USC students and faculty beta-test the Glass Genius app on Nov. 18.
Courtesy of Robert Hernandez

How USC Annenberg’s #GoogleGlass course is teaching students about more than just tech

As finals are around the corner and another semester comes to an end, it isn’t often that students can match an instructor’s energy and enthusiasm for a class. In USC Annenberg Professor Robert Hernandez’s first-of-its-kind Google Glass course, however, class engagement remains high, especially as students anxiously awaited the beta testing of their very own Google Glass app.

After months of hard work, the 11 undergraduate and graduate students, who represent a diverse mix of majors that include journalism, computer science, interactive media and more, were able to see their efforts brought to life during nearly three-hours of beta-testing their Google Glass application on November 18.

“The successes or the failure of this class was on our shoulders―not my shoulders―our shoulders, and everyone was on board,” Hernandez said of the work his students did on the project leading up to beta testing. “The students have all stepped up and really added to this whole experience.”

Fellow students, faculty and Google Glass geeks from around USC were invited to try out the application called Glass Genius which aims to help enhance user knowledge when wearing Glass during conversation, and provide feedback to the students who spent months designing the program. That was just one of three projects the class created over the course of the semester.

Earlier this year, every student pitched two ideas for the development of an application throughout the semester. In addition to a class vote, about two dozen members of the public also voted for the winning idea. When no idea emerged as the unanimous choice, Hernandez and his students decided to move forward with three projects: Glass Genius, the backend content management system used to create the application, and a hands-free augmented reality application created for use during CicLAvia.

The decision to focus the class on three distinct projects was fitting, as Hernandez primarily chose three different types of students for the course; journalists, developers, and so-called “misfits,” who are studying or are interested in other areas such as public relations. Some of the students already owned or were familiar with Google Glass going into the class, while others had no experience with it all.

The idea for the course came about after Hernandez attended a talk at USC last year by Google Glass creator Babak Parviz, and heard some students express interest in a course dedicated to the technology. From the start, Hernandez knew that he wanted to keep the class small and diversified across majors due to his own experience with tech collaborations.

“I’ve gone to hackathons and meetups where the balance is out of whack,” Hernandez said. “There are all these people with ideas but no one can build, or all these builders but no one has an idea or content. The other thing is I wanted the right culture; I wanted people to default to work as colleagues, not ‘I’m content, you’re coding’, or vice versa.”

For students, this approach translated loud and clear to the classroom setting, which was structured as a discussion rather than a lecture. From the beginning, students were encouraged to bring their particular skill sets to the table, and work collaboratively to learn from their classmates, as well.

“At first I was a little bit nervous that I didn’t have as much to bring to the class because I couldn’t develop the app, and I find that’s something that even my friends or people who ask me about the class don’t understand,” said Anna-Catherine Brigida, a senior Print and Digital Journalism major who helped provide content for the Genius Glass application. “Being in this class you realize that there’s all these other things that go into it, and we all need each other to make this all come together.”

Brigida said that, while she’s learned a great deal about Google Glass throughout the course, it’s been a really informative to collaborate and work with peers across multiple disciplines throughout the project.

“This class doesn’t necessarily have to be about Glass,” Brigida said. “If it was building an app for a smartphone or other wearables, I think the experience of working together across different areas of expertise and thinking about news in different and more innovative ways, is the big takeaway from the class.”

Even if the Google Glass course becomes a one-time offering at USC, Hernandez said that he wants to continue exploring emerging technology such as wearables and augmented reality. Hernandez led a class in designing an augmented reality application for the Los Angeles Public Library this past spring, and he wants to do the same for the Los Angeles City Hall in spring 2015.

Graduate journalism student Sinduja Rangarajan, who previously took a class with Hernandez, also sees great value in the structure and the learning opportunities provided by the Google Glass class―even if the specific concentration of the course varies.

“This is probably the first course where people from different disciplines are coming together to develop an app,” Rangarajan said. “Basically the future of journalism, the way digital journalism is going, is to have programming skills, to work with people on the programming side, and develop apps like this. This is actually a reflection of what is happening in the industry.”

Those interested in testing out Glass Genius for themselves are invited to join Hernandez and students, as well as a Google Glass team, for the application's official launch this Saturday, Dec. 6.