The last few years have seen an explosion of mobile technology use. The first billion owners of these devices were users with the financial means to purchase a mobile device in countries that provide broad support and infrastructures. The second billion users, it has been suggested, will be the less affluent of our global community. For these countries and communities, the adoption of wireless internet and omnipresent mobile devices has the potential to be revolutionary (Jon Evans 2012).
Beginning in July of 2012, I began research into the impacts of mobile media technologies on education and learning (Going Mobile: The Impact of Mobile Media Technologies on Academic Collaboration Beyond the Walls of the Classroom). As this project progresses, Google Hangouts continues to be one key communication tool allowing me to be physically in one place while connecting to multiple peers in a variety of places. One discussion group last year included one person in Colorado, one person in New York and one person in the Arab Emirates Abu Dhabi. The connection quality does of course depend on the speed and bandwidth of the internet connection at each location, but for the most part has a very good experience.
The Google Hangout connection requires just a few steps to set up and is found in the You+ section of any Gmail or Google Mail account. Different than the Skype experience that is mainly a one to one connection for the free account, Google Hangouts is a free web app that allows up to ten synchronous connections (up to 15 if you connect with a .edu email). Screen sharing, document sharing, real time chat and many other features make this a simple and robust communication tool that helps expand our definition of the places we are grounded in. During a Google Hangout session, we experience a multiplicity of place as we are able to share and relate to the experiences of others who are physically somewhere else.
Aside from the technical aspects of this type of connection, there is the personal communication habits we are used to that have to be adjusted to in this environment. A class discussion that was held in Hangouts this semester was comprised of a professor and three students in a classroom along with up to six participants connecting from their homes or their local Starbucks. The first few weeks were spent in getting used to this mix of local and virtual connections. They experimented with different seating arrangements for the local students to make them less of the focus and more of a virtual circle of students for their discussions. While most do use their laptop to connect, I have used my iPhone and iPad at different times depending on where I was to connect to this group. The benefits of seeing the body language of their fellow students and the allowance for more to participate than might have otherwise been excluded due to time limitations of traveling to the classroom, was found to outweigh any initial awkwardness of relating to a group of talking heads.
Cell phone use in business and in our personal lives has allowed us a greater freedom in where and when we connect with our world of information and contacts. It has also afforded us the opportunity to have a greater connection to our global community from our homes. In education and higher education in particular, we have been cautious to embrace very much mobile technology in part because of the fear of the distractions that social media can bring to a classroom. As we grow to understand how to be strategic and leverage these mobile devices for academic technology uses we will, I believe, find a greater ability to enable students to connect their daily lives outside the classroom, with their experiences inside the classroom and … their classroom learning experience, with their daily lives. Mobile communication tools like Google Hangouts help educators guide students to strategically connect to a world of information and experiences. That does not replace physically going or embracing other places but hopefully can be a spark that lights a fire of interest in expanding a student's horizons. Going Mobile when you are standing still is a dynamic that brings a world of resources to us. What we do with this information has always been up to us. Whether on the move or standing still, the barriers to connection between each other and the world of information are smaller than ever before. A Google Hangout may not be the same as sitting together with friends and sharing a pizza (at least not until smell is added to this tool :) but it is one sweet way to bring together individuals regardless of time or space to explore the possibilities of this increasingly digital world.