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.
Sure, on a personal level and for simple, two-person tasks, Todoist gets the job done. That app, however, isn’t designed for small teams, never mind 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. 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 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.
This one was a no-brainer. Slack makes it brain-dead 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.” I also reinforce Slack in class and in my e-mail signature:
Consistency is king here. 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.
Often I need to solicit my students’ input on different subjects. This may involve the specific technologies to cover during one of my “tech demo days.”
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.
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:
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 via Slack
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 attempt to track this manually? For those who just see Slack as “another e-mail application”, I challenge you to easily generate bubble charts such as the one above.
Reinforcing Classroom Lessons
A great deal of research supports the idea that spaced repetition reinforces learning (PDF). When we hear things multiple times, they tend to sink in.
Slack excels at this. I can easily accentuate a salient lesson from class via a simple message:
Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to show a little personality in the process.
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.
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. 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?