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COVID-19 and Slack

Will the pandemic be the force that cures higher ed of our addiction to email?

March 15, 2020
 
 

I've made no secret of my inability to grok Slack.

Slack has always felt to me less an email replacement and more of an email addition. If everyone I worked with got off email and on to Slack, then Slack would be OK. The problem, of course, is that under normal circumstances, it is not possible to get off email. We all work with too wide a variety of colleagues within and across our institutions.

Slack is a closed platform. You need to be invited into a Slack workspace. Email, by contrast, is open -- to the extent that anyone with an email address can technically email anyone else.

Nowadays, nothing is normal.

COVID-19 has changed almost everything about how higher ed works.

Faculty and staff are working nonstop to move to a remote teaching model. Remote teaching is not online learning, but it is not face-to-face learning, either. It will be something else, something that we are all trying to understand.

In this all-hands-on-deck effort to move to remote teaching and learning, Slack is proving indispensable.

The beauty of Slack in a crisis is that the platform becomes its own network. The nodes in the network are the people collaborating on the work to assist faculty in transitioning their courses to remote instruction. The information can fly across the network in Slack channel conversation and Slack direct messages, to be read in real time or be sifted through asynchronously.

In the teams that I'm working with to collaborate with professors to teach remotely, almost all the information exchange has moved off email and on to Slack.

Slack is the place where learning designers, educational developers, classroom technologists, service and support professionals, and all the other nonfaculty educators at my institution are living.

Is Slack perfect for the task of organizing higher ed teams for the rapid transition from face-to-face to remote education? Definitely not.

Slack is a poor project-management tool. I suppose that Slack could be used to assign and track tasks, develop milestones and critical paths, and build and update timelines. But Slack was not built for that purpose.

For project management, I recommend a tool like Asana. I wonder online project management platforms will have the sort of rapid campuswide adoption as we are seeing with synchronous meeting platforms like Zoom?

Slack can also be overwhelming. The teams that I'm working with for my institution's COVID-19 response are posting an enormous quantity of messages to Slack. The links to Google Docs and outside resources are multiplying faster than I can keep up. I find it difficult to prioritize the information in Slack that needs my attention.

Despite Slack's limitations, I think that the platform provides significant advantages over email and other more structured tools.

My guess is that the use of Slack across colleges and universities has dramatically risen as the COVID-19 crisis unfolded. I'd love to see some aggregated and anonymized data from Slack (and Zoom) around usage in relation to higher ed's COVID-19 response.

Once we get back to normal life, whenever that may be, it will be fascinating to see if new campus work norms related to platforms such as Slack and Zoom will stick. The effects of COVID-19 will be felt long after the pandemic has run its course.

One possible impact might be the previously unimaginable higher ed wide move away from email.

What is going on with Slack on your campus?

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