Goal: Improve Online Discussions

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Slack by Giorgio Minguzzi on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licenseIn the online forums for my writing courses, I ask students to conduct peer review and feedback, collaborate on major writing projects, and discuss the readings and work of the course. Since I am teaching 100% online, online discussion takes the place of the conversations and interactions that would otherwise take place in a physical classroom. I hope it is easy to understand, then, that online discussion is critical in my writing classes.

Because online discussion is so important, I have been on a search for the right tool ever since I returned to the classroom. Thought I have tried a number of tools, none of them does quite what I want:

  • The discussion tool in Scholar (our installation of Sakai) typically confused students and felt awkward to me. Our university is sunsetting Scholar in May, so it is no longer an option.
  • I set up my own bulletin board system with phpBB. The site worked well, but I was completely responsible for the technology. I worried frequently about downtime or errors. I decided that I didn’t want the technical responsibility.
  • The discussion tool in Canvas (our new CMS) supports group discussion, but I found its threading capability difficult to manage. The tool always resulted in endless scrolling to find what I wanted.
  • I switched to Piazza, which describes itself as a Q&A platform. I liked the look of the tool, and I loved that it was a company founded by a woman engineer. Unfortunately, I was stuck on its setup for Q&A-style discussions. It is great for students to ask and answer questions, but it was limited for sharing drafts and feedback. Further, I had difficulty managing messages, frequently being unable to tell what I had read and replied to and what I hadn’t.

So my unending search brought me to Slack at the beginning of this term. What I like about Slack is its similarity to Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels. Many of the same commands work, since the tool was originally based on IRC. I have used IRC for years, so Slack felt immediately comfortable and easy to manage.

Slack met all of my qualifications. It lets me set up groups easily as well as have private conversations with individuals or groups. The tool has built-in support for emoji, threaded discussions, and links to outside documents and images. Best of all, the free version has everything I need, so we can use a popular tool, endorsed by many companies, without any financial investment. I like Slack better than any of the discussion tools I have tried in the past four years. For me, it’s a great choice.

My students, on the other hand, are in full revolt against the tool. A vocal majority HATE it. A small group of students have mentioned that they appreciate the chance to use Slack before they enter workplaces that rely on the tool, but their numbers are dwarfed by those who are resisting the site.

Students’ biggest complaint is that they cannot tell when others are active in their channels. Since the class is online, they are never in the classroom, using the tool together. Instead, students visit the discussion channels whenever they have time, and they appear rarely to be online simultaneously. It is an understandable frustration: They cannot tell when others post something, so they don’t know when they need to login and respond. Several writing groups are so unhappy with Slack that they have rejected tool completely, setting up group text messaging on their own with GroupMe, even though the assignments and syllabus tell them to use Slack.

The students and I have come to an impasse. I want to stick with Slack, but for this term, I have given up on succeeding with student buy-in. Instead, I am taking notes on changes I can make to improve Slack discussions, and I have great hope for the future. During the next few weeks, I will share some of the specific challenges I have encountered and the strategies that I am planning to use to meet them in the future. Most of these issues could apply to any discussion tool, so I hope that you will find something you can use—and if you have suggestions for improving online discussion, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.


Credit: Slack by Giorgio Minguzzi on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.