- A Quick Note on Potential Channel Conflict
- General Announcements
- Private Channels and Targeted Messages
- In-Class Exercises
- Student (Dis)Engagement
- Better Data and Intelligence
- Reinforcing Classroom Lessons
- Sharing My Screen When I Teach Coding
- Improving Future Versions of Syllabi
- Sharing Interesting Articles
- Uploading Videos to Connect with Online Students
- Reminding Myself about Tasks Due
- Quickly Addressing Potential Issues
- Gauging Student Reaction
- Bonus Tip: Saving Time in Canvas
- Simon Says: Welcome to the new world.
For years I’ve clamored against the misuse and overuse of e-mail in corporate settings. As I write in Message Not Received, far too many folks use e-mail as a Swiss Army knife when far superior, affordable, and easy-to-use alternatives exist. In other words, this is not 1998—and the hits just keep on coming. (Since writing this post, Microsoft and Google have launched Slack clones.)
Sure, on a personal level and for simple, two-person tasks, Todoist gets the job done. That über-useful app, however, struggles with even small teams. I can’t imagine trying to use it with large groups of people.
As I entered my second year as a full-time college professor, I wanted to shake things up a bit inside the classroom. I had known for a few years about how Slack was gaining traction as a new communications and collaboration tool in the private sector. I was intrigued. I did some research and, this semester, decided to give it a shot.
My rationale here was straightforward. First, I was curious to noodle with a tool that has received so much hype. Second, in all likelihood, my students will not use a proper learning management system (LMS) such as Blackboard or Canvas after they receive their diplomas. On the other hand, they will almost certainly use a new collaboration tool at some point in their careers. Why not introduce one of the most powerful and popular ones while they are still in school?
Don’t get me wrong. I doubt that any company would hire a student specifically because of his or her experience with Slack. Still, if my students take jobs with organizations already using it, this means that they’ll have one fewer thing to learn upon starting.
A Quick Note on Potential Channel Conflict
As is always the case, introducing a new communications tool in any environment could complicate things. As a college professor, it is incumbent upon me to minimize confusion with my students. Put differently, I knew that I had to minimize any channel conflict. To this end, at the start of the semester, I remind students to to submit all assignments via Canvas. As you’ll see below, I offer gentle reminders throughout the semester.
This one was a no-brainer. Slack makes it remarkably simple to alert everyone in a class about a schedule change, newsworthy event, or tip. I also direct students to contact me via Slack, not e-mail. I’ll typically respond to individual student messages with a quick note “I am moving this to Slack.” They learn quickly that I’m no fan of e-mail—something that I reinforce in class and in my e-mail signature:
Consistency is king here, especially when you’re just getting started with Slack. When I’m out of the office, I make it clear that Slack is the best way to get a hold of me:
Reducing e-mail always helps, but from my previous research I knew that Slack offered many more benefits than this. I kept digging.
Private Channels and Targeted Messages
I used to hate having to remember which students worked on which capstone projects. Sometimes, I’d set up groups in Gmail but I never felt that that solution was ideal.
Enter private channels, one of the most useful features in Slack. It’s remarkably simple to limit my message, question, or tip to a group of students. For instance, for my course on data visualization, I put all Tableau-related goodies in the #tableau_tips channel:
Students who already know the tool may choose to leave that channel.
Often I need to solicit my students’ input on different subjects. This may involve the specific technologies to cover or issues to address. See below as I ask about challenges on their capstone projects.
Why not introduce my students to one of today’s most powerful collaboration tools?
I can’t fathom trying to gather this information via e-mail or even in Slack as text-based responses. I’ve become a fan of SimplePoll, a tool that allows me to easily gather survey responses within Slack. This saves me time and allows for one-stop shopping.
Even better, Slack lets me run anonymous polls when I broach a potentially contentious issue such as Dick’s bold decision to stop selling assault-style rifles weapons. (See Student Reaction below for an example of one such poll.)
Doing real-time polls in class adds an element of gamification. I have found that students enjoy seeing if their opinions are the majority ones or if they are contrarians. I even detect a whiff of excitement in the air as they vote.
I’m a big fan of active learning. I’ll often devote one-half or one-third of my class to interactive exercises designed to maximize student involvement.
In my previous (re: pre-Slack) semesters, I encouraged students to create Google Docs or Sheets and share them with me. I would then go to Gmail and open the link. The whole process involved a great deal of bouncing around among apps.
With my #classroom channel, I encourage students to enter responses to questions with pictures, links, and links Google Docs during class. (I use separate channels for each of my sections in my System Design capstone class.) Below I’ve included a screenshot of our in-class exercise designed to explore how Amazon is attempting to combat fake product reviews. (We cover this in more depth during an in-class exercise.)
Rather than replacing class discussion, I find that Slack actually augments it. Students think carefully about what they submit in the channel. No one wants to scribe a silly response.
Not only is this method this easier for me to manage than my old method, it increases transparency and creates a record of the interaction. Students can see who contributed what and respond to that student directly—something that my old method did not easily permit.
Let’s say that I use Blackboard to communicate with my students. There’s no way to know which of them have read which messages. What about e-mail? No thanks. Delivery receipts seem so last century. What’s more, I certainly don’t need my inbox cluttered with dozens of them.
At the same time, though, I want to know if a student is actively engaged. Checking Slack is no failsafe, but students who don’t even log in to view messages and polls may just be on the path to checking out. (Cue Rush “Distant Early Warning” reference.)
What to do?
Fortunately, Slack provides succinct, optional weekly updates on member changes such as the one below:
Updates such as these serve as fodder for quick, in-person conversations with students. A simple question such as “Is everything alright?” demonstrates that I’m concerned about my students’ performance—something that doesn’t hurt me when they fill out their semester evaluations.
Better Data and Intelligence
Not all of Slack messages are created equal. Some take place in public while others are private. Ditto for days of the week.
Fortunately, Slack provides easy and potentially valuable insights into who posts what when. From the Slack weekly email summary:
Could you imagine trying to track information this information manually? A pox on those who just see Slack as “another e-mail application.” If you’re in that camp, I challenge you to easily generate meaningful charts such as the one above.
I also like to see engagement statistics on my students.
Reinforcing Classroom Lessons
A great deal of research supports the idea that spaced repetition reinforces learning . When we hear things multiple times, they tend to sink in.
Slack excels at this. I can easily accentuate salient lessons from class via simple messages:
Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to show a little personality in the process.
Sharing My Screen When I Teach Coding
I’ll be blunt: I’m downright persnickety about how I present my material. I’ve seen far too many horrible presentations in my career. No, it’s not PowerPoint’s fault; it’s ours. Students should not have to squint to see their professors’ slides.
Still, it’s simply not practical to make screen fonts and icons large enough for students in the back of large classes to see.
What to do?
In a word, screen-sharing. By calling a public channel, students in my section answer. I can then share my screen with all them (re: many students). In effect, I’m conducting a real-time webinar for my class—one that they can actually follow. This is ideal when I teach Python and SQL. My students can see exactly what I’m doing and easily follow along.
Improving Future Versions of Syllabi
I like to think that I know how to write a clear syllabus. Still, what’s clear to me may not be entirely clear to my students.
By monitoring my students’ questions in channels and direct messages, I can observe patterns. This process allows me to tweak future versions of syllabi to minimize student confusion.
Sharing Interesting Articles
The worlds of tech and data have never been more dynamic. What’s more, I like to keep abreast of what’s going on—no small chore. Slack’s iOS sharing makes it simple for me to share interesting articles.
Uploading Videos to Connect with Online Students
Teaching online courses comes with plenty of challenges. Students typically rate their professors lower, even when the same person teaches both online and in-person . Sure, some of my students are local, but many work and aren’t available during my normal office hours. Others live far away.
Brass tacks: It can be tough to establish a genuine connection with them if they only see written messages from me and watch pre-recorded lectures.
What to do?
Aside from encouraging them to set up time with me via YouCanBookMe, I record weekly personalized videos and upload them in Slack. It doesn’t require much time and it adds a personal touch to what could be an impersonal course.
Reminding Myself about Tasks Due
I mentioned above how I’ll use Todoist to keep track of all of my regular and one-time tasks. Still, sometimes it’s just easier to set up a quick reminder within Slack. For instance, I use Doodle to suggest meeting times with my grading assistants. I’ll then remind myself to check Doodle in a few days to ensure that they have responded.
Quickly Addressing Potential Issues
This semester, I am teaching four sections of capstone courses with a total of 160 students—each of whom is working on a group project. This means that I’m overseeing 35 teams of students from 26 different organizations. Even if 90 percent of these projects go off without a hitch, a few problems will invariably manifest themselves.
What to do?
New tools such as Slack and old ones such as the phone serve as nice complements. Consider this recent exchange with one of my students:
Problem solved. What’s more, I can now quickly reference a permanent, contextual record of this interaction in its own container—not in an overflowing inbox.
Gauging Student Reaction
Let’s just say that my students have taken to Slack:
I suspect they like using a useful tool that they’ll encounter soon after they graduate. I also have noticed some positive comments on their evaluations.
Bonus Tip: Saving Time in Canvas
If you’re technically inclined, check out this Python script that adds Canvas groups to private Slack channels. This is a real time-saver.
Simon Says: Welcome to the new world.
I’m still experimenting with Slack. I hope to look back in this post in a year and see how the tool has evolved—and my use of it.
No, Slack doesn’t solve every communications issue, but my experiment with it has worked well so far and I’m expanding it. Can you tell?
Beyond my full-time teaching position, I still do some writing, speaking, and consulting on the side. I have already moved one of my clients to Slack. After a few questions, she has adapted to it.
Any tips on how to use Slack in the classroom or at work? What say you?