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.

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.

General Announcements

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, via my out-of-office message, 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 understand 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 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.

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.

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 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.

Feedback

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

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1 hopefully intriguing thought:

  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

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