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Slack-like tools in the online classroom

This post serves two purposes: 1) to give other people running online courses (synchronous or asynchronous; semester-long or otherwise) ideas about how they might build community and better support students while also decreasing their email load and 2) to ask if there’s a tool besides Slack that achieves all of the same things.

A Slack-type tool fills in a really important gap in student-student and student-professor communication, both for online (any mode) courses and for courses that only meet once per week. Without something Slack-like, your choices for communication are the learning management system (LMS) discussion boards or email. I think it’s uncontroversial to say we all hate LMS discussion boards. Getting to and posting in the discussion board is time-consuming; there’s a lot of friction there that makes people less likely to ask their questions. And then the notification mechanism is clunky, so they’re really not a good bet for students who need timely help. As for email, I’ll go out on a limb and say that I suspect most professors do not enjoy answering multiple versions of the same question over and over, one by one, especially when they have to choose between knowing in their hearts that some students aren’t asking and won’t know, versus making yet another LMS announcement to address any given issue. Something Slack-like lets you have those public-to-the-whole-course discussions, where multiple people can contribute to and be helped by a single conversation (like a discussion board!), but it’s also fast (like emailing the professor!). And as a bonus, it serves as a lightweight announcement mode (e.g. “I forgot to mention something in class this week” or “here’s a clarification on this homework problem”) that doesn’t flood your students’ inboxes.

Having identified this need early, because so many of my in-person courses were three-hour blocks held one night per week, I’ve been using Slack in my courses since before the pandemic. Students need a bit more contact with each other and with their professor than a one-meeting-per-week structure allows. This is especially true of first-time programmers, and Python 1 is my favorite course and my blueprint for everything else that I teach. And while my focus, here, is online teaching, I think it’s important to say this next bit: even when classes were in-person, students reported that Slack helped them. Both then and now, people who are too shy to seek help can see and benefit from the conversations their peers and I have; and, vitally, seeing other people’s questions helps everyone feel less alone when they run into trouble. I still end up having at least one conversation where I’m talking a student through some combination of impostor syndrome and stereotype threat each semester, but I credit Slack, in part, for the fact that I now lose fewer students to “I’m just not cut out for this” than I used to.

Since all of my courses moved online, Slack has come to feel necessary. My asynchronous students, in particular, tell me that Slack makes the course feel more “real” than their other online-asynchronous classes. They actually get to know some of their colleagues. They get to know me. And they get semi-real-time support, which is incredibly useful in a coding course.

Slack, combined with a reservation system that creates half-hour one-on-one web conferences (Calendly, which links to Zoom), has made it so that my office hours are more pleasant and more useful than they were in Spring 2020, when this next bit hadn’t occurred to me yet. Instead of sitting on Zoom for my mandatory 5 hours of scheduled “office time,” waiting for people to pop in, feeling uncomfortable about walking away from the computer even for a moment, and dealing with the inevitable Poisson distribution of help-seekers (“nobody for 2 hours and then 5 people at once”), I now hold my office hours on Slack, with an option to set up video chat appointments for more in-depth discussion. In addition to students reserving time with Calendly, I’ve also had office hour conversations start out on Slack and move to Zoom. It’s been pretty great.

I did a 25-minute talk about this (and it would not be hard to convince me to record a video version of the talk for the internet), with slides showing well-anonymized examples of student interactions on Slack, so that you can see for yourself how some of this plays out: There’s a whole thread, in those slides, that I’m not addressing here, which is about “flipped classroom”/”lab time,” something I’m just not having the same opportunity to do this semester. (Several of my “synchronous” courses are actually synchronous/asynchronous hybrids, which leaves little to no time for live “labs.” And as for Python, I’m spending more time live-coding with my Pythonistas and giving them less time for “in-class” work time, which may or may not turn out to be the right call.)

A few lessons learned

First of all, there has to be some kind of incentive to the students to get them using it. I use a couple of methods, the most blunt of which is making it part of their “engagement” grade for the semester (the whole “engagement grade” thing would make an interesting post of its own, honestly). Also, if anyone emails me a question that “should” go on Slack, I anonymize and post it in Slack, then reply in-thread, and then my email reply is merely a gentle reminder and a link to the Slack thread. Maybe the number one incentive I offer, though, is being available and helpful in the Slack workspace, even outside of office hours.

Second lesson learned: you really have to make posting in Slack part of the first week’s assignment, to get them over the initial hurdle of (hopefully) installing the app or (at least) logging in with their browser, before the course gets challenging. I have them post a self-intro and reply in-thread to at least one other student’s self-intro. As part of that, you’ll also need to give them good directions and links to the service’s getting started guides (Slack’s are very good). The whole “first you need an account, THEN you need the app” issue does cause some initial difficulties, but everyone eventually gets it.

And my third lesson learned is that, especially if you are as bothered by notifications as I am, or if you just want to have some “non-work” time in your life, you’re going to have to work pretty hard in the first couple of weeks to teach your students some rules about etiquette. My rule is that it’s only acceptable to @-mention me during my office hours, and nobody should ever DM me (and they should not DM anyone else without their explicit permission); private questions go in email. You’d think an etiquette document would do the job, but it does not, even if you quiz them on it and also pin it to the channel. Some people will need reminders occasionally throughout the semester. This is, I’ll be honest, deeply frustrating. But 1) the pros outweigh this con, for me, and 2) I think it’s also doing them a service: hopefully they won’t constantly @-mention or DM their bosses when they start using a Slack-like tool in the office, because they will have learned that professional etiquette is different from social media etiquette.

Slack alternatives?

Slack has honestly worked great for me. If I were confident that there would continue to be a free version, I might just keep using it, despite its not-insignificant downsides: there’s no blocking feature, there’s no way to prevent direct messages, and there are occasional signals that the development team doesn’t understand human beings. But I rely on threading to keep conversations manageable; I rely on locking my workspaces down to college email addresses to help maintain privacy; and I rely on the fact that every Slack workspace is distinct to help students and me (oh goodness, certainly also me) maintain some separation between our professional and social personas. All of this is to say: I’m aware of Discord, yes; and no, it is absolutely not an option. (Though I do like that you can block people and choose “nobody can DM me from this server” as a setting.)

My list of services to look at more closely: Zulip (does it support threading? also, is it free in the cloud, or would I need to convince our IT department to install and manage it? if the latter, it is probably a no-go), Rocket.Chat (same questions), Teams (is there a way to make it not-user-hostile?), maybe some kind of modern IRC frontend?, something else I haven’t heard of?

I would dearly miss threading if I lost it, but if I have to choose between that and the ability to lock down the server only to college email addresses, I’d have to pick the latter. “Free and cloud-based” is probably a requirement, alas. And the interface has to be relatively friendly: I can’t go old-school IRC, because even though I teach in Computer Information Technology and Data Analytics, not all of my students are up to that, certainly not at the outset of the semester.

Anyway, if you have suggestions, or more information about any service I’m currently considering, please leave a comment!

The image in the header photo belongs to Slack; it’s on their distance education page.

Published inteaching and learningtechnology


    • Thank you, this is great info! A switch to Zulip sounds like just the thing!

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