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Chatting with Students

June 9, 2020

The Western New England Center for Teaching and Learning is running a series of Zoom seminars on online tools that can help in our courses in the fall. We expect to be in person in the fall, but we also need to be prepared to go online at any time. I volunteered to talk about how to maintain “instructor presence” in online education.  I’m going to talk about Slack and Discord and how I’ve used them in the classroom. Rather than post the notes elsewhere, I thought I’d blog about my thoughts. Warning: I have used both Slack and Discord, but I’m not an expert on either. My goal is to talk about how I helped facilitate my classes using these tools. 

Why should you use chat?

In an online environment (and in a face-to-face environment), students want easy accessibility to the faculty member and to each other. Communication tools like listservs and email conversations have threads that can get long and can be unwieldy to search.  Chat is a way to be “present” for students, similar to when a faculty member hangs out in their office and students drop by.

Chat also has the benefit that it is an immediate communication mechanism. It provides instant accessibility and allows students to “drop in” and ask a quick question.  It also has additional benefits in that it allows the faculty member to keep track of who is talking and provides a short-term history of class interactions.  Last spring, I especially liked it when students had conversations among themselves as it helped raise spirits.  I have also found that many students who are not comfortable speaking out loud in the classroom will be much more interactive on chat.

The tool I used last spring when we all went online in a hurry was Slack. Slack is a chat application that was built for business. It has over 12M users and its owning company is valued at more than $20B. The main functionality is chat, however it also allows you to share tools and files.  It uses workspace/channel vocabulary where you set up a workspace for each major unit of work and channels for each different type of interaction within the workspace. It also supports direct messaging for person-to-person chat.

Discord is a similar application, but it has roots in the gaming community.  It has over 250M users and is a combination of chat and online video. It supports voice, video or text.  Discord uses server/channel vocabulary where you set up a server for each major unit of work and channels for each different type of interaction. One advantage to Discord is that you can create bots to do things like automatically welcome new users with a message personalized to your course.

Which chat app should you choose?

I personally like the look and feel of Slack. It also has the advantage of being widely used in business so familiarizing students with its use can be helpful to them in the business world.  However, many students will already be familiar with Discord (due to gaming) and therefore will have little or no learning curve when using it in your course.

I have freshmen and seniors. I’m going to poll my freshmen and if the majority is familiar with Discord, I’ll use that.  My seniors are going to be working on Libre Food Pantry which uses Discord for a communication mechanism so I’ll likely use that for them.  I’m guessing that I’ll be entirely on Discord this fall.

How should you structure the chat for your class?

Generally, my suggestion for using either Discord or Slack is to do the following:

  1. Create one workspace/server per class
    • Note that you could also create workspaces or servers for all of your advisees, your research team, etc.  We have a department workspace on Slack that is very useful.
  2. Create the following necessary channels:
    1. A channel for general – I use this for general questions like “when does registration start?” and “are we meeting on Thursday?”
    2. A channel for classwork – I use this for all class-related questions.
  3. You may want to also consider the following additional channels
    1. A channel for introductions – This centralizes all of the introductory information on students into one place.
    2. One channel per team, when using a teams. This is the chat analogy to breakout rooms in Zoom.
    3. One channel per topic. You could centralize the discussion about specific topis in one place.

What do I need to know about using chat in my class?

  • I usually open Slack or Discord and keep it open while online. My students quickly learned that if I didn’t respond immediately, I would get back to them when I could. And I could just peek at it periodically through the day. I also used it to “poke” students who had things due or if I had a question for a specific student.
  • You’ll need to monitor chat, especially on Discord which means you should think about the number and names of channels carefully in order to help manage the monitoring. You might also have a TA monitor in addition to yourself.

  • If using Discord, students may be accustomed to using Discord as an informal form of communication. Therefore, they will likely need to be educated about proper interactions for your workspace or server in order to maintain proper classroom culture in the chat.

  • It may be helpful to create a set of guidelines for using chat. This will help guide students as to which chat channel to use as well as proper vocabulary.

  • History is not always saved so use email or your LMS for more formal communication. In addition, students may not always go back and read all chat conversations that they missed so I always use a different mechanism for important announcements.

  • Do feel free to ignore chat if you are working on something and a student pings. You may need to draw boundaries if students are overly enthusiastic about contacting you. I didn’t find that to be the case, but your mileage may vary.

I hope that you find this helpful!

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