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Using Slack for Teaching

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Last semester, I chose to experiment with one new digital platform: #Slack. My intermediate-level English and Women's Studies course served as my "lab rats" to test it out with me.


This post discusses my impressions of Slack, including pros and cons for both face-to-face teaching and remote learning. I consider ways I would alter future approaches as well.


The Basics:


Slack is a messaging platform that can be accessed multiple ways: as a smartphone app on iPhone or Android, as a desktop app on Mac or Windows systems, and through a web browser like Safari or Chrome. Though Slack is not FERPA-compliant (so you'll want to avoid discussions of sensitive student information like grades), each Slack "workspace" remains private, meaning only the signed-up members of a course have access to it.


The main entry point for everyone enrolled is the "workspace." Conversations take place in separate "channels," which can be set up by the instructor for any number of topics, such as #general_questions or #homework or #reading_notes. Within each conversation, if students want to comment directly on another's message, they open a "thread" which extends off the main conversation (but can also be posted to the main "channel," too). They can also send Direct Messages to one another, or to you, the professor.


The Workspace:


Here's a screenshot of Slack opened in a web browser:

On the right-hand side is an example of a "thread" where students and I are responding directly to one another. While students tended to post slightly longer comments in the main "channel," offshoot threads tended to invite shorter, more informal comments—this was not something I instructed them in, but it tended to be their natural inclination.


In the left-hand column appears the range of Channels that I used to organize the course discussions. Each of our principal readings was designated as a channel (#gilman, #rhys, etc), which amounted to covering one to two weeks of comments.


There are also broad-purpose channels: #general, #faq, #community, and #random.


The #random channel was designated as a space for posting fun or provocative images and memes relevant to the class. This was perhaps my favorite:


Why Slack?


In my humanities courses, contact with my students typically happens in two arenas:

a) In-person meetings 2-3 times per week where we conduct open, seminar-style discussions

b) Email communication sent from me to the students, sometimes via the "announcements" feature on a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Moodle or Blackboard.


While there was no problem with this formula, per se, I wanted to see if a messaging app would add a dimension to our course that other "discussion board" forums could not.


Every time I use LMS discussion boards, they fall flat. Students write their own post, often burdened with anxiety of the public performance of it all, and often do not engage thoughtfully with each others' comments—something which they certainly did do in the actual classroom.


In addition, I've heard from students that it's often difficult to recover and recreate the thoughts they had when doing their reading prior to a class meeting, such as over the weekend before a course is held on Monday or Tuesday. Giving them a chance to record thoughts, when they are reading material "fresh," seemed like an effective way to embrace, and let them express, their genuine reactions.


Moreover, Slack feels more casual and colloquial for students, which equates better to our style of classroom discussion, as opposed to the formal, stilted, and perhaps artificial make-up of asynchronous discussion boards.


Who's Using Slack?


I've not come across many reflections from instructors using Slack for literature courses, or within the humanities in general. I did, however, discover a few useful sites, including one guide from instructors in computer science and another commentary from an instructor of digital studies.


Common threads?

  • Many instructors advise using Slack as a replacement for email, and the LMS, if possible, altogether. They recommend, in essence, going all-in.

  • Many highlight the advantages for students working on group projects, since they can set their own #channels and DM groups.

  • Most talk about students using Slack to articulate questions during a lecture, post notes for exam studying, or ask about an assignment. Few discuss hosting ongoing conversations within Slack—which was my main intention for using it. I'm not sure if this signals its lack of adoption in discussion-based courses as of yet, or a larger deterrent for using this functionality in the first place.

One huge plus-side of using #Slack is that many businesses have adopted the platform already. So navigating it during coursework gives students a chance to learn Slack's ins and outs before moving into an industry position where their colleagues and business owners will likely tout Slack's efficiencies.


However, an obvious downside of using Slack for just one course is that students may already be using a range of other communication tools for their other courses (most often, a combination of email and LMS). Slack may just put one more thing on their plate that they have to check and monitor.* Is it worth it? I'm not sure yet.


[* The notification system for the app can be turned on or off, so students can choose to be passively alerted to everything, or nothing.]


Slack for Face-to-Face Teaching


We began using Slack as a complement to a traditional face-to-face course. My hope was that these online conversations would give us both an energetic lead-up to class meetings as well as a wind-down, with students adding comments that they did not have a chance to convey during a given day's "live" classroom discussion.


In the Syllabus, I explained their task as follows:

At least once per week, post a thought, question, or impression that you have while engaging with the course readings. You might choose to respond directly to another person’s comment, though you must add something substantive to their remark. Feel free to be as fun, creative, serious, and/or imaginative as you want to be with these entries (GIFs and memes are encouraged!).

It was slow-going at first, as I knew it would be, for students to become comfortable with the new platform. After a couple of weeks, however, more students began using the space on a more frequent basis.


I had to reel them in a bit, persuading them that posts should be around 100 words rather than a "discussion board" post length of 250+. I wanted these to be quick and casual. I also wanted them to be interactive.


Having taught with Slack for a full semester, I can now say a key downside was its open-ended-ness—though this was more a downfall of my experimental laissez-faire adoption rather than the platform itself. Had I given specific prompts or questions, the channels might have become more focused and turned into extended back-and-forth conversations.


All in all, Slack requires some purposeful tailoring.


PROS

  • CLASS PREP: Hearing students' observations prior to class gave me material to shape our in-person discussions so that we could address topics of interest.

  • INCREASED PARTICIPATION VIA TEXT: Using a text platform can allow some members to feel more comfortable than they do with public speaking. While the active Slack voices sometimes correlated to active classroom voices, this wasn't entirely the case, which meant we were hearing fom a wider variety of class participants more consistently and extensively than we did through only in-class conversations.

  • DRAWING SLACK INTO DISCUSSIONS: During class, I liked being able to refer to people's Slack comments. I could ask individuals to say more about a Slack note, which offered less pressure for participation because the student had already been working through their ideas.

  • WRITTEN RECORD: We can return at a later date to channels and review what has been discussed (as an aid to studying, inspiration for paper-writing, engagement when having missed class, etc.).

  • EXTRA TOPICS COVERED: Students can create "threads" to respond to each other, which allows deeper conversations to flourish around a specific topic that may have been missed in a faster-moving class conversation.

CONS

  • OPEN-ENDED: Without distinct questions set for the channels, they often headed in many diverse directions, which was, on the one hand, a "pro," since students could explore many different avenues, but also a "con" in that it felt less conversational.

  • NO FOLLOW-UP: Students did not tend to return to a channel after class to add more commentary.


Slack for Online Teaching


As it so happened, however, our Slack workspace became exponentially more useful when we made the unplanned shift to remote learning during the global pandemic of COVID-19.


The nice thing was that I didn't have to introduce a new technology to help us work asynchronously. Meeting only once per week in a "live" video session, during the rest of the time we depended on Slack to communicate ideas. (As before, Slack complemented other one-way communication tools like email and Moodle.)


When we shifted to online, I wanted to give students as much structure as possible, so I began prompting them each week with 4-6 reading questions, focusing their encounters with the material and with each other on Slack. Channel entries picked up on predictable strains of thought, which helped make the postings accessible and lended the channel overall some cohesiveness.


PROS

  • ACCESSIBLE: Students can comment at any time, day or night, from anywhere in the world.

  • INFORMAL: Students are able to continue engaging with each other in casual, informal settings (reducing the stress and cognitive load of an already burdened transition).

  • CLASS PREP: Ideas shared on Slack can feed into into live video conference meetings.

  • DIALOGUE: Instructors can comment on Slack channels and threads to provide prompting thoughts or questions mid-conversation, especially in response to students' evolving ideas. I especially like the tagging function - using @ symbol plus a user name, much like on Twitter - to call attention to someone else's comment.

CONS

  • LENGTH: Students still have a lot to say and can have difficulty with writing short posts. I tried to advise them to break each individual point into a separate comment. Offering examples of an effective "thread" chain might be useful early on.

  • ENGAGEMENT: I didn't write on Slack as often as I perhaps could have each week, and I'm not sure whether this would have helped or hindered the conversations.


What Students Thought:


At the end of the semester, students filled out an anonymous evaluation, including a question that asked which elements of the course they found to be the most useful and/or engaging. Here are some of their remarks regarding Slack:

"I really enjoyed the Slack posts, especially after we transitioned to online learning. I thought that they made conversations happen so much more frequently than Moodle posts allow."
"...Slack was really helpful to start discussions while we were reading so that in class discussions could move more smoothly."
"...this informal way of sharing ideas encouraged me to post any ideas and thoughts I had about a text."
"Out of everything, I found Slack the most engaging and useful, especially when we were learning at a distance. It helped me see connections/thoughts from others that maybe didn't come up in class, or were spur of the moment things. It also gave me an additional place where there was a record of thoughts /conversations about the readings that was helpful in jogging my memory about what we talked about together."

Most of the positive comments pertained to the second half of the semester, which was, of course, not intended to be held online originally. But since it was, Slack provided immense advantages for us:

  • Students were able to post at the best time, and pace, for them.

  • They could think about a peer member's comments and write about it at a later time.

  • They could go back to their own earlier thoughts and add to them a day or two later.

  • Through Slack, the course workload was as accommodating and flexible as possible.

However, others were less enthusiastic, particularly regarding the first half of the course:

"...in the first half of the semester I honestly just did not have time to use Slack as much as I should have."
"Not a huge fan of Slack though."
"Maybe do not use Slack."
"...for the portion of the semester that we did meet I felt that it was a bit too open-ended which made it hard for me to remember to do them."

I agree with these students, even the ones who couldn't quite pinpoint why they didn't like this platform, only that they didn't. Those who did not like it during the first half of the course also said that the shift to online learning benefited immensely from our use of Slack.


Future Use:


What could make Slack a more welcome addition to any course, online or in-person, would, I think, have to involve the "all-in" recommendation I noted above from other commentators. For instance, we didn't use Slack to replace LMS and email, which we could have.


However, Slack provided a natural space for distance learning to happen in an organic way.

Next time around, I would combine some of my latter-end approaches into the full semester. For example, I might provide students in advance with 2-3 quotations with individual questions that I want them to dialogue about. I might even assign specific groups of students to work on each quote or question together through DMs.


For both online and in-person courses, I'd consider making both structural and conceptual changes to how I implement Slack.


PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS

  • Prior to the start of the course, survey students regarding their familiarity with platforms like Slack and their use of online tools in other courses. Ask about their buy-in for moving in this unique direction, especially if other courses use the LMS or email for communication.

  • Provide an in-class / video demonstration of Slack's features. Give guidance on best practices and expectations. Dedicate at least one class period to covering questions.

  • Use Slack's features for office hours, both as dedicated text-based sessions via DM and as one-on-one video calls.

  • Use Slack to replace email, make announcements, answer questions, etc.

  • Use Slack to replace LMS for posting readings, assignments, handouts, etc.

  • Designate channels for student groups. Demonstrate how groups can use the DM feature to organize conversations with each other.

PEDAGOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS

  • Guide conversations in channels with focused, initiating questions or provocations.

  • Promote continued conversation among students by putting their ideas in contact with one another explicitly, using the @ symbol for tagging.

  • Inspire students to continue conversations after synchronous meetings by ending those meetings with one open-ended but challenging question.

As a whole, Slack can offer a new way to approach both distance and in-person learning. However, it takes some thoughtful planning, and may not appeal to all learners and users—or instructors. Is an "all-in" approach the only way to go with Slack? Perhaps.


If I learned anything from using this new digital tool, though, it's that I need to ask myself why I communicate with students in the modes that I do. That, if nothing else, was priceless.

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© 2020 by Talia M. Vestri, PhD. Last updated September 2020.