Using Slack as a Teaching Platform

After hearing about how the communication platform Slack is taking over the business world, I decided to see what all the buzz was about, with the hope that I might use it for some administrative tasks. The platform seemed a little too involved for the standard academic committee, but I was delighted to see that I could adopt it for my online courses.

The discussion board is really the heart of an online or hybrid course. For years, I’ve been using Google Blogger linked into Blackboard, rather than using Blackboard’s clunky and uber-clicky discussion board.

The great virtue of Slack is how simply and intuitively it uses the discussion format as the basis for how it works. It’s more like Facebook and Twitter than Blackboard. It even seems fun--something no one has ever said about Blackboard.

Here’s how I've it set up for my Political Psychology course.

The Channels
Rather than having a closed drop-down menu, Slack is organized around a series of open, user-created channels. The “starred” channels function the same as regular channels, but starring them sets them apart at the top, which makes it ideal for administrative purposes. I’ve set up three.

The first (“info”) works like an announcements tab, which I use for course information, like explanatory videos on the syllabus and how to use the platform. Slack can be synced with Dropbox to upload documents, but I just posted and pinned the “share” link from my syllabus in Dropbox, so students can easily find it at any time.

I set up a special Google calendar for the course and installed the Google calendar app on the “calendar” channel, which allows for daily updates on activities and reminders I can set up for specific deadlines. The “members” channel is where students and I introduce ourselves. The fact that Slack permits users to create profiles (with pictures) makes it especially good for online courses, where students can sometimes feel removed from their colleagues.

The “starters” channel (shown below) is for the initial overview and summary of the materials I’ve selected for that week (aka, the lecture). The first week includes an overview of the history of the disciplines for the course and a TED Talk on the economic decision-making of monkeys, a class favorite. This is also the channel where students ask questions about the material I've presented.

The “discussion” channel is probably the most traditional part of the course. I post more analytical questions, and the students are required to bring the material to bear on them and make reference to what their classmates have said. The small comment bar actually opens up to a separate window for larger posts. 

Slack also comes with RSS functionality, which I’ve set up for the “options” channel. Rather than having students go off and scour the web for sketchy articles and links, I’ve set RSS feeds from some quality academic and popular sources. Students peruse what interests them, then share it with the class on the “presentations” channel, where others can comment. When the channel name is bolded, as the "options" one is in the image, it means it has been updated since your last visit.

Finally, the “free time” channel encourages students to interact with one another and me, independent of the course material.

Students can also start direct messages and Google Hangouts with me or their classmates by typing "/hangout" into the "hangouts" channel. (They can actually start a Hangout on any channel, but I wanted to set it apart and also draw their attention to that feature.) The direct messages feature is part of Slack; Hangouts is an add-on that takes two minutes to set up.

In addition to Google's calendar and Hangouts, I'm using Google Docs for students' written work, Google Forms for quizzes, and Google Sheets for an anonymous gradebook.

The Future of the LMS?
There is no such thing as a perfect platform—and truly anything that can accurately be called a “Learning Management System” probably shouldn’t be used for teaching—but Slack (as a website and its mobile options) is as good as I’ve seen so far.