02/19/2013 02:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Hangouts, Media Communication and Education

Google Hangouts, a smart way to connect with online groups, seems to be catching on quickly.

From President Barack Obama to the MIT Media Lab, people appear finally ready to get comfortable with video chats within group settings. Google's publicity suggests that, "Seeing someone's face can make all the difference," and they've rolled Skype-like chats, virtual meetings and YouTube broadcasts into the tool.

From the launch of Google+, Hangouts seemed to show promise for differentiating the G+ social space from Facebook, Twitter and others. Videophones were a 20th-century idea that never seemed to be popular. As a kid in the 1960s, I remember seeing a demonstration of the AT&T Picturephone. The booths installed in Chicago, as well as New York and Washington, D.C., were expensive. Imagine today being asked to pay $100-200 to make a video call. Aside from the expense, the public was just beginning to get comfortable with watching television, and most of us were not ready to become the stars of video. I remember hearing parents and grandparents declare that they did not want to be seen during a telephone call.

The Internet brought us free connections, but early bandwidth was challenging. I remember playing around in the mid-1990s with Cornell University's CU-SeeMe, a harbinger which allowed about one-half dozen people the potential to connect via video.

Cheap video cameras, reality television and YouTube changed this. It seems almost everyone now wants face time. The other day, President Obama had a road trip, but he returned to the White House in time for a late afternoon "Fireside Hangout." He interacted with a moderator and five carefully selected participants asking questions selected from YouTube voting. Despite White House content management, the press corps covered the YouTube broadcast, and some of the president's comments made news.

Hangouts can even be fun. A Harlem Shake Hangout has been circulating on social media.

From Adweek to NASA, it seems a lot of brands are embracing the idea of hanging out, but I think educators may have the strongest motivation to adopt this new communication tool.

In recent months, I have used Google Hangouts in a variety of contexts. For the most part, it has enriched teaching and research.

On a snowy day in December, I had a scheduled meeting with industry partners planning a presentation for the next month in Kansas City. It was clear that the weather was about to force cancellation of our time-sensitive meeting. I suggested that we do a Hangout. None of my collaborators had thought about the option, but we held a successful virtual meeting and quickly clarified planning issues.

With this in mind, I decided to use Hangout in my Social Media Metrics course. David Kamerer, an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago, is an expert with Google Analytics, and he agreed to guest lecture. He talked and shared slides for about an hour. Then, my students broke into three groups and worked on exercises he had sent in advance, to study a sample company's website.

Earlier this month, I traveled to Lincoln, Neb., which is about an hour from Omaha. I was scheduled to attend an afternoon meeting, but social network expert Marc Smith was holding Google Hangout "office hours" over our lunch hour. I connected my iPad to a wireless network at a Chinese restaurant and enjoyed the chat with others over lunch. I had to leave to head to my meeting, but I was able to briefly re-join using my iPhone from the building's parking lot while sitting in my car.

The MIT Media Lab's Learning Creative Learning (LCL) massively open online course (MOOC) is also using Google Hangout to broadcast weekly lectures.

In the main community, as well as a small group community I joined, we are having delightful exchanges about creativity and education.

The course syllabus offers weekly readings and videos to watch. LCL is clearly a work in-progress that will involve a lot of "tinkering" along the way. While I am not convinced that higher education is scalable to deliver to thousands of students at one time, LCL is a glimpse into a new direction of information sharing and interaction.

My students' assignment this past week was to develop ideas for research papers about social media measurement. I launched a five-hour Hangout from my office and invited the 21 students to come and go throughout the afternoon. We were not only able to avoid reaching the Google Hangout maximum number of 10 at any one point, but also were surprised by a late-afternoon participant. One of my students was riding to a meeting. From 80 miles outside of Des Moines, Iowa, she joined the Hangout from a moving car on Interstate 80. Don't worry. She was speaking from the passenger seat and not distracting the driver. She shared her excellent paper idea, and was on her way.

I believe Google Hangout is the online tool that moved the videophone idea from experiment to general use because we are finally comfortable with mediated communication as real.