Whatever type of classroom you find yourself in this fall, digital tools are increasingly important to our teaching repertoire. Every day there’s a new platform or upgrade to existing technology. A quick Google search will show you hundreds of innovative tools to facilitate teaching and learning in digital spaces, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed.
For those of us looking to break through the limitations of learning management systems (such as Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas) without reinventing the wheel, Slack is an intuitive, flexible platform that allowed us to create more effective learning spaces. And it’s fun to boot.
Slack is still fairly new to us. We first learned about it at the Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching Conference in Austin, Tex., in June 2017. The organizers nudged us to eschew traditional conference communiqué (emails or a table staffed with tired graduate students) and asked us to use Slack as a centralized hub for conversations, questions and file sharing. While our appreciation for Slack did not develop overnight, after experimenting in our in-person, distance-learning and online classrooms, we found a lot to love.
What is Slack? It’s a bit like ye olde chat room, but its purpose is to house and streamline your group’s communication. And unlike a 1990s chat room, you eliminate the creepy A/S/L icebreaker, because Slack is only open to your team -- a class, small group or department. Within your team hub, members can participate in channels (like chat rooms dedicated to specific conversations), threads (sidebars to main discussion) and direct messages.
Slack has app platforms for mobile and computer devices and offers a variety of notification settings to control how often you hear from your team. It also integrates well into our existing digital toolbox, with plug-ins for file-sharing sites and video conferencing.
So, how will Slack change the way you teach?
Slack Is the New Email
First, embrace informality! Students want to communicate with professors, but traditional office hours often don’t meet their needs. They have questions, but the formality of email creates a barrier, deterring students from reaching out. And whether students know it or not, faculty members often judge students for violating unwritten rules about email correspondence, including salutations, deference and grammar.
Slack cuts through the red tape and opens a judgment-free line of communication. It’s a bit like texting, but without having to share your cell number with your students. Slack also eliminates redundant emails on classwide issues such as broken links, confusing directions or clarification. There is also room to share your personality and embrace the sillier side of the internet such as GIFs, emoji and even musical clips. We live in an age where digital communication goes beyond the written word by embracing visual and audio cues, so why not employ these in the classroom?
For us, the Slack app functions better on wireless devices than that of our LMS. Increasingly, students use tablets and smartphones to complete course work, and although the apps for Moodle, Blackboard and Canvas have come a long way in recent years, they cannot yet fully replicate their browser-based platforms. Slack’s app does one thing -- facilitates quick communication -- and it does it very well. Furthermore, the functions are familiar to our digital-native learners and don’t pose a steep learning curve to nontraditional students. As instructors, we appreciate its flexibility and user-friendliness.
Slack Allows Students to Contribute in Diverse Ways to the Learning Community
Second, Slack enhances your traditional teaching style. Setting up a live classroom channel for lectures, discussions and other activities is a valuable resource. It allows students to post clarifying questions or comments as the lesson progresses, and can serve as place where students can second or third another student’s contribution with a thumbs-up. Managing a live channel during class takes practice on the part of the instructor, but incorporating periodic check-ins allows us to be more responsive to students while adding needed pauses into our instructional flow.
A classroom channel overcomes other hurdles, too. Voiced participation can be difficult for students for a variety of reasons, ranging from different learning styles to language barriers to anxiety. By providing another outlet for class participation, we can create a more inclusive classroom.
We have also used Slack for synchronous note taking. Using a notes channel, students can crowdsource class notes. This activity takes a variety of forms, but in our history classrooms it works for noting key terms, ideas and discussion questions. Here, too, is another opportunity for students to bolster their participation grade without speaking up. Instructors can offer participation points for organizing or moderating weekly note sets. No matter how it is used, a notes channel pushes students to rely on their learning community for support, rather than depending on the instructor. We can’t promise you won’t get emails asking if anything “important” happened last week, but at least you have a place to direct inquiries.
Slack creates a real-time learning environment that adapts to a course’s specific needs. In a live class with group projects, Slack is a natural workspace. We used a Slack hub as the primary communication medium for a graduate-level digital humanities project. Students designed a podcast, called Global Idaho, that examined immigration and DACA in southeastern Idaho. Slack created student agency; students made channels as needed to plan interviews, share audio files, set up meetings and preview content. In other words, almost every production stage went through Slack.
Slack Is Great for Teaching Online
Third, Slack breathes life back into the online classroom discussion. If you’ve ever taught online, you know what a lifeless discussion forum looks like. You also know how difficult it is to convince students to “show up” to virtual office hours. Our current tools for online communication are inherently limited. Moodle, our university’s LMS, has at least three: the forum, Zoom video conferencing and chat. Not only are forum posts delayed, but they’re typically graded for credit, which bears on what students write and how they present themselves. And students don’t always read nested forum posts, especially after they’ve finished their obligatory responses. Although Zoom offers live video conferencing and works well for synchronous meetings, it doesn’t add much to our predominantly asynchronous online courses. We’ve tried using Zoom to set up virtual student hours but found even then students are disinclined to video call their professor. The chat tool is much more popular for office hours, but it doesn’t function well as a live feed, nor does it have timely alerts.
In the online classroom, Slack provides a space for dialogue without assessment, objectives or expectations. Setting up channels dedicated to specific purposes facilitates the ease of use, including channels such as #student_hours, #reading_questions, #general_questions and #discussion. Students can also tag you directly with a question using your ID or @channel to address the entire group.
Unlike Moodle, the moment a student posts a question or comment, you can receive a notification. And while this does not mean you’re obligated to respond immediately, at least you know to check in. Instructors are able to communicate observations and concerns in a way that more closely mimics a live classroom setting.
Communication With Colleagues
Fourth, Slack allows for efficient communication between co-workers. Annoyed by the slew of reply-all responses about lunch preferences at the August faculty meeting? Move the conversation to Slack and free your inbox from the inundation of irrelevant information. Using a thread, your colleagues can reply to their hearts' content without bogging down your inbox with “hold the mayo.”
More importantly, you won’t be lured into checking your email notifications when you’re in the middle of chapter edits or lesson planning. But, should you decide you’re interested in Team Roast Beef, you can jump into the channel, check out the thread and catch up in one swoop.
We were surprised to see our department eagerly adopt Slack as a co-worker space. With full-time faculty on the ground at two campuses, we need efficient modes of communication among one another as much as we need it between instructors and students. We found that Slack promotes discussion, facilitates collaboration (we drafted this on a #4_reasons_4_slack channel) and, perhaps most importantly, builds community.
It’s also a good space where new faculty can ask questions about reading loads, technology issues, annual reports or conference funding. Junior faculty can pose questions and receive feedback quickly. Such use streamlines the informal mentoring of new hires and goes a long way toward building a department culture of open communication and support.
Other Things to Consider
Like most digital tools, Slack has privacy and user limitations. Importantly, although Slack has plenty of great academic uses, it was designed for business communications, not FERPA compliance. As always, communication about sensitive student information, including grades and personal information, should take place on a FERPA-friendly platform.
You should also consider how well students will adapt to managing Slack in addition to the other communication platforms used at your institution. At this point, Slack is not available as an integrated widget in most learning management systems. Your students will need to monitor their Slack space in addition to email, LMS messages and any other means your institution uses to communicate with students. We recommend clarifying Slack expectations with students; Slack may be ideal for quick questions, in-class activities or collaborative projects, but coach your students about times when an email or face-to-face meeting is more appropriate.
Finally, in all likelihood, your campus IT specialists will not be able to support Slack if a student runs into technical difficulties. Be aware that you, as the instructor, will have to be the help desk in these situations. Instructors should be prepared to help students navigate the platform from time to time and may want to curate a collection of explanatory videos to familiarize students with the platform.
So if you’re craving better-quality communication with students and diverse in-class participation, or you are just looking to incorporate something new in your fall syllabi, Slack might be the way to go. In a sea of digital tools, it's one we’ve grown to love.