Google is one of the biggest tech companies in the world. Many college campuses choose Google as a go-to technology service provider but few get to try out its newest products before production. Albion College is one of three U.S. colleges testing Google conference technology.
Alma College and Calvin College students have been attending classes with Albion students, each from the comfort of their campus, for the past two semesters. They aren’t using Skype or even Google Hangouts. The three colleges are using a new form of conference call that simulates an in-person conference meeting.
A camera is placed at the end of a each college’s conference table below two large televisions. The televisions display the conference room of the other classrooms, and the microphones and speakers on the table transmit audio back and forth between the classes. A tablet and a “Jam Board” control everything. The Jam Board is like any whiteboard a classroom may have, except it’s entirely digital and shares its information between the three schools.
Last semester, art history professor Billie Wickre had the opportunity to teach a class called “Art in the Environment,” which discussed environmental art from the ‘60s and ‘70s. She taught in the Google conference room found in Olin 119. According to her, things went quite well outside of some notable hiccups.
“We had some weird problem where we couldn’t show video… there were a couple of times where I wanted to show videos or movies, and it just couldn’t be done,” she said.
Despite Google being unable to fix it when the problem was reported, it has since been resolved for the current semester’s class.
Philosophy professor Daniel Mittag, said his Google conference class (The Philosophy of Language) is structured “pretty much the same” in comparison to a normal classroom. Both he and Billie Wickre mentioned how traditional handouts were impossible with the locational gap, but a Course Webs update resolved it.
Several functions, some as simple as colored sticky notes, were added to the program in response to the three colleges’ suggestions. The technology was a little shy of perfect, however. During a recent class session, the Jam Board crashed and had to be reset twice in the span of an hour.
Instructional technologist Sarah Noah described this as an uncommon occurrence, but something to consider is the mess it might cause if the three schools shared that reset. It may have taken only a couple minutes to fix each time, but if several resets are necessary, it could cut into a great deal of time.
There is a reason why only colleges in Michigan were chosen, and beyond that, only three. There is a reason for Albion, Alma and Calvin to be the guinea pigs. President Mauri Ditzler explained that it was Albion’s membership in the Michigan College Alliance that gave the college the opportunity. Google sought colleges in that organization, and Albion was one of the three institutions willing to partake.
Why Michigan? President Ditzler said a member of the MCA board was also an executive at Google. Bob Bartlett, the head of the MCA, informed the executive that Michigan would love to be involved in Google’s experiment.
Now, seminar classes which were left with too few students to be offered at any of the three participating colleges can find more students from the other schools to help students enter the high-level classes they need. Should this technology spread past the three chosen colleges, a class of two people can turn into a class of 20 from 10 schools. Ditzler hopes the problem of barren classes with too few students will become obsolete, or at least far rarer than it already is.