Using Slack in the Classroom

This semester I decided to try using Slack as an alternative communication channel in an upper-year university course that I teach. I’d already been using Slack in my research lab and I was familiar with the features and I thought it might translate well to the university class setting. The one disclaimer I would offer to anybody considering using Slack is to make sure that you use any technology to improve learning don’t just use technology for the sake of it.

Slack logoBefore Slack

Before using Slack, I typically communicated in the following ways with students in my classes:

  • Verbal communication both in class and during office hours 
    • Used by students to give feedback on lecture material, to follow up on points of confusion, to seek clarification, and to ask about personal interests that extend beyond the lecture topics.
  • Email
    • Used by students to ask about grades, deadline extensions, missed assignments and lab or to discuss schedule clarifications.
  • Learning Management System (LMS) discussion board
    • Rarely used by students but when used students often ask questions about specific assignments, labs, projects or tests.
  • LMS announcements
    • Used by me to broadcast schedule changes and reminders to students.

In general, I have found that students don’t use a LMS without considerable effort on my part to convince them that they must use it. I find students in my classes are very comfortable using instant messaging, chat programs and social media but are less inclined to give the LMS a chance. [Aside: there are good LMSs out there and for some students they can be great – but with my style of teaching and my students’ style of learning I haven’t found them to be successful.]

How I Use Slack IN My Classes

Adding Slack as an alternative communication channel increased the discussion between myself and students and increased the discussion amongst students (at least from what I’m able to observe). Why? I think the reason Slack works in my classes is that it operates just like the messaging clients today’s students already use and in addition to a web client it also has custom clients for all major desktop and mobile platforms. The custom clients and notifications allow students to more easily use Slack while doing other tasks.

There are many different Slack features that could be used to benefit learning in the classroom. In my first semester using Slack I found the follow features worked the best for me:

  • Public channels
    • I use separate public channels for major deliverables – tests, assignments, projects. A lot of the messages are questions-and-answers between students and myself but I also find a lot of student-student discussion happening as well. It’s nice to see students able to answer other student’s questions. When posting both questions and answers, code snippets and the file attachment option are often used to post supplemental information.
    • I use the #general public channel to answer general questions about lectures, course readings and any other comments/questions related to the genera course topic. The #general channel also gets used for posting interesting links and articles and can also serve as a backchannel discussion during lectures.
    • The #random public channel is not used a lot in my class (in my research lab it is much more popular). When it is used by students it is mainly for program-related messages (not class-related) and for posting humour.
    • Students add reactions to channel messages when they particularly like or appreciate something (I never received this kind of feedback with LMS or email announcements).Slack reaction
    • In my graduate course (CSCI 5010G: Survey of Computer Science) there are participation marks for attending external seminars and local conferences. Students will sometimes post pictures from events so that I’m aware of their attendance. For example:
      Message from students attending CASCON 2015
    • I usually mention a student’s name (using the @name tag) when responding to their message. The notification settings in Slack allow team members to differentiate alerts for messages that include a mention of their names from other general messages. When I need to make a broadcast announcement I use the @channel tag to alert all students of a message.
    • A colleague of mine (Dr. Christopher Collins) also uses Slack and has a great way to incorporate Slack communication into his lectures. He has a public @inclass channel and asks students to tag his name if they have questions. When he is alerted of a tagged message he can answer it in real-time to the whole class.
  • Private channels
    • Private channels mainly get used as team channels. I often teach software development courses that involve team projects and private channels are a great way to allow students to share project documents and engage in project discussion. I also encourage students to utilize the Slack integration with services like GitHub (if used in their course project).
    • If a course has multiple instructors and/or teaching assistants, a private channel is also a good idea for this type of private group communication.
  • Direct messages (DMs)
    • Individual or small group questions also occur through DMs. DMs have replaced a lot of the questions I used to get via email about grades and course material clarifications. Students who aren’t comfortable posting in public channels will sometimes use DMs instead.
  • Service Integration
    • GitHub integration was mentioned above for private team-based channels.
    • I also use Google calendar integration which has also cut my need to make course announcements about schedule changes and reminder announcements about upcoming class events. For each course I teach, I create a public Google calendar to share with the students. Most students appreciate a Google Calendar since our university uses Google Apps for Education and they all have university gmail accounts The Google calendar integration in Slack allows for automated reminders of upcoming events and announcements of changes to upcoming events. I used to send both of these types of announcements manually through our LMS.
      Google event announcement in Slack
  • Statistics
    • Even in the free version, Slack provides basic statistics that can be used to track student activity in a course. For example, in my course of 23 students there were a total of 116 messages sent last week with 37% in public channels and 63% DMs. The weekly stats summary for my course does not include private channel message statistics because there are no private channels (there are no group assignments).Slack weekly team statistics
    • One question I’ve been asked about using Slack in the classroom is: How many messages can I expect? The answer to this question varies greatly depending on the course content, the students and the availability of the instructor (both within Slack and outside of Slack). For example, at the University of Victoria Dr. Margaret-Anne Storey has a class of 40 students that has exceeded 10,000 messages.

After Slack – The Breakdown

When I started using Slack I kept all of the other communication channels (I didn’t want to try something new and not have a backup). With the semester almost over I’ve noticed that emails from students are down (DMs from students are up), the LMS discussion board has been 100% replaced with Slack public channels and while LMS announcements still happen (they are largely redundant with automated Google Calendar messages and @channel announcements in Slack). Finally, the biggest change is that I don’t have to try to get students to use Slack – they actually like it!

Using Slack summary

If you have feedback please leave a comment or contact me on twitter (@jeremy_bradbury).

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