In the next week or so, Google is planning to integrate some of the social features of Google + into Google Reader. According to the Official Google Blog, Reader will eventually discontinue its current system of sharing and following feed content with friends in favor of the system currently used in Google +, which splits the people you follow into different circles.
If you are only using Google Reader for accessing your RSS feeds, this change will probably not affect your experience too much. The big change will be for people who have been using Reader for social networking and sharing blog items. This has been a popular selling point for instructors who have used Google Reader to share relevant articles and blog networks with students — so it will be interesting to see how the changes play out.
Admittedly, Reader’s social features have not been without its bugs. For example, in my experience, once I started following someone I have been unable to un-follow them, despite multiple attempts to change this in my Sharing Settings. Sharing has also been an all-or-nothing activity, which has stopped me from sharing items with one group of followers because those items would be shared with ALL of my followers regardless of their interests or why they would choose to follow me.
Google + has enjoyed a great deal of popularity for its ability to divide friends into different circles according to relationships and interest groups. So, I can see how that feature would be an improvement to Google Reader’s current social features. Google + is not without its own limitations, however.
One of the reasons why I haven’t written more about Google + for education is because its functionality is still based around the idea of individualism as opposed to group-centered learning. In many ways it’s very similar to Facebook or Twitter. And, if instructors want students to follow information in Google + in the same ways they would follow other individuals in Facebook or Twitter, then it works just fine.
The tricky part comes into play when instructors are looking for an organized group communication network. Instructors can create a Group in Facebook, and each student just needs to join that one group in order to follow posts from the instructor and classmates. In Twitter, it’s a simple matter of following a course hashtag. In Google +, however, the closest equivalent I’ve seen is to create a circle and add all individual students to that circle — and then ask each individual student to also create a circle and add the instructor and all other students to that circle. It’s a much more demanding process, and allows a greater margin of error for everyone involved. I’m still holding off on promoting Google + to instructors for course use until Google can make it more useful for group communication. However, since Google Reader’s previous method of social sharing hasn’t exactly offered these group sharing features either, it may not be any more detrimental to educational use than forcing a few people to adapt to a slightly different interface — something that Facebook has been training its users to adapt to anyway.
Time may tell on the impact of the Google + integration to Google Reader. Instructors who have been using Reader for sharing and networking should at least be aware of the changes, and possibly consider the idea of moving to a different form of social media if the new Reader isn’t an improvement.