Adventures in Online Teaching Part 3: Slack
For this run of the Analyzing Data with Python course at Global Online Academy, I decided to move all course communication out of email and into Slack. There were a number of reasons for this, first and foremost being the domain was already set up by Instructional Designers at GOA; all I really needed to do was invite my students to the Python channel. The primary reason, however, is that Slack provides a streamlined environment where disseminating information and collaborating on group projects is simple and effective.
If you’re unfamiliar with Slack, I highly recommend you take a look. At its core, it’s an app for communicating in teams. It goes far beyond a simple “Instant Messenger” however, with a long feature list that includes direct messaging, direct group messaging, shoutouts, file sharing, multiple chat channels within teams, and a robust search engine to collect message history. I was optimistic at the start of the term that Slack would become a rich, collaborative hive of knowledge, and that the students would actively embrace it as the go-to place to ask questions, bounce ideas off of each other, and contribute to our class’ collective understanding of the course content. These were high expectations of course, more for my students than Slack itself; and while our use of Slack wasn’t the Utopia of collaborative learning I imagined, I am very pleased with Slack and see it as a positive addition to the Ed Tech toolbox this Semester.
Now, you might think, “Don’t you already have an LMS that does all of this?” The answer is both yes, and no. Canvas is great for organizing assignments, lesson content, and a gradebook; but doesn’t have a communication tool that approaches the simplicity and ease of use of Slack. Then there’s the accessibility piece. The Slack app for Windows loads and logs me in automatically on startup, giving me a tiny red badge for the number of missed direct messages, and messages containing a user defined set of keywords (also a very useful feature). Canvas takes far too many clicks to be effective here, and isn’t designed for rapid communication of this type. Additionally, the Slack iOS app functions much like other messenger apps on the iPhone and iPad, further enhancing accessibility. You may say, “I don’t want this level of connectedness with my students!” Fortunately, you can customize notifications so you’re not bombarded with student messages on your personal device; but it’s there if you need it in a pinch.
Speaking of notifications, announcements are easily done as well. Slack has a special shout out, @channel, that will notify all members of a current channel of your message. I didn’t set it up this way, but one could easily create an #announcements channel to keep all of these in one place, tidying up the main class channel in the process.
Group projects are another big win for Slack. At the start of a unit, I set up “groups” using group direct messages, then starred those message groups so they stayed pinned to my sidebar. I was able to see (and search) the entirety of each group’s thought process as they developed their solutions and worked through the programming assignment for the unit. Most groups had a master Collabedit document that served as homebase, then used Slack to bounce ideas off of each other and peer review work. Slack helped here with the “code snippet” feature, making it easy to share pieces of the final product.
While it has been fantastic in an online course, I could see Slack being a central piece of a brick and mortar course as well. I will be teaching two sections of a yet to be named course next year (depends on what is needed) at MICDS. Slack could provide a backchannel of in-class discussion or questions, quick and easy file and link pushing, lab group chat channels, and a means to push announcements that students will actually see and read. I see integration possibilities with Canvas as well. Why not host your course documents as Slack “posts” (like wiki pages), then embed them in your Canvas course pages? Messages and posts have unique URLs, so one could theoretically have students turn in a chat log or post to Canvas that was done in Slack. So much potential! I think there is sure to be a follow-up post this Fall as I, and maybe even my team, tries this out.