Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Using Slack in a High School Class

In the short time I've been teaching high school I've had hundreds of opportunities to witness students in my classes log into their email accounts. It's always quite shocking to see the multitudes of unread emails that wallpaper their inboxes, but I'm no longer surprised. The fact is that they don't like email. Email was very late in providing a friendly mobile experience; it's not really a format for synchronous communication; and its form is associated with an adult world of formalities. Plus the emoticons suck.

This bothers me because as a teacher, and particularly a teacher with a background in online technology and eLearning, I feel a strong need to be able to communicate via online channels with students, and up until now email has been my core communication tool. Email is embedded not only into my way of working but it is a fundamental feature of many of the other services we use in education. Google Classroom fires off an email for almost every interaction available to you.

So my dilemma has been: how to communicate with students online without hammering them with the message of "check your email, check your email"? I decided this year that I wanted try a space that would work for the both of us, rather than forcing them into spaces that worked for me. I entertained the idea of Facebook, but not for long. Not only are the teenage stats for Facebook declining, but I find the privacy settings to be quite confusing and I didn't want to use a platform that blurred the lines between our school lives and our personal lives that much. I considered Instagram and its new chat / group function, but the focus on pictures and almost no options for linking out or adding files dissuaded me. Snapchat? I asked #edchatNZ about that on Twitter and was quickly warned about the fact that the quick deletion of posts led towards an ethical quagmire around accountability. Part of me also didn't want to colonise another of their spaces with school stuff. They need spaces that are free from teachers.

Enter my experiment with Slack. Slack is an online platform partially promoted as a replacement for email for teams. Slack has many of the features of a social media platform: direct messaging, the ability to quickly create channels for unique discussion topics, and more importantly it has a seamless mobile experience and notifications. This last feature is possibly the most important one. Notifications are key. If it's not sending out notifications it may as well not exist. Our Year 9 English Slack team (that's what groups are called in Slack) is by invite only and you have to have an email from our school domain to join; this keeps us safe and creates a space that is private to us. I've integrated our class Google Calender into Slack so that reminders of upcoming events are sent into a channel, and I've added the Google Drive integration so we can quickly share docs from inside our Drives. Slack makes me available to answer questions from students from 8:00am to 5:30pm. I've set that time myself and told the class; after 5:30pm notifications are off, and my status is set to 'away'.*

Not only does this class use Slack outside of class times, but we also use it inside of class as well. Our silent writing sessions (this is a BYOD 1:1 device class) are only silent vocal chord times. Having an efficient platform for quick communication allows us to maintain a quiet environment for writing or other study, but at the same time doesn't shut down communication completely. Students can ask me questions on Slack during this period, or they can talk to each other about work. They can create their own channels on the platform, invite who they want, then delete them when they're done. There are already a couple going that I've not been invited to (although as admin I can actually see them).

Here are the stats after 9 weeks of the use of Slack in our class of 31 students:
  • Approximately 3,000 messages have been sent.
  • 469 (16%) messages are in public channels (public to members of our team),
  • the rest (2,500+) have been Direct Messages (DMs, private between individuals).
  • 146 files have been posted. 
I feel as if that's a pretty good indicator of engagement, and I also wonder if the platform is enabling students who are a bit too shy to ask questions in class more opportunities to engage with me one on one.

There is a lot of potential for the use of synchronous communication tools and social media in education. Slack is working well for me in this respect and I will continue to use it in the BYOD class. The free offering of the platform is adequate for our current needs and we're still exploring and finding new ways to use it as we become more familiar with it. Plus, the emojis are awesome.

(I'm leaving talk of the slackbot for another post.)

* I've modified this post since originally authoring it and I think it's worthwhile mentioning that here. Originally I had my 'office hours' set to be from 8:30am to 10:30pm - essentially the hours that I'm awake, but it's been suggested to me by an adviser at school that I reconsider this practice. He alerted me to ethical considerations around making myself available at night, as well as considerations about 'teacher burnout', etc. My rationale was that these are the hours that I'm online and that being a fully connected individual for the majority of that time I am available and willing to respond to student requests for help during these times. This has made some teachers quite uncomfortable as they see that it may raise expectations on them and the profession at large. There was also some discussion around the remunerative aspect of being available over this period, but the elephant in that room seems to be that all teachers are working far beyond the hours they are remunerated for anyways. But, for the time-being I've modified my 'office hours' to be more in-line with the normal work day.

What do you think?