Beyond the School Walls

Sometimes students are faced with extreme circumstances that renders them unable to attend school in a traditional manner such as extended illnesses or perhaps needing to be out of town for a period of time. We are fortunate to live in a time where there are no good reasons not to look for innovative ways to help students stay connected with classmates and learning. Many teachers have robust web presences and their learning materials are available online for students, but what about the human connection?

Enter two innovative teachers ready to take on such a challenge this week.  Jeff Wilkins and Noah Simpson are Liberty High School Social Studies Wilkinsteachers who are dedicated to helping a student overcome their required absences by providing a real-life connection to their classroom.

Our solution? A Google Hangout invitation sent by the teacher at the start of each class session.  When the student is able to attend the class, they will access their Hangout and join their classmates in learning.

Why Google Hangout? 

  • We are a Google in Education school allowing teachers and students Grades 8-12 access to Google+ and Hangouts with their student accounts. 
  • Hangouts allow up to 10 participants in a single call to connect face-to-face as well as using third party apps to extend the collaboration.
  • To learn more about Google Hangouts – check out Google Help or Google Gooru’s video tutorial.
  • Hangouts on Air allows for uploading and streaming to YouTube. This is not an option that I would use in this situation to protect the privacy of the absent student.

Over the past five years we have had multiple opportunities to video conference students K-12 into the classroom. Here are a few things that we have learned:

  • We have found external USB webcams to be superior to the laptop built-in webcam for this process as the external device tends to have a better picture, grabs a larger portion of the room/board you want to share, has a built-in microphone that typically picks up sound better, and ultimately is easier to move around and adjust quickly.
  • Make sure all parties know the procedure for who is initiating the Hangout, when the daily invite will be sent, and how all groups will access the invite. Consistency yields security and is appreciated by all parties involved. 
  • You are at the mercy of the wireless capabilities at both sites. Occasionally facilities such as hospitals do not have adequate bandwidth and the video can be choppy. We do not supply wireless off-site, but are lucky at LPS that we have a Technology Department that will assist in problem solving for connection issues. 
  • Minimize distractions – sometimes students who are absent may have background noises that can be disruptive to the classroom. Hangouts allows you to mute the student’s microphone if necessary. You will still be able to physically see the student and the chat feature to know when they would like help or to engage in a conversation. Consider having a buddy in the classroom that also joins the Hangout who monitors the needs of their partner and can intervene when the absent student would like to be heard.
  • Lighting matters. Test this out before your live class to ensure your absent student will be able to see the area of the room you need to project, be it the board, a small group, a presentation area etc.
  • Be sure that you contact the parents early in the process and get them involved. You may need tech or other supports and problem solving at the student’s end and involving parents from the start enables them to be true partners. 
  • Small groups are key. Resist the urge to shut off the webcam when you break into small groups or individual work. This is a prime time to engage the student in meaningful conversations with each other.
  • Consider offering online office hours to talk face-to-face with your absent student during a plan hour or before/after school on a regular basis. This process goes a long way to help identify what your student needs as well as provides a sense of community and caring.

There are many fantastic ways you can use Hangouts in education, but I would argue, this is a high-impact process for empowering students.  I have seen elementary classrooms connect and just talk, asking questions back and forth. The smiles and connections that are made are priceless. We have watched a high school physics student remain with their classmates as they were able to keep up and return without losing the semester. No matter what the process or reason you choose to use Hangouts, make sure you do it with the students in mind and you can’t go wrong!

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