Improving Online Discussion with More Preparation

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DiscussionImageFinal by Rabin Pamela on Flickr, used under a CC-0 license (Public Domain)As I wrote last week, I want to improve online discussion in my courses and increase students’ acceptance of the online discussion tool Slack. The first thing I want to do is rethink how I prepare students to use the technology, as well as how I prepare them for discussion and collaboration.

What I Did

At the beginning of this term, I provided students with some documentation that outlined the basic commands and features that I thought they would need. My Help with Slack page included all of the following:

  • instructions on signing up
  • information on choosing a username
  • tutorials on the Slack site and on (free for students at our university)
  • links on how to format posts and use emoji
  • details on how to link to posts
  • directions for sharing documents in Slack channels

I focused on making the instructions short and simple, relying on existing resources on the Slack site rather than writing my own documentation. I assigned the help page during the first week and asked students to complete activities that would rely on those instructions (like creating a username and writing some posts).

Assuming that these materials would adequately prepare students to use the technology, I moved on to preparing them for discussion and collaboration. My strategy was one I have used for years: I asked them to jump right in and post on a number of topics. Specifically, I asked students to participate in an AMA discussion, post a professional bio, propose how to arrange groups, and discuss four infographics. My plan was to get them chatting immediately so that they would learn how Slack worked before we moved on to doing group work.

We ran into trouble almost immediately. The usernames that students chose didn’t match the guidelines that I had set. Posts ended up in the wrong channels. Students emailed in confusion when they were asked to turn in links to their work. There was little interaction, but lots of single posts that worked to meet the requirements. Looking back, it isn’t surprising that things went wrong. I had 90 people attempting to have conversations in five different channels, and only two or three had ever used Slack before. Things could have gone more smoothly if students had read all the technical documentation, but even with that, I asked them to do too much too fast. My dual-pronged preparation plan didn’t work.

What I’ll Change and Why

The first, and possibly most important, thing is to arrange students into small groups on the very first day of the course. Discussion is bound to be smoother with ten students, rather than 90. I delayed setting up small groups to give students input on how the groups were arranged. Based on their input, I let them arrange their own groups. Some from the same major wanted to work together; others wanted to have eclectic groups. The groups ended up wildly uneven, ranging from four members to twelve. In the future, I will create groups randomly in Canvas (our CMS), and use those random groups to set up channels in Slack. Working in these smaller groups from the first week will better prepare students for the collaborative peer review and feedback that they will begin a couple of weeks later.

Next, I need to explicitly introduce students to the ways that they can connect to Slack. After all, you have to have the tool in order to use it. My Help with Slack page told students, “You can access Slack in your browser. If you like, you can also download a desktop or mobile app.” I thought that would be enough for students to embrace the mobile apps and access Slack notifications in real time, all the time. I need to include the link to the apps in the resources list on the course syllabus and tell them that it’s required. I hope that requirement and frequent references to the apps during the first week will keep students from defecting from Slack and moving to GroupMe text messages.

Finally, I need to prepare them to use the features of the technology. There’s no way to force them to read the documentation, so I need to devise a system where they want to find the information. In ways, the commands in software are a lot like grammar rules. You only learn them when you need them; and they only make sense to you in context. With that notion in mind, I am going to try to think of situations where they need the features. I imagine I need to create a game-like series of challenges that will lead them to finding and learning to use the different commands.

It will take some research and work to figure out this last part of the preparation, so I will leave the gaming-inspired idea there for now and come back to it later this summer. Meanwhile, if you have any suggestions for teaching students the commands in the online tools that they use or anything else to help me with the preparing students, please leave me a comment below. I would love to hear some of your ideas!


Credit: DiscussionImageFinal by Rabin Pamela on Flickr, used under a CC-0 license (Public Domain)

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.