Friday, August 26, 2011

A Look at Google+

Google+ has received a lot of buzz lately, but people might still be wondering what's different about it from other social networks, such as its most commonly compared "rival" Facebook. Here, I will highlight a few of the Google+ features and what makes them different (or not) from what's already available.

Thinking about Google+ and Facebook as competing services loses sight of the benefits each service separately has to offer, however comparisons with Facebook can be useful as a familiar territory with which to distinguish the attributes of Google+.

Understanding Circles

The highlighted feature of Google+ is its circles. From the first login, a Google+ user is encouraged to create groups (circles) and put people into them. These groups serve two purposes: They will be the people whose posts you get to easily see, and the groups to whom you will be able to share (limit) posts. You can create lots of circles, and you can assign individuals to more than one circle (ie, "Friends" and "Code Monkeys").

When you post on Google+ your update is only visible to the audience you select for it. You can post to the public (anyone who has you in a circle will see this post, whether you have that person in a circle or not), to all your circles (only people you have added to a circle will see your post), to your extended circles (your circles and all the people in their circles, if those people check their "incoming" stream or have you circled), or to a specific circle (such as "Family" or "Coworkers"). You can also have a private conversation by limiting your post to an individual.

The confusing part for many new users is that there is no reciprocity requirement to the circles paradigm. I can "circle" you, and that means I will see all your public posts, much like following someone on Twitter. I will see these public posts whether you circle me back or not. However you must place me in a circle for me to see the posts you limit to those in your circles - me circling you is not enough.

Note that audience and announcement controls are not a new concept: Facebook has this with their "lists" feature, but Google+ highlights this control instead of burying it. Facebook too allows for the idea of "followers" without reciprocal "friending" on its fan pages, but this requires a separate type of profile from one containing reciprocal friends, and focuses on a more public interaction. The Google+ sharing and following options seem more finely tuned.


The Hangouts feature is Google+ specific, and took a bit of the thunder out of Facebook's big Skype integration news. After each user downloads and installs the browser plugin, you and 9 of your best buds (or 9 of your classmates, or 9 of your coworkers) can all see one another on video chat. You get to invite the individual users, or you can invite a whole circle (first come first served). You can mute your own video or audio with a mouse click, or even click over to use a typed chat.

Aside from being able to video chat, you can also watch YouTube videos in a Hangout. Anyone in the group has the ability to pause, play, or pick a different video. While at first glance just a fun feature, with the option of making private, unlisted YouTube videos*, this could easily be a way to share a presentation (record it to YouTube ahead of time, with or without audio, and let YouTube take the place of PowerPoint or another presentation program). While you can't currently share a document in Hangouts, it wouldn't surprise me if that option were available in the future (demand will tell).

Some have argued that this is Google+'s driving goal: Simplified sharing. Integration with Google docs and the ability to finely control who sees a post (containing words, links, photos, or documents) and controlling whether that post can be reshared further are critical and defining characteristics of the platform.


On a personal note, my favorite feature of Google+ so far is the integration of a true photo service (Picasa). I hadn't been a Picasa user previously, but Facebook's low-resolution photo albums are too limited for my taste. While I want my friends to easily see and tag from within the social network, I also want to have my full size beautiful photos available. Also I'm uncomfortable with some of the past confusion over copyright ownership on Facebook. What to do? Google+ and its easy integration with Picasa offer a solution.


Google+ has its developers participate very actively in its community, so several features of Google+ have already changed from its first unveiling. This makes the service seem more responsive and engaged with its users. However, this is arguably easier with fewer users, it will be interesting to see if the trend continues as Google+ grows.


Curious? Want to try Google+ for yourself? The first 25+ interested commenters on this post over the next month will be sent a Google+ invite. Comment below, and if you don't want your email address available to the public, feel free to email it to me privately at my WVU email address,, with "Google+ request" in the subject. I will update this post and remove my email address here when I am no longer giving out invites.

Also, on Google+ you can have animated gifs (but not on Facebook). You're welcome.

(Surprised kitty animated gif posted to Google+ by Jon Janego, shared here via Picasa's "Blog This!" Blogger feature.)

*For how to create private YouTube videos visit the ITRC helpsheet page: and scroll to the bottom.

Friday, August 19, 2011

3 Ways to Create Engaging Online Content

We all hear about having engaging content in our courses - both face to face and online. So what makes one course more engaging than another?  Creating engaging content is what makes teaching both a science and an art.

I hope you find the following helpful.

1. Develop good learning objectives.
Developing good learning objectives is not a gift as much as it is a skill. This skill can be learned by anyone. Try by re-writing your learning objectives with "action" verbs instead of "thinking" verbs. It is not enough to just expect your students to "know" something. Try re-thinking the reason you are teaching the lesson. What works instead of "know", "understand" and "appreciate"? How about, "define", "compare" or "criticize". These are more concrete verbs that actually will lead your students to do something about what they know. This will also make it easier to create learning activities using forums, discussions and other interactive media. Thus your course will be much more than just an "info dump" with a quiz after each section.

2. Be less abstract and more contextual.
This can be a balancing act. I'm not saying to eliminate abstract thinking in education - some couldn't if they tried. But we certainly can approach it better. A master at this is Dan Meyer ( One principle that Dan mentions in his blog is to engage students with what they know, then only introduce abstract concepts to students when they know they should care about it.  He illustrates this with a simple video about solving a geometry problem:

Some Really Obscure Geometry Problem from Dan Meyer on Vimeo.

To check out the full post go to (

Another way to approach abstract concepts is with a learning scenario. Learning scenarios can start out with a story and end up with the student actively engaged in a solution that will finish the story or resolve a dilemma.  It is important that you provide the means for the story to be finished and easy guidelines for finishing the story (i.e. good instructions and rubrics).

3.  Get in touch with your inner voice.
When it comes to online content, many end up writing something akin to an undergraduate term paper (and you all know how boring those can be).  Forget about writing generic trash and flavor your lesson with personal examples & obsessions - even a foible or two.  Doing this will make your lessons sticky and memorable.  I'm not suggesting to be unprofessional or sophomoric, but if you do this right your genius will show through. 

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but perhaps it will trigger some ideas that will make your courses (online or otherwise) remarkable.  In short, by having better, more measurable learning objectives, memorable context, and good writing tone, you can create stimulating courses loved by everyone.  That is something even the least interested will find palatable.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The 2011 WV Statewide Technology Conference

ITRC staff are attending the WV Statewide Technology Conference this week in Morgantown, WV.  This is an opportunity for Faculty/Teachers, Instructional Designers, and Technical specialists from Higher Education and K-12 institutions across the state to share ideas, best practices, and concerns.  This conference also offers some chance to see technologies.

If you are also attending, you can download the official conference smartphone app:

For Android, scan the QR code in this image with Shop Savvy or another barcode image scanner. Alternatively, you can go to this web site to download the app for iPhone, Android, or Blackberry:

Be aware that the application will read your contacts, your GPS location, and is able to read your phone serial number.

Update: You can view an online version of the Accessibility presentation I gave at WVSTC at this address:

Problem Solving: Accessibility in Online Classes