Using Google Hangouts to Engage the Wider Community by Lisa Shafer

Year after year, I would leave the senior project presentation event at my high school in Oakland a very frustrated journalism teacher.

While the senior project lived mostly in the domain of the English teacher, our students were supposed to also showcase skills they had learned in all their classes, including mine. They attended the Media Academy and had taken courses in journalism, media studies, video production, newspaper, magazine and/or radio/TV. And, yet, these media savvy students seemed unable to reach out of their comfort zone of the campus at the corner of High Street and Foothill Boulevard to interview experts in the topics they had been researching for up to nine months.

When Miguel needed a source for a video on animal cruelty, he interviewed Mr. Q. When Kimberly needed a source for her magazine on housing foreclosures, she interviewed Mr. Q. When Nicole needed a source on teen suicide, she interviewed Mr. Q.

Mr. Q., it turned out, was a frequent source for seniors. After all, he worked at the school, he was friendly to students, accessible during school hours, and liked to share his opinions on all topics, no matter what his actual level of expertise was on them. But, of course, Mr. Q. was not necessarily helping the students dig deeply into their topics or to hone their interview skills. They were not engaging with the broader community with their questions, ideas and products.

Why were students having so much trouble going out of their comfort zone to get more appropriate sources for their senior projects? Why were they not taking action to develop sources in the wider community?  One reason was that under previous English teachers, there had been no requirements to do so. Second, they did not have connections with a wide range of professionals and experts that students from more affluent backgrounds more likely had. And, thirdly, my students often lacked the ability to travel to the sources for an interview.

My inquiry for the Education for a Democracy in a Digital Age (EDDA) project would need to address these obstacles and help students to improve the quality of their sources and to engage with a wider community by using a technology that even I had not yet tried — Google Hangouts video conferencing. Google Hangouts is similar to Skype, although it has the added benefit of the user being able to record the interview live and then post it on YouTube through the “Hangout on Air” feature. By cultivating sources outside of Fremont High School, the students were not only bringing the larger community into school publications, blogs and YouTube channels, they also were taking Fremont out to those places as well. Students able to demonstrate quality interview techniques and critical thinking to a wider audience would be able to dispel stereotypes about our school. They could show the world that they have ideas and voices that matter.

My idea for using such video conferencing tools came after watching my former journalism school classmate using Skype to conduct interviews as a foreign correspondent in Mexico.  She had to cover all of Latin America for her Japanese newspaper and obviously could not travel to her sources most of the time, so using Skype and interacting through video had become invaluable to her work. A simple phone call was not the same, she explained to me. An interviewer can pick up a lot of information from seeing the person gesture and seeing their surroundings in the background. It also helps to make the source feel more comfortable with interviewer, she said.

In August, I settled on my inquiry with EDDA: How will students improve their ability to use follow-up questions and open-ended questions with sources out of their comfort zone by engaging in regular interview practice and reflection using videotaping and Google Hangouts?

I decided to keep my trial rather small. The six seniors in my newspaper class would be required to use Google Hangouts to conduct an interview with an expert and potential mentor who was not associated with Fremont High School and who would support them in their research for their senior project. They were then supposed to also write a story for the school newspaper, publish a Q&A from the interview on our online news site, or edit the video of their interview and then post it on our academy’s YouTube channel.


My students analyzed the issues behind their Google Hangout interviews extensively in their senior English class under the guidance of Johanna Paraiso, another EDDA participant. By the time the students were ready for their field research component of the senior project, they had researched their topics in depth and had completed process journals to display their growing knowledge and their analysis of what they had discovered. Because my students were completing their Google Hangout as just one component of their senior projects, much of their issue analysis took place in the English class. However, in order to choose sources who would best move their senior projects and understanding of the topic forward, they needed to decide which types of sources would be best suited for their Google Hangout interview. I worked one-on-one with students to determine the right type of person for the Google Hangout. Some students needed significant help in deciding who would be a good source; others simply checked in with me that their sources would be appropriate. Students then worked on several drafts of their questions for the Google Hangouts before conducting the actual video interviews.

We were all relatively new to the Google Hangout technology. Students knew how to use FaceTime on their phones, so much of the process was familiar to them. We had some trouble with feedback when the students did not use headphones in their interviews. We also had trouble using the Hangout on Air feature and linking it to a YouTube Channel, in part because of the district filter for YouTube. Students figured out much of the setup themselves and then taught other classmates. When the Hangout on Air continued to be a problem, students used their videography skills and set up tripods with a rolling camera behind the interview.

Because our original plan was to take the Google Hangout interview and broadcast it directly onto a YouTube channel, each student had to develop a strong introduction at the beginning of the interview that would serve as providing context of the senior project and the purpose of the Google Hangout to the viewers. This, of course, was not usually a concern of a traditional print journalist. But these days, journalists must be APJs (All Platform Journalists) and savvy with how to present their work with text, audio, still photographs and video. Using the actual footage of an interview as publishable material made a smooth, professional interview all the more important.


Students took action through their Google Hangout interviews in a variety of ways. First, they became more engaged with the wider community because they left their comfort zone and connected with experts outside of Fremont. Again, not only did the students expand their networks of professionals and experts, they also helped those experts and professionals to get a closer view of what kind of 21st Century education and critical thinking goes on in an inner-city school.

Some of the students published their videos of the Google Hangouts on Youth Voices, a youth publishing and peer-interaction platform, or through their English teacher’s Google Plus account. Others incorporated material from the interviews into their senior papers, which are being made public, or into their senior presentations, given live in front of a panel of community members and teachers or through webinars.  And, finally, a few students used their interview in journalistic pieces set for publication in the final edition of the Green & Gold newspaper.

Next year, while this will not be my year-long inquiry, the use of Google Hangouts in my classroom will continue. I will aim to have students use the technology not just for senior project field research but for stories that cry out for voices from the wider community.


I conducted one-on-one interviews with all the seniors who did their Google Hangouts after they were completed. Some of these were videotaped. All students said they were glad they had learned how to use the technology and believed they would use Google Hangouts again to do research in college.

Jason is a senior whose research focused on whether contraceptives provided by school-based health clinics encourage students to become sexually active or to have sex more frequently than they would without the free contraceptives. Like other students, Jason explained that he sees himself using Google Hangouts in college when he needs to do research. He said it was helpful for him to use the technology in two classes during his senior year. He had participated in Google Hangouts set up by his English teacher with students from Utah and the Bronx. But he also was glad to have had the experience of tracking down his own off-campus expert sources and setting up the Google Hangout himself. When he was unable to get the Hangout on Air working, Jason improvised and asked his classmate Rachel to run a video camera on a tripod to capture his interview with Antoinette, a sex educator at the Youth Heart Clinic in downtown Oakland. Even with some technological glitches and a few interviews that failed to materialize because the source did not have Google Hangouts experience, Jason was pleased by his ability to use his network to find a source and to conduct his interview.

“It was a quick process,” he said. “I am glad I learned how to set up my own Hangouts.”

While Jason already had many experiences working with adults in the health field through his internship with the Tiger Clinic and his involvement on the school’s Youth Wellness Advisory Board, his classmate Bryan was inexperienced with interacting with professional adults.

In fact, Bryan told me at first that he would not do the Google Hangout. He made his own improvisation to the assignment, pairing up with a non-newspaper student who also had a marijuana research question, and interviewed Robert Dousa, director of the school district’s TUPE program for alcohol, tobacco and drug prevention.

Though Bryan did not conduct a Google Hangout on his own, he did build confidence with the process and the technology. He also was successful in incorporating Dousa’s views into his senior project, offering some solid counterarguments to his original premise that marijuana was not harmful to students’ academic performance and that it often was actually helpful to their performance.

“I would use it (Google Hangouts) again,” said Bryan. “It’s going to help me in college.”

Knowing that I had pushed Bryan and other classmates to interview sources outside of Fremont, a Media Academy senior not in my newspaper class also came to me for help on his research about police shootings of African American males and a possible deterrent to those shootings through the use of required cameras on the police officers’ chests. I was able to connect James with a former police officer who had grown up in East Oakland and who himself was African American. When I read James’s paper that had been publicly shared on Google Drive, I noticed that he had incorporated many ideas from that interview. James showed he had gained some appreciation for the police officers’ job that he did not show before the interview. When teenagers and police can communicate about such deeply divisive issues and share their new perspective with a larger audience, a beautiful act of civic engagement has occurred.

I hope to continue using Google Hangouts and a push for more civic engagement in the reporting process itself as I enter my ninth year of teaching journalism in Oakland Unified this fall. I am thankful for the opportunity EDDA gave me to look more closely at my practice and to find ways to increase civic engagement through the use of digital tools.

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