When Google first unveiled ‘Hangouts’ in 2011 as part of their Google+ offerings, I saw them as a good video conferencing alternative to Skype. They have been that, but as Google has continued to add features, Hangouts have also played an increasingly vital role in my teaching and professional development.
Hangouts are private video conferences in which up to 10 people can participate. Hangouts on Air’ (HOA) are Hangouts that are streamed live (publicly or to a limited audience) via YouTube and automatically recorded. Both kinds of Hangouts are free, relatively resource-lite, and mobile friendly. Hangouts also include text chat which can be conducted with one or more individual Google+ users or with an entire ‘circle of connections.
After making sure all students have the Hangout app installed, I have students work in pairs and set up a Hangout with each other. Partner A leaves the room with a text or set of instructions. Partner B stays in the classroom and is required to take notes on what their partner is saying. Students generally find this an engaging way to do partner activities. It requires decent wifi connections, although muting the video will reduce bandwidth needs.
Hangout Midterms and Office Hours
In the past I’ve conducted conversation assessments in my office. Using a private HOA instead has allowed for more flexibility in scheduling and created a more interesting, relaxed setting . It also meant the conversation was recorded which allows me to go back and review what we discussed for the purposes of assessment and language analysis. Similarly, I have found that holding office hours online (usually in the evening) has made it easier to find convenient times to meet with students and created a more casual atmosphere conducive to meaningful conversations. Screensharing is built-in to Hangouts, so can also be used for instructional or demonstration purposes.
Group Text Messaging
As long as students have the Hangout app installed on their mobile devices, group chats can be used for class announcements, reminders, and/or questions. Kakao Talk and Naver Band are both a bit more user-friendly in this regard, but if you want to avoid using too many different platforms, Hangouts will suffice for this purpose. These can also be used for in-class game show types of activities - rather than buzzing in, students need to text in.
I have been experimenting with live, interactive webcasting since 2005. The technical challenges of to hosting a mutli-party video conference, streaming it so others could watch, and recording it so people could view it afterward were daunting and/or expensive. ‘Hangouts-on-Air’ have made it a free 5-click operation that requires no special hardware or software. This creates all sorts of opportunities for connecting with other teachers online.
Whether it’s meeting with colleagues or organization committees (e.g. Kotesol SIG’s or chapter officers) I find online meetings easier to schedule and more productive. For some reason, people tend to stay on task more in virtual meetings. These can also be recorded which can help those who missed the meeting stay in the loop. For those who participate in MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) like those offered by Coursera or Edx, Hangouts can be a great way to hold study groups.
There are quite a few ELT and EdTech-related online communities that use HOA to stream live webcasts and produce video podcasts. I think of these as global ‘virtual faculty lounges’ where we are able to connect with like-minded educators. Some of the ones I’ve participated in are ELT Live, Learning2gether, iTDi.pro, EdTechTalk, & Project Roundtable. These tend to be informal conversations and newcomers are welcome to join in.
Google+ Hangout Communities
There is an ever-growing number of Google+ communities related to ELT. These are similar to Facebook groups, but I find them to have better navigation and curation functionality. Some, like ‘Learn English’ and ‘English Language Teaching & Learning’ don’t use Hangouts, but are great places to discover ELT resources and participate in asynchronous conversations with thousands of language teachers from around the world. Other communities, like ‘Learning English Online’, use Hangouts to connect with other members or to arrange synchronous meetings between teachers’ classes. There are also communities like ‘English Practice Hangout’s that are designed to provide practice opportunities for language learners, with optional assistance from teachers.