Online Discussions Using Slack

Later today, I will be sharing some of the challenges of discussion forums in a presentation at LaGuardia as part of the Center for Teaching and Learning’s mini-seminar series on Engaging Web 2.0 Resources & Technologies (slides for the talk are at the bottom of this post). Discussion boards are something I have struggled with quite a bit over the years: I only recently came to terms with online discussions, mainly because I found a tool – the chat platform Slack – and a structure that seems to encourage the kind of student-driven conversations I was aiming for.

As Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel pointed out a couple years ago in their Hybrid Pedagogy article “The Discussion Forum is Dead; Long Live the Discussion Forum,” discussion boards can

become over-cultivated factory farms, in which nothing unexpected or original is permitted to flourish. Students post because they have to, not because they enjoy doing so. And teachers respond (if they respond at all) because they too have become complacent to the bizarre rules that govern the forum. 1

I am fairly certain I committed the no-no-bad example they mention on a few occasions early in my college teaching career:

It might seem laughable, but these are the kinds of instructions offered frequently to students to “encourage” participation in discussion forums:

“You must post three times each week. Your first post should be an original thought with at least one secondary source. Your second and third posts should respond to two other students. Be sure to write your first post (of 500 words) by Wednesday, and at least one of your responses (of 250 words) by Friday. You will lose 5% off your participation score for this discussion for every 24-hour period that you are late.”

This, they argue, is “attendance” – it is not “real engagement,” nor is it a real “digital community.”  More recently, Hybrid Pedagogy devoted a whole #digiped Twitter discussion to this topic. While I didn’t get to join in (and my course was already set by the time the discussion happened), the issues posed there – and in the above article – are the same kinds of questions that plagued me while I was trying to fix up some kind of viable discussion component for my hybrid class  this past fall.

After a lot of poking around and mulling over possibilities, I drew on Cathy Davidson’s model of peer review over on the HASTAC blog and now also on the Futures Initiative blog : there, Davidson has students prepare lessons, lead instruction, and evaluate each other. I repurposed these ideas for our online discussions as part of the hybrid class: because I was also creating the syllabus with the idea of some task-based specifications grading as well, I also made the discussion leader role in the forum an A-grade component. As Morris and Stommel point out, the tool for a discussion forum should lead to “rampant” discussion. I chose Slack for our course hub. Along with the nice interface, it is free, has an app, is searchable, can be easily organized, and has a lot of integrations (including GoogleDrive and Dropbox). Students could direct message me and each other, tag each other in discussions, and form groups (on their own) to collaborate on shared work. It turns out they direct messaged each other a lot, according to the statistics report I received – you can see the break-down in the slides below (80% of the total messages and posts on Slack were Direct Messages. I assure you, I sent nowhere near 4,400 messages to my students during the semester – it was mostly them!). This was an unexpected and happy finding: at a commuter school, it is sometimes hard for students to build community – and in a hybrid class where we only meet once a week, I saw this as being an additional challenge we might need to address. 

The role sheets, rubrics, and logistics are all linked in the GoogleSlides below. On reflection, the online discussions were often very productive and engaging, but in their original iterations I did not stress continued conversation as much. This happened naturally most of the time, but a few discussion leaders did not pursue this as eagerly as others: it has now been written in to the roles/rubrics more clearly. 2 Interestingly, during the Liberal Arts fair (where LIB 200 students “pitched” the class to first-years, so they could get a better sense of what was in store), my three presenting students (all volunteers) consistently brought up Slack and the discussion component of class, saying it really helped them get into the material. You can see more feedback in excerpts from their “Letters to Future Students” – a final reflection prompt – in the Slides below as well.

I think we must, as Morris and Stommel ask us, find platforms and methods for students to “meet, greet, challenge, question, and collaborate in the dynamic ways they do elsewhere on the web.” They list some possible platforms/tools in their article: while Slack worked for me, I certainly never think any tool is a one-size-fits-all. I’ll be interested to hear from others how they have created online communities, and encouraged “rampant” discussion in a digital forum.

Notes:

  1.  Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel, “The Discussion Forum is Dead; Long Live the Discussion Forum.” Hybrid Pedagogy, 8 May 2013. Web. 1 March 2016.
  2. LATER ADDITION, post-talk today: one colleague (rightly) asked if I was really deviating from the no-no-bad discussion board requirements mentioned in the Hybrid Pedagogy article, since I did still have some basic requirements (posting a certain amount of times for a particular grade, a word count requirement, etc.). I think the major difference was that students controlled the discussion and evaluated each other, and so this no longer had the feel – to them, according to their feedback – of “attendance” or of empty busy work: students seemed to genuinely dig this as a learning activity, and to control/steer the conversation on their own terms.

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