Tech & Work

Slack goes to college: How it can improve the classroom experience

Slack supports class conversations in a university classroom and complements other collaborative web tools like Google Docs. Here's how to make it happen.

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Image: iStockphoto/Rawpixel Ltd

I teach a university class that helps students understand how nonprofit organizations and governments use technology. It was here that I learned that one of the most popular enterprise messaging tools for business, Slack, could be used in the classroom as well.

Throughout the class, I require students to experiment with software tools they might actually use in the real world. That's why I don't use conventional learning management systems—like Blackboard—as part of my course. While those tools would clearly make my job easier, they're not tools that the students will ever use for work unless they teach. (I confess, though, I do post grades in Blackboard.)

The course consists of four streams of information: The syllabus, course content, projects, and conversation. In early 2016, I experimented with a combination of Wordpress, Slack, and various Google apps. I used Wordpress for the syllabus, but we worked with all sorts of tools throughout the semester, including Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, Drawings, Maps, and YouTube, as well as Quip, MindMeister, Padlet, and Penflip, among others.

Slack setup was simple. I signed up for a free account, then sent each student an invitation to join the team. It was a small class, so I typed in each name and email address. I like to think this helps me learn the students' names.

I decided to keep all conversations in the default #general stream, since I wasn't sure exactly how the students would take to the tool. A message of "look at the stream" would be a lot simpler than, "for assignments, look here; for links, look here; for conversation, look here."

SEE: A new mindset: Consumerization and enterprise software (TechRepublic research)

The fact that Slack works well in a browser and on Android and iOS was essential. The class was an almost even split between Android and iOS users, although only about half the class chose to install the app. (A few students even accepted the invitation and installed the app before our first class session.)

We got everyone else set up in class. I hooked my iPhone up to the projector and reviewed a few basic features such as how to view commands (type the / key to see the list), how to search, and how to set "Do not disturb" hours for notifications.

Coursework

Slack served as the central communication channel for the class. Before each weekly meeting, I posted links related to the discussion topic, along with a general description of the in-class project. Typically, I linked to a Google Doc or Quip file, a mindmap, slides, or posts.

Between classes, I posted a few links to items relevant to the class. Most students clearly followed the links—we often started informal discussions in the hallway before class, then naturally continued the conversation during class. A few students added an emoji reaction to posts.

When we had a class discussion about security, I required the students to enable two-step authentication for Slack. Most had never gone through that process before. Later, I learned that several students had turned on two-step authentication for Facebook, and other services, as well.

Slack also allowed students to engage with each other's work. When a student posted a presentation, for example, and shared it using the "anyone in the domain with the link" permission setting, other students could see and discuss it. (Peer learning anyone?)

Slack search made grading easier for me. A search for "from:studentname" showed me everything a student had posted. A search for everything posted on a single day indicated who had completed the in-class project.

Communication

The big "win," though, was messaging. This year, we had more conversations in Slack than I've ever had among a class with email, Google+, or SMS. We clarified project requirements and due dates. We discussed planned absences, explored alternatives (e.g., "I used Dropbox to share my video project file. Is that OK?"), and shared links to articles and videos.

SEE: Seven tips for using Google+ Community features (TechRepublic)

Near the end of the semester, I asked the students about Slack as a communication tool. They liked it, in part, because it wasn't email. Several students told me that other professors only use email—and require all email to be sent in a specific format and in formal language. The students in my class clearly preferred the quick, informal nature of Slack.

A few who used the Slack app said they liked the fact that class conversation wasn't mixed in with their personal streams of texts. With Slack, students knew when they opened the app that the messages would be class-related.

Slack also added to in-class conversations. For example, on one occasion while I talked about maps and data, a student posted a link to a city housing site, which we were able to explore and discuss.

Experiments continue

As the semester progressed, it turned out that I wasn't the only one experimenting with Slack. In March 2016, two different takes on the role of Slack appeared. In "Could Slack Be the Next Online Learning Platform?," Amy Ahearn shared how +Acumen used Slack to facilitate online discussion and learning. A little later, a BetterCloud survey showed that many organizations use multiple real-time messaging tools, which means they might use Hangouts, Slack, and Skype, even though the three may seem to serve similar functions.

At the end of the semester, my students suggested a few changes. They wanted a separate #syllabus channel, so they don't have to leave Slack to look at the course schedule and assignments. I thought it was a great idea. So I told them I would—in a post in Slack, of course.

What are your thoughts?

Have you used Slack with Google Apps to aid learning or support collaboration? What's your experience been?

Also see

About Andy Wolber

Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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