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.

The "#announcements" channel for my Transmedia Fiction class.

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:

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 12.21.34 AM

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

Some data.

Some data.

And a pie chart!

3.3K messages after 3 weeks of class.

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?

  • zachwhalen

    By the way, I didn’t write much about the process of setting up and getting started with Slack, but Slack itself does a pretty good job (via @slackbot) at explaining it as you go.

    Also, I guess I forgot to turn on comments, but here they are now!

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  • MBali

    I use Slack a lot…now inspired to use in classes
    I love the Google calendar integration and Twitter integration (so u don’t have to do same thing twice).
    I like private groups (better than group DMs i feel? Esp for project work).
    I think I will recommend this for faculty who have WhatsApp groups with students. It is much better and easier to organize and would work for ppl who don’t wanna share their numbers with students (I personally am ok with sharing my number but not everyone is).
    I only wish my colleagues at work would use it! It would save us so much time!

    • zachwhalen

      I want to try the Twitter integration, but haven’t quite gotten the hang of the Google Calendar one. I guess I was expecting something different, but all I see is a feed of items as they’re added to the calendar. Is there a way to make it more of an agenda, like “Here’s what’s happening today”? Or even “here’s what’s happening this week”?

      • Yeah, I have the same problem. I was also annoyed that I had to enter events in Google Calendar rather than there being an easier way to do it via Slack. Or maybe I’m missing something. I did notice that you could enable “weekly summaries” when I added it as an integration. I’m trying to find some way to edit integrations right now.

      • Steven Michels

        Here’s how I’ve set up my course with Slack. It answers the calendar question:

    • zachwhalen

      And I think I too will be using or encouraging more private channels. Where groups are chatting and coordinating projects internally, I don’t really _need_ to see all their interactions, and in fact I think it’s valuable for students to have spaces where they can talk and work without me peaking over their shoulder, even accidentally. I’ve found, by the way, that private channels cannot be changed into public channels, which makes sense. I assume the reverse is possible (public -> private), so I’m going to suggest some of my groups move in that direction.

  • Gerald Ardito

    Zach, this is really interesting. I look forward to seeing how this progresses. I set up an Elgg site for one of my courses, hoping to achieve some of the same fluidity. There has been a learning curve for sure, but the students are really liking it and using it in interesting way.

    • zachwhalen

      Elgg! Haven’t tried that one yet. Do you find it similar to Slack at all? What are it’s pros and cons?

      • Gerald Ardito

        Elgg is open source software to create social networking sites. It has all the features you would expect: blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, messaaging, etc.
        I am not sure how it compares to Slack, but it is more platform-y.

  • mdvfunes

    This is so useful, Zach. Thank you. I use Slack for stuff outside teaching but from the start had the idea to use it with my students. I kept wondering how the transition would work and what I would need to transfer from LMS. Your post gives me a clear sense of why I was attracted to the idea – fluidity and transparency with students matters to me and the LMS does not offer. Sadly. my organisation did not support me using anything outside the LMS….one day, and posts like these may help influence others. Thanks again.

    • zachwhalen

      Glad you found this useful, thanks for reading! I’m curious about the opposition at your organization. Is it in order to shore up a userbase for the LMS? Concerns about FERPA? Something else?

      • mdvfunes

        All of the above! But it is not even as strategic and thought through as that – an under resourced EdTech department offering one solution (Blackboard or nothing) to the whole university without any understanding of the needs from different schools….the deal breaker for me this semester was: If you use anything outside Blackboard you have to do ALL tech support yourself and BTW you have double the number of students as you did last semester. It is sad that they are not even interested in using me as a resource to learn what is possible – they have just forced me to ‘stop being difficult’ and design the modules ‘as they tell me’….except they have not 🙂 I still use and my students are loving that and VoiceThread… Sorry to go on! It has been a real challenge and I have now decided to stop teaching in higher education after this semester – I cannot keep on fighting to do the right thing by my students with no pay or support…

  • pmphillips

    Excellent write up. We were discussing implementing Slack in just this way for a class in June – intensive block on Media/Digital Literacy at St John’s College, Durham Uni, with placements afterwards – trying to connect the remote placements into the class-based work and encourage remote conversations…Good to see just the same thing happening here.

    Still not tried snippets…

    • zachwhalen

      Thanks for reading! Snippets are useful if you have code to share, which doesn’t come up as often as I wish it did in my classes.

  • Jeez. When I show up to write a comment and see some of my favorite people have already been there, I’m happy 🙂

    I’ve worked a lot with both Canvas and Slack, but only used Slack so far with collaborative teams outside of class. Considering doing some of what you’re doing. Perhaps someone will start writing code that allows Canvas and Slack to integrate . . .

    One interesting thing I’ve learned with Slack: individual posts (the almost-blog things you mentioned) can individually be made public with a link. I’ve made some use of that: writing something for a team but then sharing with people outside of Slack for comment.

    Also, just used the new Slack /poll feature this week with TvsZ. It was quick and easy, and I could see it working well inside of a class for feedback.

    • zachwhalen

      Perhaps someone will start writing code that allows Canvas and Slack to integrate . . .

      This came up a little on Facebook. What activities would require or benefit from a Canvas/Slack integration? Grading is the only thing I can think of, but I’m sure there are others.

  • This is awesome Zach. I’m playing around with it in my #ENGL560 class and several of the students already want to use it in their 101 courses.

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  • E. Springfield

    Do you use any of the Canvas LMS features at all? Grading? Organization? Calendar? If I’m a student and I want to know what to read before class, or what is due this week, how do I get that info?

    • zachwhalen

      These are good questions, and as I say in the post, my use of Slack continues to evolve. The areas you refer to are those in which Slack’s ability to replace a Thing I Do in an LMS is somewhat limited. I’m not sure I’ve figured it out, in other words.

      For the class schedule, what I’m doing right now is a post (an internal document) pinned to an “#announcements” channel. Pinning makes it readily available in the sidebar, and I can easily edit it with updates. This works OK, but I would like something a little more direct and easier to find. One could probably make a slack bot (and maybe one already exists) where I could feed it schedule data (from a google calendar or whatever) and then a user could invoke the integration — maybe it could be /agenda — and then the bot gives them an overview of the next few calendar events.

      That’s hypothetical, of course, but if it existed (and maybe it does), it would probably be a better, more Slack-y solution.

      For grades, I’m keeping the numbers in Canvas, and delivering feedback via direct messages in Slack. This isn’t ideal because a student will have to keep their own grade tables or ask me for their current average if they want it. The inconvenience cost is mitigated in the case of this semester’s classes because the number of assignments in each class is relatively small. This system as I’m using it for grades definitely wouldn’t scale well.

      One solution would be to simply open up the gradebook in Canvas.

      • Coming across your post couldn’t have come at a better time as I am looking at ways to incorporate Slack into several of my classes. We currently use BrightSpace (D2L) at my campus (Lone Star College – University Park) and its Discussion boards are so cumbersome that I can hardly use them. I see Slack being a great replacement but am not sure how the assessment/rubric will work out. As far as I’m concerned, it can’t be any worse than what I face now, even if it means having to “manually grade” discussion threads with a rubric document.

        One question I have, though, is why keep the Canvas gradebook closed? Perhaps you want to keep the students focused on using Slack exclusively and not having them learn/navigate the two systems??? Just curious. 🙂

        Again, thanks for authoring this timely post!

  • Thanks to this post and a bit of encouragement from Jonathan Rees and from students, I’m using Slack in teaching starting this week, and I’ve just pointed a colleague this way as she’s trying the same. Jonathan noticed the same: lots of DMs. This all feels very positive, and I really just wanted to pop in and thank you for this post as it was the nudge I needed to get over my mild Slack aversion and give it another go.

  • Shaomeng Zhang

    Thanks so much for sharing Zach! When I used Canvas instead of Ning to teach an undergrad class three years ago, the thing I missed most was the social feeling you get from Ning. It’s like the difference of being in a classroom vs a lounge. I find your experience with teaching using slack extremely interesting. I am always interested in thinking about what the next gen LMS would look like. Canvas to me was just a better designed Blackboard or Moodle. The way you described how slack changed the way you teach and how student interact, It made me think many new possibilities out there with Slack intergration or even instruction related slack apps.

  • Roy Kamada

    Thanks for the post! I had thought about using Slack some, and it’s encouraging to see the success you’re having with it. I wonder if you had looked at yellowdig ( at all? It integrates with Canvas, but it looks like the whole campus would have to sign up for it. Also while it seems you’re moving away from Canvas, did you try and embed the slack chat page into Canvas in an iframe?

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  • I’m so glad I found this post! It was so useful. I am an online English teacher and I’m thinking about using slack for my online course as a way for students to submit homework. I look forward to seeing your updates Zach!

  • Adam Butler

    Do you or will you create a new Slack team each semester or will you just create one for your class to which you invite new students each semester?

    • zachwhalen

      I’ll start a new Slack domain for each class, I think. The value that Slack adds for community building seems diminished if students are joining a conversation already in progress. A fresh Slack domain helps them take more ownership/occupancy of it as they play around with the space.

  • I’ve been using Slack for my marketing courses as well, since January 2015. I really like the way you’ve outlined everything on this site. I did an FAQ in trying to start an academic community on Slack, but this is a little fresher than the way I wrote it (explaining /giphy didn’t make it into my FAQ). The two things I wish Slack had some integrations for (meaning it needs some of its app fund spent on it) are 1) submission areas. As you mentioned, 18 isn’t terrible, but it’s terrible when you have 80+. 2) some sort of ferpa compliant gradebook (perhaps one that syncs with the submission area, like on LMS).

    I’ve also got some empirical data comparing student experiences on Slack v. Blackboard.

    • Jerry Garza

      I actually found this post through the group. There are some engaging conversations on tech in the classroom. If your domain does not exist, then sign up here