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If you teach in higher ed during the pandemic era, you may not have heard of the message board platform Discord -- but your students certainly have.

While working as instructional designers over the past year, we realized instructors might need an introduction to what Discord is, how students are using it and what instructors should (and shouldn’t) do about it.

Discord is a message board platform that college students have increasingly adopted as a way to communicate with one another outside class and in the absence of real-life opportunities for connection during remote learning. It was originally developed for gamers as a platform for voice and text chat while gaming, but it is now used by a variety of nongaming online communities as well. In higher ed, Discord use first emerged in STEM courses but has since migrated to other disciplines.

Students have used it both for support (helping classmates choose courses, seeking advice on the best way to approach a project) and, in violation of many university and course policies, for sharing exam questions.

There are a wealth of reasons why instructors shouldn’t dismiss Discord out of hand, especially as the pandemic continues to shift the future of higher education in unpredictable ways. It may, for example, play a critical role in allowing students to build personal relationships and connect with one another around topics both related to and beyond the scope of our courses.

Users say they appreciate having a space to interact with each other that is (or is perceived to be) largely free of instructor presence. Students also benefit from classmates dropping in to support them if they have questions or to organize study groups. With Discord, peer assistance is never far away -- and the assistance is often of excellent quality.

That said, Discord and similar sites must still be approached with measured caution. Aside from concerns about academic integrity, class Discords have occasionally become the site of interpersonal conflict and inappropriate behavior. Some boards have been used to plan “raids” of other servers -- particularly those formed by minoritized student groups -- where large numbers of users join the server in order to harass its users.

They have also been used to plan Zoombombing. Discord is associated in the minds of many with Gamergate, in which communication platforms such as Discord, Reddit, 4Chan and Twitter were revealed to host a thriving culture of misogyny and sexual harassment within some parts of the gaming community.

Discord is not officially sanctioned or supported by most institutions, and instructors are generally not obligated to monitor students' communication on Discord. Still, students may come to instructors to report violations of university policy that occur on the platform. Specific violations where reporting is mandatory include sexual violence or sexual harassment, or those related to abuse or neglect of minors.

So -- what should you do if you find out your class has an associated Discord?

First: don’t panic, and don’t assume your students are up to something nefarious. It's also best not to assume that all your students will be on the Discord; some of them won't, and others may not even know what it is.

A great way to start the conversation is by asking questions.

Keep in mind that an instructor’s perceived hostility to a Discord will merely drive it underground, not eradicate it; when talking about Discord, demonstrate neutrality to your students by making requests rather than demands. You might ask in lecture whether there is a class Discord, and then, if the moderator(s) would be willing to identify themselves to you. You can also ask your students if they would like you to participate on Discord yourself (although you are certainly not obligated to take on that role unless you wish to).

If students request not to have instructor presence, honor that preference and do not push for access. Remember, it’s not personal if they don’t want to admit you! On the other hand, if students ask for help publicizing the Discord and you’re willing to be involved in that way, you can publicize the link on your LMS course site.

Given that your interest/involvement may be perceived as tacit approval or sponsorship of the use of Discord, you may wish to carefully consider making behavioral expectations explicit by addressing appropriate Discord use -- either verbally in class, in the syllabus or, if teaching asynchronously, via a written or video announcement.

Keep in mind that many first-year and new transfer students will have never lived away from home, much less on campus. The mechanisms for norming their behavior to college standards are not present at home, so some of that norming is (at least for now) going to fall to instructors.

Make clear to students -- without striking a tone suggestive of surveillance -- that they are expected to abide by your institution’s code of conduct in their online interactions with other students, regardless of where those interactions take place. To decrease the impetus for cheating, provide clear examples in the academic integrity policy for your course regarding permissible and impermissible sharing/collaboration.

Encourage students to speak up if there is Discord activity -- cheating coordination, harassment, etc. -- that you should be aware of. Let them know that you will always help to intervene while holding their report in confidence. Reinforce to them that you respect their autonomy and strongly encourage them to build supportive relationships with one another. Some of the most challenging classes generate lifelong friendships!

If you see yourself taking a more active role, and your students have accepted you in that role, you can consider creating a simple set of ground rules and asking the student moderators to post them. Ask if the moderator is willing to share with you the guidelines they may already have posted; they will likely have a list already. Avoid using heavy-handed language in any guidelines you ask moderators to add, and keep your proposed guidelines relevant to class. (For example, asking students to stay off Discord during lecture is a reasonable expectation, while asking them to limit discussion topics to those related to class may be perceived as unnecessarily controlling.) And support your students -- perhaps even during class time -- in collectively coming up with guidelines rather than leaving the task exclusively to you or to the moderators. This will ensure buy-in on their part.

While instructors may have personal preferences about how students utilize platforms like Discord, we don’t ultimately get to choose whether or not they engage with them. There is simply no plausible way to prevent students from setting up a Discord server on their own, nor should we necessarily seek to do so. A more helpful approach is to think of Discord in terms of harm reduction. In short: if students are going to set one up regardless of how we might feel about it, what actions can we take to minimize its use for inappropriate purposes?

While most institutions do not officially sanction or provide technical support for it, Discord is here to stay -- at least for the moment. We would do well to understand both its challenges and its promises.

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