Why Google Hangouts is a Useful Tool in the Distance Education World

Teacher Blogger  |  By Melissa MacDonald

Figure 1. Google Hangouts Icon
Figure 1. Google Hangouts Icon

As a distance education teacher, are you always looking for a faster, more efficient way to communicate with your students? Often, as distance education teachers, we communicate with our students via phone and email. However, communication strictly via phone or email can cause a delay in response times for students, which can cause student frustration, incorrectly completed assignments, and/or decreased motivation due to a delayed response time.

So….what is Google Hangouts and how can it be used with students in distance education?

Google Hangouts is an instant messaging and video chatting program that appears on the left of a Gmail account. With Google Hangouts, anyone who is added to your contact list can contact you via instant message and/or video chat. You can also have group instant messaging and group video messaging. These options are great for students doing group projects, or for a teacher explaining the same idea to multiple students. When video chatting, you also have the option to share your screen so that if a student is not sure how to submit an assignment on Moodle, you can share your screen so that they can see what you are seeing and you can walk them through how to submit an assignment. This digital platform seems to have an endless amount of educational uses. According to Alice Chen (2015) a teacher and tech coach, some additional uses for Google Hangouts include assisting in forming a virtual book club; supporting collaborative project work; enabling one to invite guest speakers; and facilitating virtual field trips. As you can see, there are many options available to students and teachers when using Google Hangouts.

Personally, as a distance education teacher, I want to make myself available to my students and parents in as many simplified and efficient ways as possible. Often, my students and parents will email or call me on the phone as they view this to be the fastest and most efficient method of communication. Which, sometimes, it can be. However, Google has created a plethora of unique platforms that are great for both students and teachers. Google Hangoutscan solve many communication problems, quickly. As a distance education teacher, I want my students to be able to reach out to me for help whenever they need it and I want to be able to provide help for them as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Google Hangouts allows me to effectively communicate with my online students. For me, this digital platform is also a way for me to appreciate and accept students with different learning needs. Not all students will benefit from or enjoy this form of communication; however, a lot of my students have and will likely continue to do so. So in addition to the multiple communication channels, this set of tools allows me to be aware of the different learning preferences my students have. And I am not alone in thinking this as Keough (2013) also mentions such benefits: “Google Hangouts adds another (broader) dimension to online teaching, especially when the course is taught totally online, however it can be used in hybrid courses effectively as well. This form of instructional interaction (synchronous teaching) also enhances the online instructor’s ability to connect with students who many have different learning styles in his/her class” (para 9).

Figure 2. This image represents a teacher (me) using multiple platforms/options to connect and communicate with students.

In order to introduce the idea of Google Hangouts to my students, I sent out a mass email informing them that this exists and that if they have a Gmail account, they can access and use this unique feature. I then let them know that the use of Google Hangouts is not mandatory, but it is a more efficient and faster way to get ahold of me if they are needing immediate help with something in the course. I also explained to the students what Google Hangouts can be used for (i.e. instant message, video chat, screen sharing, etc.) The idea of Google Hangoutswas received well from most students – especially since this generation of students often want instant gratification. Without using the available synchronous communication tools, they may lose interest and motivation. Therefore, I believe that my using Google Hangoutswill help students be more successful in the course.

Are there any Google Hangout benefits to learning for high school students who need instant feedback or gratification? This statement ( “What are the effects”, 2013)  highlights the divide between home and school:

outside of the classroom students expect instant results or instantaneous feedback on their performance. When you play a video game, you experience the results of every action and decision immediately. When you need to know something, you jump online and you have an answer as soon as you can type or say your question. When you need to know where you are meeting your friends, you send a hyper-condensed text message and have the answer ping back to you in the blink of an eye. But the instant you step into a classroom everything slows to the speed of the 19thCentury. (para 2)

This divide is why synchronous communication tools like Google Hangouts are a great support for online or blended environments. Continue reading “Why Google Hangouts is a Useful Tool in the Distance Education World”

Caution! Shallow water ahead – diving is not encouraged

Guest Blogger  |  By Darlene Burningham

Acrylic painting "At the Edge" by Darlene Burningham © 2018
Acrylic painting “At the Edge” by Darlene Burningham © 2018

One of the greatest dangers we face as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control of the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is … a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity (Carr, 2011, 220).

Many of us have heard the increasing warnings about addiction to technology and especially to cellphones.  We may have also heard the advice to disconnect every once in a while and, while we know it to be sound, we might wonder if it is even possible to take a step back from where we are.  The feeling of anxiety about forgetting for a moment where your phone is may come to mind. For educators, it may prompt visions of looking out across the stormy seas of the classroom and seeing eyes cast down toward a device in every seat.

As an educator, I want to know what the effects of all this technology and instant access are – because the way that I used to teach became obsolete around the same time that I became good at it, which also occurred around the same time that hand held devices became ubiquitous.  Enter Nicholas Carr (2011) with The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Carr’s poignant title highlights his main thesis that through increased dependency on screen time, our brains are forced to linger in the shallow waters of the internet, only skimming the potential of that vast informational ocean.

Those familiar with Marshall McLuhan will recognize Carr as the contemporary reincarnation of that visionary theorist.  I say this because just as McLuhan’s writings warned us about how new technologies could change the way we view the world around us, Carr has taken it a step further and is prophesizing how the technologies we are creating at break-neck speeds will not only affect our worldviews but will fundamentally change the structure of the natural tool we have to formulate and understand those worldviews: our brain.  Quite frankly, this book is scary because some of us, especially as parents and teachers, may wonder whether those changes may be regretfully irreversible.  But it is also an important read because we may be on the brink of a new way of thinking and learning.

Key to Carr’s thesis is that daily use of the internet is being proven to change the way our brains are wired.  In essence, we are trading skills that have been developed and cherished through the private and solitary effort of reading text in a linear and focused fashion for those that are fed by a steady diet of skim and scan.  We are losing the ability to take in information at a slow pace, which lets us think deeply and critically and encode knowledge into long-term memory.  In exchange, we are developing stronger skills in scanning and recognizing visual information and patterns in bits.  However, being able to skim and scan and click on hyperlinks that lead us to more information, while seemingly useful, also distracts us from the task at hand, resulting in fractured attention. The set of skills that we are losing allowed us time and space to be reflective and the set we are gaining fragments our attention and interferes with contemplation, even though it gives us access to much more information than we have ever had. The result affects deep comprehension, encoding and critical thinking about what we learn. As Carr states, we are on the verge of becoming “mindless consumers of data” (p. 125).

 The structure of the book provides us with good background. Carr first discusses the malleability of the brain and presents the history of the argument regarding nature and nurture. He then discusses how the process of reading and writing were initially unnatural acts and that distraction may actually be a natural process. He then explores how technological changes, such as the Gutenberg press and the printing of books, changed how we interacted and processed information.  This led to reading becoming a more practiced and prized skill and also led us to develop a more private relationship with information.  With further changes brought about by the information and technological ages, the overstimulation and fragmentation that characterizes the internet has led us away from this relationship.  When we read on-screen there are hyperlinks, running bands of text, and flashing click-bait to draw us away from the main body of text.  This is changing our brains.  Carr cites many studies that range from brain science to social sciences to support his claims and I found many of them interesting in terms of my observations as an educator over the past decade or so.

However, this book also made me question whether we can or even should fight the changes Carr warns us of.  The technology of books (as archaic as it now seems) wrought changes that were seen as dangerous.  Socrates, as Carr cites felt that “a dependence on the technology of the alphabet [would] alter a person’s mind, and not for the better” (p. 55).  As history has proven, we eventually adapted to the alphabet and even came to prize it.  Who is to say whether or not we are just on the cusp of another such change and our efforts in teaching and learning must now focus on how to best use not only the new technologies but the new brains.

Essentially, Carr is asking that we consider what will be lost if we give ourselves over completely to continued treading of shallow waters of the net. I would say that based on the changes I’ve seen over the 20 years I’ve been teaching, we are already there and are most likely not able to go back.  Thus, we will have to choose how we move forward. From an educational perspective, this raises a lot of questions about how and what we continue to teach and how the system we do it in is structured. Do we embrace whole-heartedly the changes in the brain and completely revamp our teaching and learning strategies, or do we find a way to re-instate and hold onto the quietness and calm of the mind that dove into the printed text?

There are no answers as of yet but the conversation has started and there is still hope that we won’t drown in shallow waters.


Carr, N. (2010). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. NewYork: W. W. Norton. (2011 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction finalist)

About the Contributor

Darlene Burningham (lyndar@xplornet.com) has been teaching high school for almost 20 years.  She is currently living in Eastern Ontario and teaching at a small rural high school. She began the MAIS degree at Athabasca in 2014 and is now working on the capstone course.  Her final project intends to investigate the relationships between technology, innovation and student motivation.  Outside of teaching, her passions include acrylic painting and cooking.  When she is not able to travel she dreams about it, especially about going to places that have the sun and the ocean.

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