I have always worked to build community in my writing classes. I believe that community helps improve learning in general, but it is essential when working with writers (see Writing Networks or Creating a Community of Writers). However, as I teach online, building community in my writing classes is often fraught with challenges. As we are not physically together we do not gain all the typical visual clues that help us get to know each other. As we do not gather on a specific schedule there is not the usual casual chatter during breaks about weekend activities or physical well-being. I try to combat these problems with a two-pronged approach.
I begin the semester with activities designed to help us get to know each other. Specifically, I use six-word memoirs and Me Museums. These activities help us get to know each a little better as well as help me provide more targeted support and direction for future assignments and projects as I now know something about my students’ program of study and interests. In addition, I have tried to provide a channel for the sort of informal conversation you have in a typical class where conversations take place before and after class as well as during breaks or group activities. For several semesters, that back channel was Twitter (see Tweeting the Semester Away). However, this semester I decided to teach using Google docs as my primary content management system and I didn’t want to overwhelm my students by using too many new tools, so I opted to use Google+ instead of Twitter.
I have grown to love using Twitter personally and as a teaching tool. I have my Twitter feed running in the background much of the day so I can drop in on conversations whenever I need a break or get a little lonely (teaching online is sometimes lonely, my dog Max is an awesome listener but not much of a conversationalist). In addition, Twitter allows me to connect my conversations with those of others around the world through the use of hashtags. Much of my daily professional reading comes to me via Twitter. As a teaching tool, I also find Twitter useful. Not just for creating community but I believe the limited character count also makes students think more about their word choice and the open channel requires them to think more about their message than they might in a closed forum. I also think connecting their writing to a larger community gives them an authentic audience for their writing.
Of course, there are disadvantages to Twitter as a teaching tool. Some students are resistant and only go through the motions to meet the assignment criteria and never really engage. I have tried any number of combinations (hashtags, separate accounts, lists, etc.) to separate my personal/professional Twitter account from my student account but there always tends to be a messy overlap. Of course, it has made me be much more deliberate about the things I Tweet which is not a bad thing but still a bit messy personally. Of course, an advantage of this is that I have stayed connected with some students long after a class is over. It is also a challenge to monitor participation and some students like to set privacy settings which hinder the collaboration and communication I intend. However, I still believe the advantages of using Twitter in the classroom outweigh the disadvantages and I continue to be an advocate.
The switch to Google+ was not as easy as I expected it to be. I was experienced with using social media in the classroom and they already had Google accounts so how hard could it be? I was so naïve… Well, for those new users (and that was the majority) it was confusing to use both Google docs and Google+ and they didn’t always understand the difference between the two. And of course, using Google chat for individual conversations with me (while handy) sometimes added another layer of complications (just how many channels are there?). Simply navigating between Gmail to Docs to Google+ was just confusing to some students. In the future I will need to break this into separate steps – introducing each tool separately with more scaffolding and clear separation about the ways we will use each. Of course, there was always a learning curve with Twitter as well and I do not think learning Google+ was any more of challenge just perhaps a tad more complicated.
I like the use of Circles to clearly group my classes and I prefer that to the Twitter options of lists or separate accounts. It is easy to send a message directly to one or two groups rather than my entire audience and I have not had a problem with interlopers or hijackers like I have had with Twitter. It is also nice to have the ability to easily share photos and links. You can do this with Twitter but the limited character count often restricts the message you want to send with the link and it requires an extra step to view the photo. Personally, because I have always tended to use Google+ for professional purposes rather than personal (plus the use of Circles), it seems as if there is less messy overlap between my personal and teaching lives on Google+. Of course, it could also be that I’ve learned from my Twitter experiences and am more comfortable with it now.
However, I am still not entirely happy about the switch from Twitter to Google+. It does not appear that students are as active on Google+ as they were on Twitter. This might be my fault as I am not as active on Google+ as I am on Twitter so I am not modeling/prompting enough. I post much more frequently to Twitter than I do on Google+ so that could be the simple answer. Maybe it is not too late to jumpstart more Google+ activity now that I have identified one problem area. I also think I need to be more deliberate about how I use Google+ in supporting our coursework as well as our community. I think there are more opportunities to engage in discussion and the exchange of ideas using Google+ than on Twitter. There is a definite learning curve for me as well as my students. I have to remind myself that my use of Twitter as a teaching tool evolved over several semesters and this is only my first attempt with Google+. As I remind my students, I am learning too and that is clear as I struggle with using a new tool (for teaching).
I know many others who teach with Twitter but would love to learn more about the ways folks are using Google+ as a teaching tool! I plan to continue using Google+ in the Spring semester and hope I can learn from both my mistakes this semester and others in order to make it a better experience.