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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Can’t Get There From Here? Try a Google Hangout

By Peter DeWitt — February 27, 2014 5 min read
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  • “Technology is so impersonal.”
  • “I can’t get out of the office to meet up.”
  • “I’ve had too many meetings that took me out of the building this week.”
  • “My principal can’t get me coverage so I can attend.”
  • “We just can’t seem to get to the same place at the same time.”

When I was a teacher I noticed that my school principal had a lot of meetings. As a young guy fresh out of college I used to think how “adult” it must be to have meetings. Don’t get me wrong, I loved being in the classroom with students, but I thought it must have been really interesting to sit in meetings for hours at a time with the superintendent plotting the future year, and the goals that the district must achieve.

Then I became a school principal.

I don’t find meetings all that fun. Especially when they used to take me out of the building for a few hours at a time. Over the past few years our new superintendent cut down on the time we met, which made it easier, but I always felt such an internal struggle. I wanted, and was required to be at district meetings, but I hated being out of the building.

It certainly wasn’t the people that made me dislike meetings because I valued our admin team. It was the fluorescent lights looming over us, as we sat on one place for four hours at a time, worried that something was happening in our building while we were away. If you’re a principal or teacher who is out for the day, something always happens when you are not in your classroom or school building. And the event that occurs while you’re out is not usually positive.

One of the byproducts of meeting frequently as a team is that principals are less likely to want to meet at regional meetings. Fortunately, regional meetings are usually optional, but they do tend to cover important topics, where leaders from different school districts can meet up and share their experiences or ideas. There is an opportunity to cost to so many meetings being scheduled...

...sometimes leaders have to miss the good ones in order to be at the ones that are required attendance. Which is where Google Hangouts (GHO) come into the picture.

Online Introductions

Depending on where you are in your connected education pursuits, you may already know about GHO and Skype. Or you may have heard about them and not tried either one because you haven’t had the reason. Sometimes people don’t try them because they are afraid to dive in. It’s funny because many adults want the elements to be perfect before they try new technological tools, because they’re afraid of looking like they don’t know what they’re doing.

About a year ago I tried GHO to prepare for Tech Conference Boston, where I was going to be on a panel with Patrick Larkin(Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Massachusetts), and Andy Wallace(Director of Technology in Portland, Maine), both of whom I had never met. In order to prepare for the conference Andy, Patrick and I planned a GHO. It went really well for Patrick and Andy, but not so well for me.

The desktop computer in my office lacked a camera, and the portable microphone didn’t work. As I sat in my office chair, I watched and listened to Andy and Patrick talk about possible topics we could discuss on the panel. Ironically, the profile picture I had at the time was this picture from the NOH8 Campaign.

(Photo by Adam Bouska)

It was exactly how I felt.

As I watched them interact, I could only type text into the bottom right-hand corner. I felt as though I really did have tape over my mouth, and I was a bit embarrassed that I was being asked to speak at Tech Conference Boston, and couldn’t communicate in a GHO like Patrick and Andy could. I was bound and determined to change that.

It was easier to take part in some of these GHO at home because I had a laptop and an iPad. After a year of communicating through GHO’s and using Skype, it is so much easier to connect with people, and not worry about physically meeting in one spot.

Connection Musts

There are a few major reasons why I use GHO and Skype. If I’m going to talk one-on-one with someone, I use Skype. It’s a free service, but only if you talk with one person. GHO is also a free service but there are a few musts. They are:

  • You must have a Gmail account
  • You must have a Google+ (Google Plus) account
  • Google + has “Circles.” Google will automatically suggest people for your Circles. Send a request and people will accept. If you’re on Facebook, it’s like sending a “Friend Request.”
  • The people you want to do a GHO with must be in your circles
  • You can only do a GHO with up to 10 people unless you have a Google Premium account, which sets the limit at 15 participants
  • For more information and FAQs, click here

Lately, there have been two groups I work with where GHO’s have helped greatly. I am the co-chair of the National School Climate Council and my fellow co-chair, two incoming co-chairs and chair emeritus are in four different states, so doing a GHO has been a way to have meetings, and get to know each other. When discussing school climate, a phone call can be impersonal, so a GHO helps us see each other, and get a better sense of each other’s personalities.

In addition, there are five of us who are organizing an Edcamp, and we live in five different areas of Upstate New York State. Once every three weeks we get together through a GHO and discuss our agenda items, and prepare for the next phase of organizing an Edcamp. Videoconferencing is so much more authentic than just talking on the phone, and if we are going to plan an event where technology will be a main topic, we should be using it in our interactions.

In the End

GHO, Skype and other video conferencing tools are very helpful to educators and school leaders who are busy. We no longer have to get in our cars and drive hours to meet up with someone for a few minutes. Instead of using a telephone we have the ability to see people face-to-face in a virtual setting.

My suggestion is to start slow. Find one person you trust, and ask them if they would practice with you. Through a natural progression you will find other reasons to use GHO or Skype instead of a phone call. Give it a try, you won’t regret it.

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

For further information on GHO, check out this great blog by Tim McDonald.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.