Digital learning

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. 

Game On?

cap 17.jpg

It used to be that video games were something you did after studying or even as a reward for a few good hours of coursework.

But that dichotomy might be coming to an end, at least if Bob McCloud has his way.

McCloud, associate professor of computer science at Sacred Heart, gave a presentation on “Gamification” for the Office of Digital Learning on November 18.

Gamification—that is, the process of bringing gaming principles to non-gaming scenarios, including a classroom environment—has a few simple elements, summarized in the acronym BLAP, which itself sounds like it might have been taken from a video game.

First, there are badges (B) or some form of recognition for competency. Games, especially adventure or quest games, have levels (L) or added degrees of difficulty as they progress. Games also include achievements (A) or some stated goals or objectives. Finally, games track your progress through points (P) and leaderboards.

Some of this is already a part of learning, but making it more explicit adds to the challenge and the intensity of what we’re doing around schooling. Games get us to concentrate and focus in a way that other activities cannot match.

What’s more, students seem to love puzzles, which is why story is so important. Instructors should thing about how they are framing their course, so the students feel like they’re going on a trip or being creative. Essential to the process is the idea that students are made to make meaningful choices presented by the narrative component.

McCloud notes two other significant features of games that work in the classroom. The first is working without fear of failure. A wrong move in a game is often penalized by the loss of a life, but it also includes the option of starting again. In the early days of videogames, it meant you had to drop another quarter into the machine. Now it’s mostly free—apart from plopping down the money for the latest component, that is.

Young people today learn by failing because the cost of failing (at a game) is so low. Indeed, as McCloud tells his students, “If more than 30% of your original ideas succeed, then you’re doing something wrong.” If failing is an essential component to learning, then games offer a pain-free model for how it could be done.

Playing games is also a highly social experience, and gamification can create a much more engaged classroom experience, which can transcend prior learning and disciplinary boundaries. “Aristotle—that is ripe for gamification,” he says.

As an example, McCloud offered World Without Oil, a 2007 game. The objective of the game is to develop strategies to respond to a looming energy crisis.

As Jane McGonigal, one of the developers of the game, contends in a 2010 TedTalk, we need to be playing more games—bigger and better games that have real-world policy implications. Playing games is not just about entertainment. It could also be about saving the world. She notes how the most surprising result of World Without Oil is that players often adopt and keep up their conservationist strategies in their real lives.

For a film tutorial on how gaming could improve real-world (or other worldly) skills, you could also see the 1984 movie The Last Starfighter, in which a trailer park video game is used to train and recruit a teenager. Ultimately, he is taken to another galaxy by an alien race in need of some good pilots. 

That is not to say that games are a panacea for education or public policy.

As McCloud reminds us, “Building a game is a lot more complicated than these people think.” The gameplay, the levels, and the challenges all have to be meticulous and purposeful. Any flaw in the game design could lead to a flaw in the manner of play and compromise the outcome.

Hints are a big part of games, too, but they are one of the most difficult aspects of design. Different people need different hints at different times. A perfectly placed hint can keep you going and take you to the next level. But hints that are too big mean that the user is not being challenged; meanwhile, hints that are too obscure or too small can lead to confusion or frustration.

Design is not the only difficulty. McCloud points out that for all of its promise, gamification comes with a few caveats. For one thing, its advocates have a tendency to overestimate its potential and diminish the downside. Consider there is a group called the “Gamification World Congress,” which just held their fourth annual conference in Barcelona. There is also a potential of creating a whole industry of specialists in the field of games, which could function more like a cult than a convention.

Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine a bandwagon filled with profiteers and proponents who may or may not have the technical or pedagogical chops to match their vision for an all-gaming world.

A greater problem is related to incentive—that is, the very problem gamification is aimed at correcting. The essence of gamification is fun, but what happens when the rewards stop?

Or, as Fleetwood Mac warns us, “Players only love you when they’re playing.”