Notes on Teaching with Slack

Slack is communication software popular for handling workplace information flow, project management, customer support, and all kinds of other things. It's useful for professional teams, but it's also convenient for just about any other community that needs a quick place for synchronous and asynchronous conversation and collaboration.

Last semester, I started using Slack with one of my classes in an unofficial, low-key experiment -- basically just a backchannel during class and a place to dump files and links. That was fun, so this semester I've gone even further. For Digital Studies 101, where my colleagues Lee Skallerup Bessette and Jesse Stommel are also teaching sections, we've got a single Slack domain for all 100+ of our students. For my other two classes, I'm trying to move all of the things that I used to do with our LMS (Canvas) into Slack, partly because Slack makes some of those LMS-type tasks even easier, but more so because moving into a new LMS-like tool forces me to re-evaluate what exactly I need from a tool like an LMS.

I want to write this post now even though I'm right in the middle of this move; I'm definitely still continuing to figure things out, and it's still the early days in the semester when things that may crash and burn later still haven't. I'm not writing this post as a "how to" guide or list of best practices, in other words, though you may well find that some of the things I'm doing make enough sense to you that you want to try them. Mainly, I want to write this for myself. As I replace things I did elsewhere with things I can do in Slack, I must consider now whether those things were worth doing in the first place. Just like any other platform or tool that becomes part of my teaching, any incidental design choices can become accidental pedagogy, and the reverse may be true too.

What is Slack?

One of the cool things about Slack is that it's easy to demonstrate because you can get up and running very quickly. It's basically a chatroom with lots of smart, elegantly integrated features that are there when you need them but stay out of the way when you don't. These include

  • Updates -- the basic message or status of Slack. These support simple inline Markdown and can be linked to individually.
  • Channels -- like separate rooms within the domain.
  • Direct Messages -- like DMs or private messages anywhere else.
  • Posts -- longer than a status update, but more pared down than a full on blog or word processor document.
  • Snippets -- Chunks of syntax-highlighted code for when that's the thing you need to share.
  • @replies -- much like on Twitter, these can help with conversation threading.
  • emoji -- embracing the contemporary digital vernacular. (Slack also lets you create custom emoji, and you can adjust the skin tone of emoji with people or hands.)
  • Integrations -- I'm using /feed to automatically import blog entries. Students seem to enjoy /giphy and /catfacts.

There's more, but these are the core things that help create Slack's sense of immediacy. All of this, by the way, is private. Only members of the team can see or use any of this, which I think is important. It's got all the engagement of something like Twitter (and more), but the walled garden of Slack takes away the intimidation of a potentially much larger public audience.

Slack and the LMS

The term, "Learning Management System," has never sat right with me. To me, learning doesn't seem like something that can be managed. I believe content can be managed; people can be managed; customers can be managed. And maybe putting content in front of people can help them learn something from it.

But someone learns something themselves, not because a teacher "managed" them into knowing something.

Anyway, all that said, I've been relatively happy with Canvas for the last few years, I never used BlackBoard, but those who have made the switch seem to find Canvas a far better platform. In my case, I was doing LMS-type stuff with Drupal for a long time, and though I liked the freedom that gave me, and I liked the way it let students create content in the same platform where I was assigning their grades, I grew tired of all the coding and hacking I had to do to keep those Drupal sites running. So for things like gradekeeping, I'm happy to let Canvas's programmers keep that running smoothly.

These are the things I use an LMS for:

  • Communicating information about the class (the syllabus, assignment descriptions mostly)
  • Sharing files (assigned readings, PDFs for instance)
  • Collecting students' work
  • Providing students with feedback on their work
  • Sending announcements to the whole class
  • Organizing students into groups for assignments

Canvas does much more than these things, of course, like threaded discussions and importable content modules, but these bulleted items are pretty much always there. For those two classes where I'm not in the larger cohort with Jesse and Lee, here's how I'm handling each of these functions Slack:

Communicating information about the class

I've got an #announcements channel with the Syllabus and Schedule -- each a post within Slack -- pinned to the channel. With the information panel open, you can see them both in the sidebar, and clicking on either one expands it in place. The minimalist post editor encourages hierarchical structure and enforces a consistent look.

Screenshot of Slack Channel
The '#announcements' channel for my Transmedia Fiction class.

Sharing files

This is super easy. I can upload a PDF wherever -- but putting them in announcements usually makes sense -- and linking to content from elsewhere usually produces a nice snippet view or an embedded media player. And because I'm using Slack's free model and I haven't bothered with restricting roles, students can share things just as easily, and they are actually doing this. Here's a PDF I just uploaded:

Screenshot of PDF upload. Simple!
Uploading a PDF. Simple as that.

Collecting students' work

Students can upload files just as easily as I can, so that part's easy. They're public (within the class) if uploaded to a channel, or they can send them over a direct message. This has gone OK so far for my smaller two classes, though I worry about scaling it. Canvas automatically flags an assignment late and lets me use a click-click-click rubric if I want to, but I'd have to keep track of due dates and timing individually within Slack and either find some longer method of using a rubric (a Google docs template, perhaps) or just do away with rubrics. It hasn't come up yet for these classes, but I'm leaning toward the latter. That's a luxury I can afford with my class of 18. Not sure whether I would commit to freeform, individual feedback with my 53 Digital Studies.

Providing feedback on student work

I haven’t done this much yet, but direct messages are as accessible and as rich with integrations as any other context for writing. If I did want to use a rubric, I suppose I could use a document template that I fill in with values. That would be more work than Canvas’s SpeedGrader, but the essential feedback modaliity of a simple conversation is probably better in Slack. On this comparison, it’s probably a wash.

Sending announcements to the whole class

This turns out to be pretty easy as well, though it took a little getting used to. Slack uses three special ‘@‘ commands: @everyone sends a notification and email (if you choose to receive them) to the entire class. This is usually want I want to do, so it’s not that awkward to write

Hey @everyone, don’t forget about the whatever

You can also send a message to everyone who is in a particular channel by entering that channel and using @channel. This is a little more awkward.

Hey @channel, hope you’re having a nice weekend.

And one thing I’ve discovered is that @everyone only works in the default channel (called #discussion but you can change it). For my Slack-only classes, I made a separate #announcements channel, so even though the entire class has joined that channel, I have to use @channel in that channel to address the whole class and make it show up there. I can think of a couple ways I might work around that in the future — maybe I’ll rename the default channel to #announcements and create other channels for discussion. Or maybe something else.

Organizing students into groups for assignments

Across my classes, I’m using channels to group students in three different ways. In some classes, I have a channel for each assignment, with a post or two pinned to that channel with instructions or resources. The idea is that students use these channels to ask questions about the assignment, share resources and works in progress, and eventually show off their final projects. In DGST 101, we’ve got a channel for each module, and they work similarly to the assignment-specific channels above, but in a much looser sense because the membership, due dates and work are rotating. Importantly, students that are new to the module can scroll back through a channel’s history to see what other students have done and build off of that earlier work. Finally, I also have group projects where students work together in their own channel. This is interesting because most have elected to keep their channels “public” so that I can peak in and offer assistance where needed. This also could mean that other groups are peaking in, but I don’t think that’s happening.

Now, there are other things that LMSs do that Slack may or may not do. Others who make more rigorous use of those features might find it impractical or prohibitively problematic to adapt those features. Slack does offer advanced user analytics in their paid tier, so those interested in tracking what and how much their students are using it might consider that cost worth it.

Those who depend on the built in quiz functions might also have a hard time giving that up or moving some workaround into Slack.

Something else that potential users should consider is that Slack teams are private communities, and this is a big reason why I think it’s working. For classes where doing things in public is important, one would have to find other ways to find authentic audiences, but I think there’s an interesting moment where one decides about what to share just with my class versus what to share with the public internet. I like that Slack let’s us be intentional about that separation.

So is it working?

I think it is, but my evidence is mostly anecdotal. I like it. I look forward to getting online in the morning to see what’s been added in my classes, and I find myself in DMs late at night helping work stuff out or answering questions. There’s a sense of community from Slack that I don’t think I would every get from Canvas, because sometimes it’s just fun, and that’s part of what makes it work.

With the /giphy command, users can invoke for a random animated GIF that matches a search term. For example, /giphy doot doot might give you instant Mr. Skeltal


… or it might give you something entirely else:


That silliness and unpredictable keeps it fun, and a well-timed GIF even in the middle of a lecture can, even it breaks things up, help keep people engaged.

As I mentioned earlier, Slack’s advanced analytics are only available in the paid tier, but with the free version, I get an email like this every week

A chart showing frequences of activity in my Slack team.
Some data.

And a pie chart!

Pie chart showing distribution of 3.3K messages.
After six weeks of class.

That total works out to an average of about 30 messages for each user, which sounds good, but that includes me with 300+ and a few users with only one or two. (It would be useful to find those students who haven’t been slacking much so I can see what’s going on, but with the free version I’m just going to have go through one at a time and do a simple from:whomever search.)

Also, I’m really interested in that huge number of DMs. I know I’m responsible for a few of those, and Lee has been using it a lot, but that still means that my students must be talking to each other quite a bit. I’ve suggested they use group DM’s (you can include up to eight people) to coordinate presentations, so I hope they’re doing that at least.

One final point, since I’m using the free tier of Slack, I don’t have the option of certain things like restricting users to specific channels, or putting users into specific “@“-able teams for convenience, but one consequences is that everyone can see and do just about everything I can see and do. I’ve had students make groups on their own volition for in-class activities or just for shared interests. They’ve added integrations I wouldn’t have thought to (/catfacts !!) and done other things to start taking ownership of these spaces, which to me is at the investment at the heart of building a community. In these and other ways, I’m really finding Slack useful, and I’ll continue to think how it could replace or live alongside my institutional LMS.

Words matter, and I love that operative unit of Slack is the team. My classes work best when we are community working together to solve the various problems of the syllabus, not learners waiting to be managed by a system.

I’m really interested to hear how others might be using Slack, especially if there are integrations I haven’t covered that you’ve found useful. So are you using Slack? How’s it going?

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