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An Evaluation of Google Plus Communities as
an Active Learning Journal Alternative to
Improve Learning Eﬃcacy
Mark Scanlon, Brett Becker
School of Computer Science,
University College Dublin,
Belﬁeld, Dublin 4, Ireland.
Learning journals are a very beneﬁcial learning tool for students
across a range of disciplines. The requirement of frequent entries to a
journal encourages students to start achieving the learning objectives
from the ﬁrst week of a module. The completed journal serves as
a useful revision resource for students preparing for a ﬁnal exam or
even long after the module’s completion. The downside to learning
journals is that they are passive and the class as a whole does not
beneﬁt from the variety of opinions, articles and personal experiences
logged in their classmates’ journals. If the journal is only handed in
at the end a semester, there is no room for feedback for the students
on their entries until after the module has completed. In this paper,
guidelines for the deployment of an active learning journal alternative,
using Google Plus Communities, are presented. A literature review
is also included for alternative case studies in using learning journals,
weblogs, and wikis for recording and encouraging student learning
throughout a module.
Keywords— Learning Journal, Weblogs, Active Learning, Stu-
1 Introduction and Motivation
The motivation for seeking an alternative for learning journals stems from
a popular module currently being taught to undergraduate students. This
module has grown in popularity in recent years and this academic year has
over 120 registered students. The module currently requires students to
maintain a learning journal throughout the semester, which has consistently
received very positive feedback from the end of semester student surveys.
Students are required to create one entry per lecture topic (with allowable
dispensation for absences and missed entries of up to three without penalty).
This learning journal is then submitted at the end of the semester and is
worth 40% of the module. The downsides to the current approach from a
teaching and learning perspective are:
•Students do not receive feedback on their entries until the grades are
issued at the end of the semester.
•The class as a whole does not beneﬁt from any discussion or engagement
on each others entries.
•Intriguing new stories or articles discussed in one student’s journal are
not shared across the class.
•Despite numerous reminders, many students leave the journal until the
end of the semester and lose the beneﬁt of continuous learning.
•Due to the class size. the workload at the end of the semester for assess-
ment of the learning journals is huge, with many students submitted
20+ page journals.
2 Literature Review
The provision of a choice of learning methods to students can be advant-
ageous to a class as a whole, while suiting each individual’s learning needs.
“Pedagogy 2.0” attempts to bring together the ideas, individuals, communit-
ies and information networks through technology to enable dynamic com-
munities of learning (McLoughlin and Lee, 2007).
2.1 Learning Journals
Learning journals require students to frequently, e.g., weekly, bi-weekly, re-
cord their opinions, personal experiences and reﬂections relevant to a given
topic discussed as part of a module. These learning journal entries encour-
age students to engage in reﬂective learning through self-awareness, critical
analysis, synthesis and evaluation (Thorpe, 2004). Learning journals em-
ployed in the teaching of science, engineering and mathematics may not ini-
tially seem suitable due to the foundation of knowledge based on axioms and
demonstrable proof (Langer, 2002). However, Langer found that the use of
learning journals in these ﬁelds promotes critical thinking and can provide
an opportunity for expression and development of self-reﬂection.
Weblogs (blogs) are used across a wide range of topics on the Internet. Blogs
facilitate authors (bloggers) of any content to post their articles online for
others to read and comment on. This content can take the form of a per-
sonal diary, communication with others, task management, documentation
of processes, reviewing or indeed a learning journal. Despite the topic, they
generally share a number of common features, as outlined by Sim and Hew,
•Hyperlinked post structure.
•Updated displayed in reverse chronological order.
•Archival of postings.
Blogs are used across almost every discipline in higher education (Willi-
ams and Jacobs, 2004). They can be used for instructor content distribution
or as a means of student assessment or critical reﬂection (Yang, 2009). Us-
ing blogs for a record of learning creates a publicly accessible record of the
student’s learning throughout a course of study. Making individual student’s
blogs accessible to a class can encourage student engagement and create a
sense of community outside of the classroom, further enhanced by both stu-
dent and teacher interaction via the blog (Halic, Lee, Paulus and Spence,
One issue that might become apparent in the sharing of student’s content
is the privacy concerns of the individual. However, the literature does not
support this issue. In 2004, Armstrong et al. trialled a blog-based learning
journal activity for a number of students from a range of Arts backgrounds
(Armstrong, Berry and Lamshed, 2004). She found that the students’ views
on the blogs were “overwhelmingly positive” and that they found the blog
enhanced their learning process. The students felt that their journalling on
the blog was personal, yet had no problems with others being able to view
The public nature of blogs may be viewed as a barrier to reﬂective learning
as an individual may not fully or naturally express themselves in a public
forum, however it has been shown that blogs oﬀer comparable and additional
beneﬁts to predecessors such as learning journals, speciﬁcally designed for
reﬂective engagement (Hall and Davison, 2007).
Wikis oﬀer an online space for collaborative authorship and writing. Using a
wiki helps to build a community driven knowledge base on a number of topics.
However, wikis do not oﬀer a suitable means of individual assessment and as
a result, are more suited to the communal building and sharing of knowledge.
Individual wikis could be used by students to record their learning, however
wikis do not encourage active commenting or discussion on the topic and are
more focused towards easily creating websites with linking and bibliographic
references (Duﬀy and Bruns, 2006).
2.4 Google+ Communities
The gathering of students into communities can enable the creation of a col-
lective intelligence or a “wisdom of crowds” Surowiecki and Silverman, 2007.
This community can beneﬁt from each other’s contributions and discussion
and the knowledge of the community can increase at a much faster speed
than an individual attempting to learn on his own. G+ Communities can
facilitate this community collective intelligence in an online, easy to access
and use service.
Google+ Communities is built on the Google+ platform. A distinguish-
ing characteristic of G+ communities is that each has a leader (such as a
module lecturer) who speciﬁes if the community is public or private. Public
communities are visible to everyone while the contents of private communities
are only shown to members (Brzozowski, Adams and Chi, 2015). In addition
to posting comments, photos and links. Additional functions are chat, recor-
ded or unrecorded multiple participant video-conferencing (Hangouts) and a
drive where documents can be co-edited (Ackland and Swinney, 2015).
Google+ Communities are a natural vehicle for communities of prac-
tice, where a common goal is shared in addition to topical interest. These
factors combined with the fact that many universities are turning to Google
to provide their services make Google+ communities an attractive option
compared to other platforms previously mentioned.
Google+ Communities provide more interaction and collaboration mech-
anisms than blogs. As blogs have been shown to provide additional beneﬁts
for reﬂective engagement compared to learning journals, it is argued that
Google+ Communities provide even more. The contributions, comments
Figure 1: Combination of Functionalities Available through G+ Communit-
and interactions provided by these additional mechanisms could enhance re-
ﬂective learning in the Gibbs Reﬂective Cycle (Gibbs and Unit, 1988), and
particularly that of Sch¨on, 1983, where reﬂection-on-action (after the task)
is emphasised along with reﬂection-in-action (during the task).
3 Methodology - Evaluating G+ Communit-
ies as an Active Learning Journal Altern-
“Google Plus Communities has provided a visually powerful way
of framing the various groups of participants’ interactions as a
community of practice, and provides a tangible and simple way
for lecturers to broker this concept to their students” (Cochrane,
G+ Communities facilitate the grouping of users into public or private on-
line groups for the purposes of social networking, sharing content, discussion
Figure 2: Proﬁling of Various Semester Long Assessment Types.
and commenting on a speciﬁc topic. The use of G+ Communities as an al-
ternative to the traditional learning journal is more akin to a hybrid between
using a wiki, a weblog and a social network, as portrayed in Figure 1. This
hybrid approach can keep the beneﬁts of each of the aforementioned Internet
services, while focusing student eﬀort and engagement on a single service.
Figure 2 shows a comparison of the characteristics of the various assess-
ment types compared with G+ Communities. As portrayed, G+ Communit-
ies encourage a more collaborative, community driving learning experience in
a familiar social media context for students. As a result of the social media
aspect to G+ Communities, students will be encouraged to engage with the
content more frequently and should ﬁnd the overall process more interactive
when compared with the alternatives.
Guidelines for the implementation of a G+ Community to encourage active
learning are outlined below:
•The G+ Community must be setup as a private community. This is
to ensure that third party G+ users do not interfere with the learning
•Students must be invited to join the community manually, although
this is as simple and copying and pasting the class email list into G+.
•Categories must be created for students to post their weekly entries.
This aids in the organisation of the community’s focus.
•An admin category should be created for module coordinators and
teaching assistants to post useful information and news articles dis-
covered throughout the semester. This potentially encourages engage-
ment on topics further than those discussed in class.
•The regular guidelines provided for what the learning journal entries
should contain should be provided. These guidelines provided to stu-
dents will likely be similar to those provided for an oﬄine journal, with
the addition of encouragement to link to online content, e.g., videos,
academic articles, blog posts, etc.
Assessing an online community as part of a module can quickly become
a full-time job. Encouraging students to engage with the community will
likely fall on deaf ears for many in the class if there is no GPA advantage
to taking part. Measuring student engagement with the G+ community is
made possible through two automated online tools, CircleCount.com and
AllMyPlus.net. Figure 3 represents a sample of the statistics available from
the service for your G+ community. The service reports on the interactions
Figure 3: Statistics Available from AllMyPlus.net for Google Plus Com-
on a member by member basis including posts, “+1s”, comments, links,
videos, photos and polls created or answered.
However, relying on the reporting of a third party tool for assessment may
not be a reliable option as the system might go oﬄine, students may ﬁgure
out how to dupe the system, its statistics may not be 100% accurate, etc.
Instead, a reﬂective report on each student’s contribution and learning from
the G+ Community should be submitted towards the end of the semester.
This report will give students the opportunity to reﬂect on their learning
thought the semester and will hopefully show a beneﬁt from the discussion
of the weekly topics covered in lectures. The grade for the learning journal
component of the module will consider both the community engagement and
the reﬂective report.
3.3 Example Implementation
Figure 4: Example Google Plus Community for aforementioned module
[Identifying information redacted for anonymous review]
An example implementation has been created for the 2015/16 academic
year for the module outlined in Section 1, as can be seen in Figure 4. For-
tunately within UCD, each staﬀ member and student automatically has a
Google account, which is all that is required to access G+ Communities. For
this implementation, weekly categories are created within the G+ community
– into which students must organise their weekly entries. In 2015/16, it is
intended that this G+ Community will run with the entire class in a single
community. The beneﬁts of this are that the best articles and entries will
rise to the top of the list (with ‘best’ determined by the number of interac-
tions each entry receives). Having the class in a single community may also
have its drawbacks in terms of student’s entries getting lost in the volume of
activity in the community. This solution to this is to create multiple smaller
communities, but this comes at the loss of discussions being visible to the
entire class. Without trialling, it is diﬃcult to say which approach might be
4 Conclusions and Future Work
Employing a G+ Community as an active learning journal alternative should
prove beneﬁcial for students and encourage class discussion and social learn-
ing. Each of the downsides presented in Section 1 are overcome through the
use of a G+ community alongside a number of additional beneﬁts including
peer learning, social learning, ability to include multimedia content, ability to
link to articles, etc. It is planned to roll out a trial of the service as an active
learning journal in the upcoming delivery of the module outlined previously.
From an assessment perspective, the aforementioned G+ Community auto-
mated statistical reporting tools can be used to measure student engagement
and could inﬂuence the grades allocated for the learning journal alternative.
There are a number of potential beneﬁts for both the teacher and the learner
in rolling out a G+ Community as an alternative, active learning journal,
but the measurable beneﬁts will depend on a large number of variables in an
individual educational setting.
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