There are many technologies we can use for communication these days. Email, texting, What’sApp, SnapChat, Facebook, Twitter. The list goes on and on. In this post we want to highlight two video-conferencing technologies that can be used effectively for collaborative learning: Skype and Google+ Hangouts.

Skype can be downloaded for free and used to make both voice and video calls. Skype-to-Skype calls are free, but you can also use Skype to call phone numbers if you are willing to pay for the service. Skype includes a chat feature. The video calls include a screen-sharing option.

Google+ Hangouts is a free web-based app that can be used to make voice and video calls. It also includes a chat feature. It is easy to add multiple people to a Google Hangout. The video call feature includes a screen-sharing option. Google Hangouts can be easily integrated with other Google tools. For example, if you set up a meeting with someone and send them a Google Calendar invitation, you can include a link to a Google Hangout as part of the calendar item. (Depending on your Google Calendar settings, the link may even be included as a default.)

These technologies can be used to encourage interaction between students and also between student and teacher. Teachers can make use of Skype/Google Hangouts to hold online office hours. For example, a teacher could set up a recurring meeting in her Google Calendar from 8-9pm on Tuesdays for each week of her online class and invite her students to the meeting. If a student has a question, he can simply click on the Hangouts link anytime between 8 and 9 on a Tuesday night and join a Hangout with his teacher.

Another way teachers can make use of Skype/Google Hangouts is to hold an orientation session at the beginning of their online course. I generally try to schedule an orientation meeting on the first or second evening of the course. Online learners are busy people so it is usually a good idea to email your students at least a week before the course opens to tell them about the orientation session. Give them the date and time, and any instructions they might need about how to join the online meeting. If you are using Google Hangouts, it is possible to record the orientation meeting so that any student who is not able to join at the scheduled time can watch the recording later.

Skype/Google Hangouts can also be used to encourage collaboration between students. Teachers can divide their class into small groups and ask the groups to meet to discuss a case study or talk through discussion questions or collaborate on a research project. The group members can then email each other to find a time when they are all available to meet. If the groups are working on an assignment together, you might want to allow one group member to submit the assignment on behalf of the whole group. If the groups are meeting to have a discussion, you might want to ask each group member to turn in a short summary of what they talked about.