The Horn-Book: Wooden paddles with printed lessons!

The New York Times published on Sept. 15th “a graphic history of classroom technology, from the writing slate to the electronic tablet”.

The list included things such wonders of instructional innovation as the “Horn Book,” described as “Wooden Paddles with Printed Lessons” which were “popular through the colonial era.” If that wasn’t enough to – er, “inspire” learning in the classroom, there was the Ferule, developed during the mid-1800s to double as a pointer and corporal-punishment device.

(Note to self: Research retrofitting my laser pointer with some sort of zapping mechanism for those sleepy students. Is there an app for that?)

Classroom technology did move in a kinder-gentler direction, fortunately for the students, accelerating rapidly around the time of Sputnik with the race to keep up.

All histories are selective, and, for brevity’s sake, I’m sure some omissions had to be made in the Times piece. I remember the technological “bridge” from the typewriter to the laptop that I used in college to write research papers – the word processors with the small screens that would allow you to edit a few lines of text before it was permanently printed to paper.

But it is interesting to note that nowhere in The New York Times list is, for one, the document camera. Nor is there any mention of the cell phone. Even Liquid Paper earns a mention (bonus points if you can guess the date without Googling it of jumping to the end of the article).

This article is not intended to editorialize – I do not intend to beat the Times with my teacher Horn Book or Ferule – but rather to explore a variety of questions that surfaced as I digested such omissions and which pertain to the future and direction of instructional technology. Funding decisions that impact the cost of education are made based on such publicity, after all.

Ignoring the debate over whether The New York Times can be characterized as the ultimate authority on classroom technology, I don’t think it is disputable to state here that the cell phone, for example, has still not entered mainstream thinking as a classroom statistical sampling or engagement tool. There are pilot projects out there everywhere, even at the middle school and high school levels, many of which have been met with enthusiasm and measurable results.

And a Google search of “cell phones versus clickers” (clickers did turn up in the New York Times time line) turns up a healthy debate over which makes sense as the most efficient and (cost) effective statistical sampling/engagement tool in every learning environment from small classrooms to large lecture halls.

University IT departments spent thousands on the vaunted clicker systems – equipping huge lecture halls with clickers – only to see new technology quickly replace the old.

The Daily of the University of Washington published an article on April 10, 2008 entitled “Classroom Clickers Here to Stay.” On February 24, 2010, The Daily changed its tune:

A clicker, which is required for participation in large lecture classes, costs about $40 at the University Book Store. However, students now have the option to electronically register their phones for use as clickers. Students can save a substantial amount of money by using their existing technology instead of purchasing a clicker.

It’s pretty clear that clickers are on their way out, at least at the university level. After initially pushing clickers, the IT Department at Washington and Lee University recently secured a site license from (the subject of my next post) and is rolling it out to faculty to use with cell phones.

“The fact that every college student, at least, has a cell phone and sends about two hundred texts a day means that you take something that distracts and turn it into something that engages,” said John Blackburn, former Head, W & L Instructional Technology Group. “Students can take quizzes, ask questions of lecturers, make comments, respond to polls, etc. from their phones. It replaces the silly ‘clicker’ systems I’ve been promoting for years.”

In a presentation I gave at a recent EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative Forum, I argue that the modern language laboratory may be, like clickers, another looming anachronism. With students carrying around their own listening and recording devices (cell phones, iPods/Pads, etc.) and video-chat available on their Skype-equipped laptops, multimedia learning centers might be great for the prospective-student campus tour. They might also have turned out to be merely a very costly bridge to the next great thing.

The question is: what is the next great thing? Clickers are trying to improve their product and offer more statistical sampling features, but, ultimately, based on what has happened at the University of Washington and at Washington and Lee University, they may be headed the way of the SMART board.

In Part 2, I explore’s new features and how to make the most of this particular engagement and statistical sampling tool in a one-to-one learning environment.  Web-based tools and tablet apps make statistical sampling an engaging way to see what’s getting through and what needs more scaffolding, all without the need for yet another piece of hardware.