How I Use Slack Inside of the Classroom

Adventures in the collaboration tool that's taking the corporate world by storm.

Introduction

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 an ASU professor, I wanted to shake things up inside the classroom. My friend and colleague Matt Sopha and I frequently talk about all things tech, and he had espoused the benefits of Slack as a communications and collaboration tool. I did some research and, this semester, decided to give it a shot. (Note that students continue to submit all assignments via Blackboard and Canvas. Professors need to minimize confusion in the classroom and I can see the potential for channel conflict.)

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 after they graduate. They’ll 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?

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.

General Announcements

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

Why not introduce my students to one of today’s most powerful collaboration tools?

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.

Polls

It’s evident to me that Slack understands the power of platform thinking. Case in point: Its API allows developers to take Slack’s core product in new and exciting directions.

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.

I can’t imagine 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 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. Students enjoy seeing if their opinions are the majority ones. I even detect some excitement in the air as they vote.

In-Class Exercises

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.

Not anymore.

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:

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.

Student (Dis)Engagement

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:

Need help with Slack at your organization?

Could you imagine attempt to manually track information? 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 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, 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?

I find that new tools (re: Slack) and old ones (re: 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 inbox.

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.

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.

The Slack experiment 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.

Feedback

Any tips on how to use Slack in the classroom or at work? What say you?

philanimated

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12 Comments

  1. Terri Griffith

    The poll add-in looked like the super tool to me. I also appreciate the ability to share the tools students will be using in their work settings. Great running start… and our chance to influence organizations with good practices we can start in class.

    Reply
  2. Phil Simon

    Thanks Terri. I’m trying to lead the way.

    Reply
  3. Josh

    Any ideas on how to manage direct messages between students? I don’t mind it, just don’t want anything “bad” happening in “my” class.

    Reply
    • Phil Simon

      I do not believe that Slack locks that down—at least with the free version. I don’t know why you would want to do that.

      Reply
      • Josh

        Highschool.

  4. Peter Knupfer

    Do students register themselves with Slack, and do you require real as opposed to anonymous usernames? Any FERPA issues with using this form of communication for work that is graded, or for communications via the “private” or confidential channels?

    Reply
    • Phil Simon

      I invite the students and I need their real names. As for FERPA, the students do not submit anything related to grades. I am very clear about that. We only use it to discuss issues in class. They do not reveal their student identification numbers or addresses.

      For more, click here.

      Reply
  5. Lindsay

    Hi Phil. Thanks for this excellent walk through of your approach!! It is helpful to me even though I have already used slack in class (last year).

    In setting up classes this year, was trying to decide how to reset it for this year. Do you delete all the messages for the start of the semester? Or delete the workspace and create a new one? Is there a better way that you know of? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Phil Simon

      I create new workspaces and keep the old ones for my reference.

      Reply
      • Lindsay

        Thanks!

  6. Michael Ullyot

    Hi Phil: I’m setting up two separate university courses to teach with Slack this term, and have a quick question. Do you recommend using two separate *workspaces* or *channels* for the two courses? It can be tiresome to log out and log in again to different workspaces; BUT I can’t decide if channels will mix all the students together in a problematic way. (In the past I’ve only used Slack for project teams, so they’re more discrete groups.)

    Reply
    • Phil Simon

      I’m a fan of one workspace with private channels for each section.

      Reply

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