As academics, it’s not unusual for us to need to be in touch with several different groups of people that are related to our scholarship, our service, or our wider interests as human beings. We’re lucky to have email to help us manage this communication. Email allows us to transfer information quickly and saves us from having to go to a different website to stay updated. But there are difficulties to using email for group communication. First, one can easily leave people off a message. Second, depending on the storage capacities of your email system, you might not be able to keep a record of all the messages related to a particular group’s project.
In today’s entry to our ongoing series “All Things Google“, I want to talk about one possible solution for managing group communication: Google Groups. In short, Google Groups provides a simple way for a group (natch) to have discussions in an online forum or over email. The advantage of using Google Groups over a forum or email is how it seamlessly blends the two interfaces.
Those who prefer to read and reply to conversations through a website can do so using a familiar, threaded discussion format.
But if you’d rather have these conversations arrive in your email box, you can choose to receive them in three different ways: (1) an immediate email as soon as something has been posted; (2) a digest of up to 25 messages bundled at once; or (3) a once-a-day abridged email summarizing the day’s new activity. Each member of the group can choose which setting works best for her needs. I tend to choose the first option and get all of my group messages as soon as they’ve been posted. Reading your Google Groups email is especially nice in Gmail since the messages are organized by thread – just like reading them within the Group.
Creating a message thread is easy whether you use the Group website or email. If doing the former, you simply click the “New Post” button and fill in the form on the page that follows.
Starting a new thread is perhaps even easier by email. Each Google Group has its own email address. Emails from the Group are sent from its address. But Group members can also create message threads by sending an email to that address. The message then gets posted to the website – where people can read it – and it is automatically sent on to members of the group who have elected to receive emails.
Replying to Threads
Replying to messages on the website is predictably easy. Click reply, say what you must, and you’re good to go.
When working by email, you simply reply to the message that you have just read. When your email gets to the Google Group, it will automatically get threaded into the conversation where it belongs. It seriously feels a little bit like magic.
Creating and Managing a Google Group
It’s very easy to create a Google Group. You just have to provide a group name and description, create an email address (with the domain @googlegroups.com), and decide whether you will make the Group public or not. Once that’s done, you can start inviting members to join your Group or adding them directly. As the owner of the Group, you will have some control over who can see group content, who can join, whether or not messages need to be moderated or not, and more. All of these settings for access live under one easy to comprehend tab in your “Group Settings.”
While Google Groups gets an “A” for simplicity, it’s visual design is much more of a “C-.” Still, one can customize the colors of individual sites, using some themes that Google has provided or by choosing your own color schemes. (Feel free to take Ethan’s advice for a “Web Design Tool He Can’t Live Without” and use Kuler to get a nice color palette.) Since I personally use email for interacting with all of my Google Groups, I have never been too concerned with their appearance, but it’s nice to know that there are some options out there.
In addition to managing your own groups, you can browse public groups for that might discuss topics related to your own interests.
Using Google Groups
In a sense, Google Groups works very much like a listserv. The advantages of Google’s tool is that it is easier to join, leave, and control the frequency of messages. With Groups, you just choose from a couple of radio buttons rather than having to send arcanely formatted text strings to the listserv in the hopes that this time you’ll get the result you want.
Perhaps the best recommendation I can give for Google Groups is to say that it’s one of the two tools that we at ProfHacker use to discuss our business, scheduling, and partying world domination writing. (The other tool is a wiki.) So this post is very much a case of eating our own dog food. But there are other ways to use Groups. As you can perhaps tell from my images, I’m using it to help organize THATCamp Southeast. But one could also use Google Groups as a discussion forum for a class that one is teaching.
How are you using Google Groups for your own teaching and research?
[Lead image by Flickr user gregloby / Creative Commons licensed]