Educators across the globe have been experimenting with a new tool designed to create communities around specific topics.
Since the launch preview of Google+ Communities on Dec. 6, educators of all stripes started building communities around education technology, technology leadership, Common Core and other subjects. These communities come with public or private settings, feature discussion categories and allow members to set up events and hangouts for the group.
The big question right now is, "What will this tool do for us that another tool won't?" said Scott McLeod, associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Kentucky and founding director of the UCEA Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE), the nation's only center for the technology needs of school administrators.
So far, the discussions have been great in the communities he has started or participated in, including EdTech, School Technology Leadership, Iowa Education. The EdTech community has more than 650 members.
"Who knows? Maybe a month from now we'll all flee and go back to the ones we were using and figure out that we didn't really need this new space," McLeod said. "But so far I've been pleased."
Google+ Communities seem more open and transparent than Facebook Pages and Groups, McLeod said. And because many educators already have a Gmail account, the transition is easy from using productivity tools to connecting with people in your address book in a learning space.
"When Google announced them last week, I think a lot of people were like, 'Hey cool, let's give it a shot as sort of an alternative to Facebook.'"
It also could be an alternative to Twitter. The lack of separation in the Twitter stream means that followers receive a flood of tweets they don't necessarily care about during education chats. Google+ Communities solve this problem by giving users different places to have different conversations, said Kevin Brookhouser, a Google certified English and technology teacher at York School in Monterey, Calif.
"Followers who aren't part of the community don't see my posts around that topic in their stream, said Brookhouser, who wrote a blog post and created a video (above) about Google+ Communities. "That's the killer feature for professional learning communities."
Communities also has potential for students, albeit only for those who are at least 13 years old. Down the road, Brookhouser imagines a scenario where schools use Communities like a learning management system. This way, teachers could create communities for their classes so they could talk about what they're learning.
"Teaching can be a very lonely profession," Brookhouser said. "We're alone in our classrooms, and what communities are going to be able to do is make that profession feel less lonely ... That's going to be the key feature for teachers."
But most classroom educators and building and district level administrators are disconnected from what's happening in other places, McLeod said. They go to an occasional conference, read a magazine once a month or infrequently receive professional learning locally. With social networking tools of all stripes, they can connect with excellent educators around the world.
"The biggest potential that we need to be thinking about as leaders and as teachers is how do we get more people connected to the wealth of expertise and experience and diverse perspectives that are out there," McLeod said.