A couple of years ago, I first encountered Slack in the context of a multiplayer augmented reality game community (Ingress). At the time, I didn’t quite get the need for Slack. It seemed like yet another chat platform, albeit one with multiple channels and group features. Our local Ingress community (Vive la Résistance) moved to Slack from Google Chat to take advantage of these features, but my participation in that game community was waning at the time and I never really got into learning Slack.
Fast forward to one year later, when I was preparing to design my summer graduate course Introduction to Educational Measurement. This course was to be offered as a (very) compressed hybrid, with only three face to face meetings over the course of four and one half weeks. We use Canvas as our LMS, which I am quite familiar with and generally enjoy using. But whatever the LMS, I have had some persistent issues when teaching in the online environment. First, I always struggle with online engagement, and especially with online discussion. The threaded (dreaded?) discussion boards seem so contrived, and I am adamantly against post-counting for grading purposes which only seems to entrench the artificiality of these discussions. Second, even though the LMS allows for the sharing of rich content it doesn’t really encourage it or make it easy. I’ve always believed that students have a lot more to share than they actually are sharing in the online environment, and that the structure of the LMS is possibly a barrier to that. Third, messaging and communication within the LMS, while flexible in terms of articulation with sms and email, seemed inefficient to me. In my courses students persisted in using email to communicate with me and each other, even though the messaging service was built into the LMS. Overarching these three issues was my desire to rapidly build and maintain a community around this course, to create a place where we “spoke” openly and frequently from day one.
Then I remembered encountering Slack, and thought that it might help to address these issues. I was talking this over with our Director of Teaching, Learning, and Technology who had this great idea that if I used Slack, I could run an “email free course.” That sounded great, and seemed to solve one of my problems. But what about the others? I ran a bit of a thought experiment on using Slack in my course, and generated the following hypotheses related to each issue articulated above:
- Because Slack worked easily across multiple platforms (web, OS-based, and mobile) and because it was so flexible, I thought it would encourage more frequent and dense communicative interactions which would in turn lead to more authentic discussions. This would address both the lack of authenticity in threaded discussions and the need for building community among a group that doesn’t meet face to face.
- I expected these more frequent “postings” to be more sms like and informal, and less composed. This would also contribute to increased density and authenticity in the interactions.
- Also because of the high degree of flexibility and the ability to easily integrate other services, I expected students to share more rich content. I also expected some of this to be off-topic, but hoped that might be the case as it could be interpreted as a sign of community building (i.e. students wanted to talk about other stuff with each other within the context of our course).
- I expected an increased efficiency in our course management and logistics by moving all of those communications out of LMS messaging and email. This was to be an “email free course.”
Slack in Class
I wrote the following statement into my course syllabus:
We will communicate using Slack (http://slack.com) which is an advanced and flexible messaging system that works on multiple platforms (Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, etc). You will receive an email (at your UCD address) inviting you to join our Slack team. Other than that initial email, THIS WILL BE AN EMAIL FREE COURSE. Expect to engage in discussions about assignments, readings, stats, and to stay in touch daily throughout the course using Slack. Virtual office hours will be held through Slack and you should communicate with me using Slack direct messages (DMs) instead of via email. Because this is a compressed course in which we do not meet face to face very much, it is imperative that we build a community online so we can all stay engaged.
Besides sending that initial email to each student with their Slack team invitation, no other emails were sent for the course. All students joined the Slack team, and of the 35 students in the course, only one emailed me during the term. So it would seem that the issue with communication efficiency was addressed, at least in part.
In addition to increasing the authenticity and richness of our discussions, my main interest in using Slack was to increase the amount of communication in our class network. A proxy for this is just the number of unique messages sent. Luckily, Slack automatically provides this basic metric for the team owner each week. In this first week of the course, 914 messages (66%) were sent in the discussion channels, and 470 messages (34%) were sent as DMs. That’s a lot of communication among a 37 person team (35 students, myself, and one TA). And at no point during that first week did I feel overwhelmed with responding to student inquiries. Addressing short DMs is much less taxing than addressing emails. Not surprisingly, the number of messages sent dropped off after the first week reflecting the front loaded nature of the course. Interestingly, the ratio of channel messages to DMs (~2:1) remained fairly constant over the life of the course. During the last week, the balance shifted a bit due in part to the upcoming final project and students’ need to discuss that more frequently with me.
So the communication density seemed to be high, but what about the nature of those messages and the richness of information shared? I created a #random channel that anyone could post anything to just to see what kinds of off-topic and other things would be shared. That channel did not get as much traffic as I thought it would. Mostly discussion was around bringing coffee to class, with a couple of songs and book titles shared, along with a link to one New York Times article on the SAT, and a response or two. However, a number of other articles and videos were shared in the more frequently used weekly discussion channels. A nice thing about sharing links in Slack is that they are previewed in the UI.
A number of other analytics (e.g. Slackalytics) can be gleaned by leveraging the Slackbot, a programmable bot built in to every Slack team. Future work is needed which dives deep into the available analytics to examine average message length, time of interaction, connections between team members, and even deeper lexical analysis of message content. Slack use in teaching could be an educational data miner’s dream context. But more importantly, it could inform some substantive research questions around online course interaction and community building.
Current Use in Class
I’m currently using Slack in a very different type of course, a masters/doctoral seminar on Science Curriculum Studies. This course has eight students, and meets face to face six times over the course of the 15 week semester. The bulk of our coursework and interaction is online. In this smaller class, we have fewer channels and obviously fewer interactions overall. But we are also using Slack during our face to face meetings, as a sort of hub where students share collaborative documents with the rest of the class or distribute links and materials during class. And I have created private channels in this class for in-class activities. Our experiences this semester should provide a nice comparison and help to paint a richer picture of how Slack could be used to address these persistent issues in a variety of contexts.
In both courses, student perceptions have been mostly favorable. Any complaints have been about trying to make sense of the amount of material posted in messages. This tells me that I need to do a better job of helping students to understand and use the search feature in Slack, and also re-think how I structure channels for discussions. Initially I thought fewer channels were better, but in the larger course students asked me to create more channels for specific discussions in order to put some boundaries on what was shared in each channel. I was resistant to this at first because I did not want to revert to something like separate discussion threads. In my current, smaller course this has not been a problem and we work in a limited number of channels. Perhaps not surprisingly, the students really like the expediency of communication and response with each other and with me.
So is Slack a solution to my persistent issues in teaching hybrid courses? I feel confident in saying that it is not a solution in and of itself, but it does help me move towards those solutions. Because of its flexibility, ease of use, and multi-platform and mobile interfaces, it allows (and sometimes pushes) me to make changes and enact pedagogies which address some of these issues. At the end of the day, it’s really just another tool that can be used in teaching and learning. But it’s a pretty darn good one.