Google Plus and the Future of Sharing Educational Resources

It's been almost three weeks since the launch of Google Plus and in what is probably a good sign for the future success of the new social network, we haven't stopped talking about it yet. There's been a steady flow of discussion about how and if Google Plus will work, and I'm seeing more and more blog entries, Tweets, and of course G+ posts about the potentials for Google Plus in education.

In the case of education, the early reviews all seem fairly positive. Certainly both of the ones I've written -- one for ReadWriteWeb and one for MindShift -- have been. With better controls over sharing, with (right now at least) active engagement and in-depth discussions, and with Hangouts, Google Plus seems to hold a lot of promise for educators.

Controlling What You Share Online

Google Plus promises more granular controls over sharing. That's the big selling point of Circles, which right now at least, is one of the most predominant facets of Google Plus (the others being Hangouts, Sparks, and Huddles). As Google argues in its blog post announcing the Plug project, it's all an effort in refining online sharing, which it describes as currently being "sloppy," "scary," and "insensitive." And may be true.

There have been plenty of stories about online sharing (and teachers in particular) that have been scary -- inappropriate Facebook updates or photos, inappropriate contact, lost jobs, scandal, you know the headlines -- the sort of thing that has led states like Virginia and Rhode Island to ban teacher-student interaction via social media. Even without outright bans, many teachers have been reluctant to "friend" students on Facebook.

Nonetheless the demand for social media in education is solid, despite the banning and filtering -- not just between teacher and student but among educators themselves. And so with a promise of better privacy, not to mention with integration with Google Apps for Edu, Google may well be a social media tools schools adopt. Limited sharing, better controls, safe.

Creating a Wall around Educational Content

But I want to urge a bit of a caution here. Because limited sharing, while a positive development when we consider it in terms of personal privacy, may be a rotten deal when it comes to education. Oh yes, I realize that FERPA and COPPA and CIPA and the like have ingrained in us that we're supposed to exercise caution about sharing data. But it's one thing to erect barriers around personal photographs or students' grades; it's another thing to put walls up around educational content.

Although there's a wealth of educational resources on the open Web, I'd wager that there's an even greater wealth behind various walls -- firewalls, LMSs, subscription only sites, closed journals, not to mention all the stuff that's yet to be digitized. We've got a really bad habit in education of restricting access to materials -- "you can only see this if you're in my class, in my professional association, pay tuition."

One of the great things about Twitter, I think, is that it's helped educators break through some of these walls. Twitter is de facto public. Anyone can follow you. Anyone can see what you post, what links you share, what commentary you offer. Twitter allows for the creation of open, spontaneous, real-time communties -- around a hashtag, around a trending topic, around retweets and @-messages. And while Twitter is by no means the only force at play here, it's been a strong piece in the movement to connect more educators and to promote more sharing and communication.

Why Limit Your Sharing?

I worry that we're going to conflate privacy and sharing when it comes to differentiating Google Plus from Facebook and Twitter. I hope I've made it clear, I think it's important that people do have better, easier controls for limiting who they share content with (the response to Facebook). But I fear that by exercising these controls -- a fear of having stuff inadvertently made public -- that we'll turn away from sharing publicly, to the detriment of open content and open education.

I also want to make clear: this isn't a problem with Google Plus, per se. It's a problem with how we might use it.

Here's me, the bad example: When I joined Google Plus, I immediately made a Circle for educators and education-technologists. "Awesome!" I thought. "Now I can hold conversations specifically with that group. I can ask questions targeted just at teachers, for example, and not have to everyone see it." I think I asked the question that was the basis for my Mindshift article, for example, to that Circle.

And maybe I really am a bad example here. Over 2000 people follow me on Google Circles already. I can't keep up with new followers. I can't make sure everyone in education gets in my "Ed-Techies" Circle. So even if I wanted to share content with my educator homies, I can't.

And really, why would I want to restrict things that way? I'm a writer, a journalist. I want people to read what I write and engage with it, with me. And even when I was an academic, I wanted my work -- my writing and my teaching resources -- to be widely accessible. When possible, it's all openly licensed. No restrictions, no walls.

Now I realize that the animation that comes with popping folks into various little Circles is quite nifty. And I realize it's nice to have folks ordered and categorized, particularly so you can easily view just the updates in that Circle. For that reason there -- for reading updates -- I do like the organization that comes with Circles. But that's not a matter of controlled sharing; It's a matter of controlled reading.

Hooray for Google Plus for giving its users these controls. But now, I implore its users in turn, particularly those in education, to use these control judiciously. Don't restrict your posts to Circles just because you can.

Posting on Google Plus with the the "Public" tag means, yes, anyone who follows you can view it. It means that content will come up in Google searches. It means others will be able to find it. That's a good thing when it comes to most of the things we'd be posting with our colleagues and students. Why restrict educational resources? Why build another site with walls around educational content? Why re-construct an academic community in an online Ivory Tower?

Embrace sharing -- open and unlimited sharing.

Photo credits: Flickr user echiner1 and Andrew Bennett


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