Google Plus: Is This the Social Tool Schools Have Been Waiting For?

Plus Potentials for Schools

The first reaction among many educators is that Google+ could work well. As a post on the Apps User Group points out, there is a lot of potential with Google+: better student collaboration through Circles, opportunities for blended learning (a combination of offline and online instruction) with Hangouts, project research with Sparks, and easier school public relations with targeted photo-sharing, updates, and messaging.

Privacy: As Google’s own description of the new social feature highlights, it may well be the granular level of privacy afforded by Google+ that is the key to making this a successful tool for schools. Although some educators do use Facebook or Twitter in the classroom, neither of these are ideal in a school setting. Privacy concerns continue to plague Facebook and Facebook users, and although the addition of Facebook Groups late last year did make it easier for educators to have “private” conversations with smaller groups, many schools and teachers have still been reluctant to “friend” students or use the social networking site for educational purposes. And while Twitter has been embraced by many educators – for both professional development and for back-channeling in the classroom – there’s still that “always public” element of Twitter that makes many nervous.

myedtechcircles.jpgTrue, Circles gives teachers and students better control over sharing and by extension could be the key to making many more comfortable with social networking. But sharing online isn’t simply about weighing privacy concerns; it’s also about sharing with the right people. Circles will allow what educational consultant Tom Barnett calls “targeted sharing,” something that will be great for specific classes and topics.

Educational Hangouts: Sharing isn’t just about pushing information out, of course. It’s also about finding and hearing the right information and right people. And like most of the new users to Google+, it may be Hangouts that have educators most intrigued. Skype has become an incredibly popular tool to bring in guests to a classroom via video chat – so much so that Skype has launched a service to help match interested teachers and classrooms. But as those weighing a move to a Google Chromebook are quick to discover: Skype isn’t a Web app. Hangouts, on the other hand, is, and many teachers are already talking about the possibility of not just face-to-face video conversation but the potential for integration of whiteboards, screen-sharing, Google Docs, and other collaborative tools.

Plus Minuses for Schools

These early reactions from educators echo what seems to be the general consensus about Google+: it’s very cool. But there’s a big gap between this initial excitement and more widespread adoption – particularly when it comes to schools.

Limited Field Trial: The most obvious obstacle right now to that adoption of Google+ for education is the limited nature of the field trial. The number of people using the service remains small, and as many of the educators there are early adopters – already active on Twitter, for example, already challenging their schools to be more proactive with technology integration – it’s hard to gauge whether or not Google+ really will see wider usage.

dave_on_plus_for_edu.jpgGoogle Apps Integration: The second problem, of course, is that Google+ is not yet integrated with Google Apps accounts. To use Google+, you need a Google Profile, a feature not yet available with Google Apps for Education. However, a Google spokesperson assures me that that’s coming soon and that “we’re working to bring features in the Google+ project to Google Apps users in the future.” Indeed, Google Enterprise’s Dave Girouard posted enthusiastically on Google+ that “Can’t wait to get Google+ out to some of our Apps for EDU schools!”

For its part, Google says that it wants to make sure to “get it right” in terms of the technology and in terms of the privacy controls before bringing Google+ to its Apps for Edu customers. Google could offer no timeline for that roll-out.

blockedsite.jpgWeb Filtering: Of course, Google’s efforts are just part of the puzzle, and while Google+ may be a no-brainer for its Apps for Edu customers, there are still many schools which have been slow to adopt technology and have been quick to block all social networking sites on campus. Even Google’s own YouTube is blocked at a lot of schools. While students name this one of the biggest obstacles in their use of technology at school, the schools claim they must do so to “protect the children.”

Will schools block Google+? Or will the finely-tuned privacy controls it offers trump schools’, parents’, and politicians’ concerns?

The early ed-tech adopters I’ve talked to seem excited about the possibilities for having a place where students and teachers alike can embrace “the social” and collaborate in the classroom, at home, across the school, and with others around the world. As it stands, those activities are now scattered across Twitter, Nings, and wikis. To have them under one Google roof is a big educational play. Will it be the one to help more schools realize the potential for social media and collaboration tools?