This paper was presented at the Cultural Studies Association annual conference in Riverside, CA in May of 2015.
When asked to be a teaching assistant for a fully online class at UC Riverside, my initial response was “of course…but what do I do?” The transition for teaching assistants into the digital world is an often overlooked aspect of online education, with little attention paid to issues of digital preparation, social media training, shifting labor demands, and digital pedagogy. In the physical classroom, teaching assistants play a vital role by grading papers, leading discussion sections, and most importantly, interacting with students. In the virtual classroom, however, TAs can easily become readers or aides that only grade papers and have little connection with students, or even the professor. In order to remedy this situation, in three online courses over the last two years in which I was a TA, the video conferencing service Google Hangouts was used for synchronous class discussions.
The realtime engagement in Google Hangouts was an essential component of these courses, and in many ways the Hangout became the classroom. The Google Hangout discussions were vital to the online course, with approximately five to nine students attending per session. Google Hangouts operate as a many-to-many service, meaning that students were able to both see and hear each other during discussion. This connectivity enabled students to work through the course materials in an open and engaging format, and it also gave the instructors a window on student needs and performance. Using Google Hangouts was not without its hurdles though, and this paper will discuss the initial ethical concerns of using Google Hangouts, the technical difficulties and resolutions, and also the institutional changes at UC Riverside regarding our progress.
Before the course began, Professor Juliette Levy, the Instructional Designer Ava Arndt, and myself met using Google Hangouts to become familiar with the process. The three of us previously used other video conferencing services such as Skype, but we had not maintained a multi-person discussion for an extended period of time. We decided on Google Hangouts over other services for two main reasons — in user forums across the web Google Hangouts was seen as more robust than Skype, and UCR was using Google Apps for Education making Hangouts a good choice. The three courses that utilized Google Hangouts were all fully online, the first of which was a three-week accelerated summer course in 2013. The second class using Hangouts was a full ten-week quarter in the spring of 2014, and the last was another three-week accelerated summer course in 2014. All three of these undergraduate classes with Dr. Levy and Dr. Arndt covered the History of Latin America. During both of the summer courses I was the only TA as class sizes were small, around 40 students each. The class size during the spring quarter was about 130 students, and there were two other TAs besides myself, neither of which had previous experience with teaching online.
As we began our first class using Google Hangouts, Professor Levy and I started to have some second thoughts about the process. We kept in mind that digital technology can enhance the experience of learning but we also needed to be careful about its application, especially in an online course which is already a digitally constructed environment. We were concerned about online privacy, the ability of the students to use the service, and also the locations from which students might attend the Hangouts. Regarding privacy online, we made sure that using Google Hangouts was optional. We included a disclaimer in the course modules that students were not required to attend the video conference sessions, and that they could receive the same information in other ways if they chose to do so.
None of the students opted out of the Hangouts, and although some students had trouble figuring out the software, all students in each class were able to engage in the virtual meetings. There was no discussion of grades during the Hangouts, and we made sure to comply with FERPA regulations. The issue of communication privacy turned out to be more of a technical detail, as Hangouts are encrypted while information is in transit, but not at the endpoints. It would require a high level of technological skill to tamper with our Hangout sessions, which eased our minds a bit, and we made sure to keep the information in our discussions focused on the class content. Our sessions could have taken place in physical public space, and we made sure that conversations centered on the historical materials rather than any private matters.
Many of the students did not have access to a computer or laptop for personal use, but all students were able to either borrow a machine from a friend or the university. Some students did have a desktop computer, but they did not have a webcam. Thankfully, these students were able to use their smartphones instead, using the built-in camera and microphone to engage in the Hangouts. Once students received the invitation to join the Hangout, sent by the TA or professor, they were able to see and hear the other students. A few students chose to block their camera and only show an avatar, although they did use audio. If there were problems with network traffic or poor WiFi signals, students were also able to use the lower bandwidth option of typing in the chat box alongside the main window.
The chat feature was also helpful when students had questions but the conversation was still ongoing and energetic. Students could pose a question in the chat area via text while still engaging in the discussion, and we could go back and address those comments afterwards. Google Hangouts is available on the web, for which Google’s Chrome browser works best, and it is also available on Android and Apple iOS devices, such as the iPad and the iPhone. In all three courses there were no students left out of the Hangouts due to technical problems or lack of equipment. When two students were near each other, however, such as in a dorm room, there was a problem with microphone feedback. To remedy this, two students could share one device and sit next to each other during the video conference session.
The physical location in which the students chose to do the Hangout effected their experience in a variety of ways, both technologically and socially. As these courses were fully online, many of the students were not present at their universities or even in the country. All students were taking classes through the UC system, and although Professor Levy and myself are at UC Riverside, some students were at other UC campuses and a few were away overseas. One student in particular was in China, and he chose a discussion session that overlapped with his schedule and the time difference. This student in China also did not have access to WiFi where he was living, so he would do his sessions in the local McDonald’s which offered free but not very robust WiFi. Over the three courses, a few students used WiFi at various Starbucks locations across California. Some students attended sessions during their lunch breaks, with one student seeking solace in his car while parked at work.
In addition to these mostly technical issues of WiFi signal and a quiet space, other location concerns overlapped with the question of personal privacy online. Initially, Professor Levy and myself were worried about the ability of students to control the space around them during Hangouts — not only is the student themselves shown in the Hangout video window, but also the area around and behind them. One of the more enterprising students chose to attend a Hangout session during a pool party, certainly a poor choice which effected his ability (and everyone else in the Hangout) to pay attention and be serious about the course. This was a rare, and one-time occurrence though. The vast majority of students were conscientious about their choice of surroundings, choosing a relatively quiet place that was free of distractions.
Problems with software were not unknown during the Hangouts, but they were also easy to fix for the most part. The initial Hangout required that a plugin be installed on desktop or laptop computers, but apps for iOS and Android updated themselves automatically. Once the plugin was installed, students were able to join Hangouts, although a reboot of the browser or the computer might be necessary to get things functioning properly. Most technical glitches could be solved by simply rebooting the computer or the mobile device, however, this could also take a few minutes and keep students away from the discussion. Discussion sessions were scheduled for 30 minutes maximum, usually ending on time or perhaps going a few minutes over if a student had an additional question. In the first course, we began scheduling office hours on Hangouts but very few students attended. Eventually, we held office hours by appointment or tried to tie them into the end of the scheduled Hangouts, rather than listing specific timeframes that students might not be able to attend. The total amount of time for labor in the courses did not exceed the prescribed hours for TA work. However, since this was a new and experimental process the first week was the busiest, which is generally the opposite of in-person classes.
Hangout sessions for the three-week courses took place each week, and for the ten-week course, every other week. The first session of each course was really more about connecting with each other than going over the course material. This connection was technological, in that students needed to get to their Hangout, and also social, so that everyone could say hello and go over any initial questions they might have about the class in general. After the first week, Hangouts ran smoothly and new students adding the course were even helped by other students through the Piazza forum we used for the class.
One thing of importance to mention is that the sensation of time is different online than it is in person — online or digital time feels much more compressed. Thirty-minute sessions felt as though they were an hour or more, which is largely due to two factors. First, the online discussions require more intense concentration from all participants, everyone can see each other the entire time and eye contact is essential. Secondly, with smaller groups during the Hangouts the interaction is more personal and more students get time to talk and raise questions. Initially I scheduled four, thirty-minute Hangouts back to back over two hours for myself as the TA. This was certainly a mistake. I felt exhausted after the sessions were complete, and there wasn’t enough flexibility for lingering questions after the formal session ended. Allowing at least an hour for the thirty-minute sessions worked much better, and spacing them apart on different days helped as well, since there was more time to reflect for the next meeting.
Scheduling the Hangout sessions was very difficult in the first two classes, because the registrar did not list online sections for students to attend. In physical classes, discussion sections are arranged ahead of time by the registrar and students choose which one they would like to attend. In these virtual or online classes, however, there were no sections listed, so gathering the students together for Hangouts was quite time-consuming during the first week. I did the scheduling for the first two classes manually and this occupied all of my work time during week one of each course. Once timeframes were set though, things ran smoothly. A few students did need to move to another session after the fact, or switch for a week or two because of other engagements, but overall the sessions remained set. If there were not enough students in one particular session, we would rearrange the schedule, moving a session that might have two students into another time that perhaps had five or six attendees.
At the time, Google Hangouts had a maximum of ten people allowed per Hangout, but this has since been raised to fifteen students if the domain is one for education, such as ucr.edu. In the classes that have taken place since I was a TA, there have been some problems with connectivity that might be related to the additional five spots. It may be that the additional five places are not the issue, but that the problem is more connected to the arrangement of the ucr.edu domain on the system administrator side. Over the past few years, UCR changed over to Google Apps for Education, in the process issuing new Gmail, or “R’mail” addresses. Students now receive not just one email address, but several email aliases for use with UCR online services, such as the learning management system and class registration. Whatever the case may be, the connectivity problems have worsened with the move to groups of fifteen, and future classes may need to try another service with smaller groups, such as Skype or Adobe Connect.
Another problem that we encountered at the beginning of this process was that Google Hangouts was not enabled by system administrators at UCR. As we began testing the Hangouts, we noticed that even though ucr.edu email addresses had worked with Hangouts in the past they were suddenly not working. The Hangout service was first rolled out to the Google Apps for Education software package as a beta program, and it was not automatically enabled within the system settings. Google Hangouts was considered to be in the early release phase, allowing system admins to test the program without rolling out the service campuswide. There were also other technical details that led to the Hangouts service not being included within the university’s contract with Google in the same way as Docs, Calendar, or Gmail. To overcome this obstacle, we asked students to use a regular, non-UCR Gmail address. Many of the students had preexisting Gmail addresses, and some created a new Gmail specifically for the class. With these Gmail addresses outside of the university system we had very few problems with students connecting to the sessions, but we were limited to ten people including the TA or professor. We included the process of creating a Gmail address along with joining a Hangout in short video tutorials within the first module of the course, and we informed students that creating a Gmail account was optional as well.
For the third iteration of the course, we approached the system admins at UCR about adding Hangouts to the list of approved applications for student and faculty use. A point that we were certain to make about using Hangouts in the classroom was that the president of the UC system, Janet Napolitano, was actively engaging students and faculty through Google Hangouts. After an examination of the service contracts with Google, the system admins sent a campus-wide email describing Google’s service contract, and they enabled Hangouts for all students. The campus-wide email included certain caveats, such as how some Google services for educational use are restricted in their mining of data and others are not. Any information that might be collected remains private though, and it is not shared beyond the university and Google. A link to the privacy statement and contact information for the system admins was included in the email, which was sent in June of 2014. Since this point in June of last year, Hangouts have been available through the ucr.edu email domain, enabling students to feel more confident about the Hangout process in general. This also helps reduce the instructor workload of tracking multiple student email addresses for the class, as well as giving the students one less thing to do since they no longer need to create a Gmail address for the course.
So far in this paper I have discussed our initial ethical concerns, technical difficulties and solutions, and also institutional changes at UC Riverside. In addition to this I will also share our strategy for the Hangouts themselves, what we discussed, and how the students felt about the process. In the first two courses, the Hangouts were designed to be like a traditional in-person discussion section, with additional materials or readings posted for the Hangout specifically. I was the only TA for the initial course, and I also happen to teach the History of Latin America as an adjunct at another university, so this came easy for myself but it was an undue burden for the students. When the two other TAs were added to the roster in the regular ten-week session, it was also too much for them to cover since many students wanted more help with the regular work. After some discussion of the process we decided that the regular course materials were enough to go over during the Hangouts, and that we could go more deeply into the existing materials if needed.
With these changes to our strategy for using Hangouts, we lessened the pressure and anxiety for discussion and students reacted positively. The modules and video lectures within the course became more tied to the Hangout sessions, and rather than doing less work, students engaged more proactively with the materials. Even though the Hangouts were an additional technological obstacle to overcome, students craved the face-to-face contact, and especially the assurance that they were not alone. As T. Mills Kelly points out in Teaching History in the Digital Age, “just because they are adept users of technology, that is not the same thing as being adept learners with technology.” Students were indeed seeking help with the course content, but even more so they were in need of help with the process of online learning overall. This is not to say that the Hangouts became a tech-session, or a time for idle chat, instead the Hangouts evolved into a place were students felt connected to each other and the class. Students learned how to be successful in a digital learning environment through their discussions with each other, and this was reflected in their assignments, essays, and final class projects.
Despite any technical difficulties we had with the Hangouts, the service was a great solution for bringing students together in a synchronous manner. The fact that many of the students could see each other and talk as necessary without muting or un-muting their microphones helped make the sessions more natural and free-flowing. The aural and visual connectivity provided by Hangouts enabled students to experience the social cues that accompany many of the actions of an in-person class, such as raising a hand, having a look of bewilderment or mastery, or taking notes when a good point is made. These “verbal and non-verbal signals” were important for the students, and also for the professor and TAs. Rather than waiting for student feedback at the end of the course, we were able to revise the structure of the Hangouts while the course was in progress because of the more visceral experience. The feedback we did receive from students on the Hangouts was extremely positive. The number-one student request was for longer Hangouts, and more of them.
In the end, it is important to mention that while Google Hangouts is a terrific service, other similar video conferencing tools could work just as well. Of primary concern is not the digital tool, instead it is the student interaction, the organic social connections, and the aural and visual cues that many-to-many video conferencing provides. The goal is not to reproduce the classroom of the twentieth century within the screen of a laptop or smartphone, but to create a new and enhanced experience for students and teachers alike. As digital environments become more commonplace, and as it so often seems, more complex, it is vital to consider the pedagogical aspects of teaching online from the very beginning of course creation. As we move forward with the class in new iterations, the three of us find ourselves designing the course around the Hangouts, making them an even more central place for student engagement.
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