Google Plus Made My Students Say More

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I didn’t get it at first, but I’m an experimenter so I persisted. To me Facebook is a bit of a nuisance. I have a profile that I created a few years after everyone else in the world did (or at least after about 500 million of them did). And like many of my generation, I made the mistake of friending all of my old high school classmates that were already there, lying in wait.

I did the same things you did; searched for an old girlfriend or two, and joined some groups, thinking that the conversation might be a bit loftier. It wasn’t. I even started a group of my own and tried to seed it with what I thought were provocative posts that would inspire discussion. Fail. When my youngest brother’s maniacal posting rate about food justice clogged my feed, seemingly to the exclusion of all else, I nearly shut it down; my account, that is, not Facebook. Then I learned how to block.

Blocking the posts of all those that I did not want to offend by unfriending them, re-invigorated my interest in Facebook for a while – even if only because it satisfied my desire to clean up the mess that I felt I’d made by joining this social network in the first place. But even blocking was not enough to sustain my interest.

It has come to this: Facebook is the place I go when I want to see what my young teen nieces are up to. They have yet to reach the age where they don’t want the older family members commenting on their posts. If my nieces lose interest in Facebook, I suspect my account will go the way of my Yahoo email account; a ghost town that occasionally haunts me with the fear that my unwatched profile might be an inroad for an identity thief. One major difference is that I don’t need Facebook as an email address when online shopping so that all my junk mail stays away from my gmail account.

While I don’t get Facebook, I do understand curation. I like sharing what I am reading about and what I learn at conferences in short summaries for others to consume or challenge. For that reason, Twitter makes a lot of sense to me. On Facebook, my curation was met with apathy. On Twitter it fetches me more and better recommendations from a group of like minded peers.

I have often thought about using Twitter with my students. When I first started asking if they had Twitter accounts, however, none of them did. I could have had them create the accounts, but I was hoping to tap into their existing online habits for a more meaningful connection of the class material to their lives. More recently, my informal surveys have surfaced a few pioneers. In each of my classes there are two or three Twitter users, and a few of them actually follow me. This follows a national trend, recently reported on by Pew, that shows some teens moving away from Facebook and toward Twitter. Pew didn’t include Snapchat in this most recent survey, but I would guess there is an even stronger migration there.

Nonetheless, Facebook still reins supreme in the world of the adolescent. Despite my lack of appreciation, I would have long ago brought Facebook into my classroom if it weren’t for two reasons. The first is the founder’s open disregard for privacy. And the second is that I don’t want to see anything that students are posting on Facebook that would require me to lose sleep at night. While there may be ways to contain conversations within Facebook pages and groups, the Facebook leadership has changed the format of the network and the privacy settings enough that I would not commit any effort into course infrastructure there.

Given my reservations about Facebook and the still nascent student interest in Twitter, I was excited when Google launched Google Plus. I had been excited about Wave, but that’s another story (an obituary, actually, and one that I won’t write). When Google opened Google Plus for students over twelve inside of education domains, I jumped in with both feet. Deserved or not, Google has my trust. They can make all the money they want selling my profile information as long as I can have some control over where what I post goes, and over what I see.

All of our students already have in-domain Google accounts. This made it very easy to bring them on board. I did this in December, shortly after Google made it possible.

At first, it was awkward. I asked students to post a summary of an article I had asked them read about alternative energies. A few of them wrote passionate, involved responses. Most paraphrased a few key sentences from the text and called it done. I commented on a few posts, but there was no magic.

Then, I created a Google Plus Community to help one of my courses organize an IB internal assessment project. Each student must conceive of their own experiment, and no two may be the same. In years’ past, this has been a time consuming back and forth between me and sixty students in two different classes. It usually took several class days to sort it all out, and I always missed a few duplicates.

This year, I asked students to post their experimental questions in the Google Plus Community and gave one student the responsibility of moderator. I asked him to let me know when it was all sorted out. He returned during lunch of the same day to report that the task was complete. In fact, he told me that he had paid me the visit because he figured I wasn’t checking the community where he had posted that the task was done. Shocked, I navigated to the community where I saw that students had written multiple posts with comments that ranged from the usual banal to suggestions to narrow the scope of an experiment – something I myself would have proposed. Revelation.

Emboldened with my new success I returned to the class discussion idea. This time I made two specific changes. First, I selected a topic I though more students would connect to, a debate over the growth of nuclear power production. Second, I required the students to comment on at least two other student posts. Familiar with the lack of thought that characterizes many comments, I provided two sentence frames for them to choose from when commenting.

Something clicked. The focus with which students read, wrote and commented, was something I had never seen before in my classes. I think there is something significant about the double layer of social accountability that comes from not only posting in a public forum, but also knowing that everyone will see the comments that are made on your post. The level of discourse in my class Google Plus conversations was higher than any face to face discussion I had been able to facilitate. That is, until I asked them to close the Chromebooks and engage in face to face conversation.

With the activation that we hope to inspire by using our go-to ‘think-pair-share’ bundled into a broader, socially motivating experience, students took to face to face conversation after a posting and commenting event with confidence and intent. Perhaps because they had had the opportunity to see what the other kids in the class were thinking, the quieter students spoke out. Maybe because it was apparent that what the confident young woman, who always speaks when there is an opportunity to volunteer, was not that far off from what they themselves were thinking, my English Language Learners volunteered their ideas. This was my second revelation.

Since that time, I have been able to encourage my students to reference each other’s words when speaking, paraphrase the ideas of their classmates, and most significantly, hold a face to face conversation, popcorn style, without any significant moderation on my behalf. For a career classroom teacher working with an ethnically and ability diverse group of students, this is magic.

Triggered by the thought I put into this post, I just checked in with my nieces on Facebook. It looks like they are still interested in Justin Bieber, excited about the upcoming summer break, and one of them is considering a holiday from Facebook. I suggested Google Plus as an alternative. My sister scolded me for undermining her months long attempt to limit screen time. Fail!

4 thoughts on “Google Plus Made My Students Say More

  1. Great post. I have also experimented with social learning networks to engage students in intercultural dialogue, mainly through our own platform which is a Ning alternative (www.proyectotrilingue.spruz.com). But creating new accounts, remembering passwords, and dealing with some of the clunkiness of the platform has pushed us to try facebook group pages (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Proyecto-Triling%C3%BCe/118762904857131?fref=ts). Since the students already have accounts, it was a no-brainer. I´m not particularly trustful of Google´s treatment of privacy either. I think that´s going to be an issue with any social network that´s not your own (especially if the FBI has anything to say about it…). Our project connects students in Oaxaca, Mexico with students in the US through activities that focus on identity, history, and culture. Unfortunately, almost none of our students have Google accounts, and I don´t want to deal with the complaints about recording new account information. Otherwise, I would have definitely tried Google Plus. I´m also checking out Lore and other platforms for future activities. I would say, in general, to go for the easiest tool that fits the learning objectives. For us, student-to-student social learning through any series of ICTs has really motivated them to learn more about themselves, to value their own knowledge, and be open to the experiences and knowledge of other students from diverse communities. And, as you described well, that public and semi-public (yet not too direct) virtual space can inspire critical thinking about any topic in surprising ways. I´d enjoy learning more about your classes. Maybe we can collaborate in some way. I actually met your youngest brother here in Oaxaca last March! Take care, Richard

  2. This is a great post! I’ve been on a quest for the past two weeks to upgrade my classroom and get it online ever since reading the TED Talk book “Why School?” by Will Richardson. I’ve looked at Edmodo, Schoology, Google Groups, Google Moderator, Facebook, Twitter, Ning, etc., etc., etc. But just today a principal from Kansas showed me Google+ and it’s phenomenal possibilities in the classroom and workplace.

    Unfortunately, our school does not yet give our domain Gmail for student use, but that might change this year. I’m pushing and hoping. If not, I might just set up a Google+ Community with my personal Gmail and connect with my students that way. Of all of the ways to upgrade my classroom, Google has provided the best tools I think.

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