Ari Kohen thinks learning shouldn’t be restricted to the classroom.
“It’s not sufficient to just stand up in front of a class for one hour twice a week,” the University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor said. “It’s just not the way people naturally learn. It seems to me you can learn anytime, as long as you're open to it and ready for it.”
For the past few years, Kohen has been incorporating various technologies and social media into his classes. This not only helps continue the conversation outside class, the use of new media and communication also is relevant to some of his courses, which deal in contemporary political issues.
This semester, Kohen decided to bring a new social media feature into one of his classes: the Google Plus hangout. He did this out of necessity. Over the summer, Kohen moved to Omaha when his wife got a job there. He makes the commute to teach two or three days a week, but he’s managed to do the rest of his work from Omaha.
One hitch in this new work schedule was Kohen’s "coffee hours,” a weekly gathering Kohen held at the downtown Panera Bread, where a handful of his students would join him in informal chats about the class, political topics, whatever. “Coffee hours” had become quite popular, and Kohen didn’t want to stop them.
He found a solution in Google Plus, Google’s Facebook-like social networking site that’s now grown to 40 million members. One of Google Plus’ features is the hangout, which allows users to gather for a multi-person video chat.
Kohen’s first experience with a hangout was earlier this year with Newt Gingrich, who regularly holds the chats to talk issues with a dozen people for 15 minutes or so. Kohen liked the ease and convenience of the feature, and the light bulb hovering above him switched on. If this is good enough for Newt, he figured, it’s good enough for Kohen and his students.
Now, from 9 to 10 a.m. every Wednesday, Kohen meets with a few of his students at a virtual hangout, and he still drinks coffee during the chats.
“All they see is my face and a wall behind me,” he said. “I could be anywhere in the universe. I could be in a restaurant or my bathroom or my kitchen table.”
Though none of his students would ever know, he swears he's not wearing pajama pants during the chats. He can’t speak for his students.
Soon, Kohen will be integrating Google Plus into his class more formally. For his undergraduate class midterm, he’ll hold three test material reviews over the hangout.
And, to be clear, Kohen’s not just a Google Plus guy. He’s been using Twitter to foster discussion with his classes for years. He communicates with students over Facebook more than he does email. He even once supervised a class while he was out of town by being Skyped into a laptop. His students put the laptop on the podium, and Kohen was, for all intents and purposes, there.
As science-fiction-ey as some of this sounds, Kohen said this mode of unconventional teaching is more conventional than it used to be.
“And it’s nothing new, really. When the technology changes, it provides us with new options.”