Thing 9: Google Hangouts / Collaborate Ultra

This post explores the use of two online platforms for meetings, teaching, and collaboration: Google Hangouts and Collaborate Ultra. My university seems to have an increasing focus on digital education as well as a growing provision of distance learning. However, neither of these tools are ones I have worked extensively with before in an educational setting. That makes this a challenging but exciting post to write!

Google Hangouts

I last used Google hangouts somewhere between five and ten years ago, for the purpose of staying in contact with overseas friends and family. Since I last used it, Google hangouts seems to have become much better integrated with the different ways people often shift between phones, laptops, and desktop computers. With Google hangouts, users can chat, video call, make phone calls using WiFi or data, and send texts to google phone numbers. Helpfully, users who start a Hangout on one device can switch to another. The ‘Get stated with hangouts’ page mentions that Google is in the process of splitting the classic hangout experience into two services: Google Chat and Google Meet but this transition seems to be ongoing.

Users need a google account to participate in hangouts, a device with a camera and microphone, and an internet or data connection. Once in a hangout, it’s possible to use text or video chat in a group of up to fifteen people, send pictures (either taken with your device camera or from a photo library on your device), share videos, share screens, add silly effects to the video, or collaborate on a Google document together. Settings can be adjusted throughout–for example, if I had a poor internet connection I might want to adjust my bandwith to switch the call to audio only, in order to improve the overall quality of the call.

From this summary of what it can do, Google Hangouts have a number of advantages:

  • straightforward to use
  • migrate between devices, for example if a battery runs out or you switch locations
  • social
  • good possibilities for collaboration: screen sharing, collaborative work on documents

Personally, I prefer to keep my personal Gmail account and my work email separate, so I probably wouldn’t use Google Hangouts within the workplace. My undergraduate university adopted a Gmail system while I was studying there. They still have this, so staff and students can set up Google Hangouts as well as work collaboratively on Google drive. If a student wanted to use Google Hangouts for help in learning at a distance, or if I were working with colleagues at an institution that uses Google Email, I would probably create a temporary ‘professional’ account in order to avoid giving out my personal email address. As I’ve addressed in these posts before, it’s very important to me to keep my professional and personal digital lives separate!

bring it to me

(one thing I definitely remember about Google Hangouts–the experience of using it was much better with a headset…)

Collaborate Ultra

In beginning to write this section of the post, I started to think about how long virtual learning environments have actually been around: the idea seems to date back to correspondence courses and educational broadcasting over television and radio (with the usual disclaimers about Wikipedia being a good place to start reading, not a research tool in and of itself, I found the timeline on the ‘History of virtual learning environments page to be absolutely fascinating reading–do have a look!) Blackboard, the company who provides Collaborate Ultra, filed their first provisional US patent application in 1999; seven years later, they filed for another patent to enable users to allow different users on different computers to access different courses with different levels of permissions (students, administrators, or instructors)…To put this in perspective, Blackboard course sites were¬†just¬†starting to be a thing when I was an undergraduate, but for the students I currently teach and support, they are a given part of the landscape, perhaps even something they’ve encountered at secondary school.

One of the most interesting things I did in my first year as a librarian was process a large donation of books, offprints, and other materials from a retired local historian / medievalist, who spent part of his career in continuing and adult education. His papers contained a fairly comprehensive set of Open University course materials, as well as teaching materials for other correspondence courses (and fascinatingly, materials from courses taught over the radio!) It was not only an eye-opening look at how much things have changed over the past several decades, but also a reminder of the fact that distance learning is not a new educational challenge and opportunity…

I didn’t know Collaborate Ultra existed until this year, when I had the chance to chat a bit with a member of the digital education subgroup at my university, Chang Ge, about how she uses it in her teaching (a link to a talk she gave about this can be found here). Unlike Google Hangouts, Collaborate is built specifically for an educational environment: audio and video interaction are possible but can be regulated by the session coordinator. Users can share screens and powerpoint slides, answer polls, and share questions or comments on a virtual whiteboard. Sessions can also be recorded, enabling students to return to the material after the session is over. Virtual discussion groups are possible in the breakout rooms feature, where students can interact in real time. I can easily see it’s potential as a teaching tool for working with small or larger groups of students who are not on campus, helping students who are on placements, meeting with colleagues or students, drop-ins…the list could go on!

At the moment, only one of the programmes I work with has a significant distance learning / placement element (BA and MA conservation); in planning sessions for the coming year of teaching, I will definitely explore if they or their students would be interested in a Collaborate session. I might also try to see if there is an interest in a Collaborate drop-in for dissertation help. As a small note to myself should I experiment more with Collaborate in the future: I found the University of Sheffield’s page on its use particularly helpful and straightforward (see here).

Especially during the summer, but also throughout the year, when I get email queries from students, I mention that help is available via in-person appointments as well as Skype or telephone. Going forward I plan to mention Collaborate in my list of ways I can meet with students to offer support. It would be interesting to experiment more with using it in the coming year!


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