What tools are we using? And why Discord should be one of them.

I’m really curious as to how different institutions are managing the sudden transition to online learning. For some, they are trying to maximize the use of synchronous learning with the use of video conferencing software such as Zoom, webex, or Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. For others, asynchronous tools like discussion boards, blogs, and social media are the main option, perhaps because synchronous is impractical or out of reach, perhaps because that’s how online teaching is already done there and that’s where people have expertise. I imagine many schools are using a mix of both.

We have asked faculty to include a significant synchronous component using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra to most closely recreate the in-residence experience. We have a number of advantages in doing so that other institutions don’t have–our students are all adults and paid to be here, and we already had the software in place. Devices may vary and home-based internet connections can be spotty, but we are well positioned to continue classes at their regular times without interruption. The biggest issues are those everyone is facing–quickly training up faculty and students.

For asynchronous tools, we benefit from having access to the Microsoft 365 suite–so things like Tools, Sharepoint, and Forms are available in addition to Blackboard’s discussion forums, blogs, and journals and Panopto for lecture recording. But I’m always on the lookout for other useful tools that can recreate multiple features at once. I’m not talking about Audacity for podcasts or Perusall for document annotation–I mean something that can do discussion boards and chat and voice discussion and allow for file sharing.

What I want to use is Discord.

For those not familiar, Discord is a free to use social media platform originally used by gamers to communicate with their fellow players and fans. Many content creators use it as a community-building space, particularly podcasts, but the platform would work very well for educational purposes. You have to be invited into a particular server, and then once in, you have access to a series of channels dedicated to discussion on particular topics. The channels can be text only or voice-based, restricted access or open to everyone in the server, and you can upload images and share links. The creator controls who can delete comments, create new channels, and can set up something called ‘slow mode’ which prevents a single person from dominating a conversation. Combined with a google drive to store documents, Discord could be a powerful space to connect students and faculty, many of whom may be scattered by time zones around now.

This is a sample server I created. The left side bar shows all the available text and voice channels. The right side bar shows who is currently online. In the center is the chat within a particular channel. Its easy to scroll up or down through messages or do a search, and you can ‘pin’ messages that are particularly important. You can also make channels read-only to communicate important information.

I’ve used Discord to connect with fans of various podcasts, but never for a class. I think it could work very well, though. Its pretty user-friendly and students will pick up on it quickly. The server creator has a lot of ability to customize settings to control who can access what, so it would be easy to build a channel and hide it while you are working on adding content, then let everyone see it. Group work is a breeze–you can assign students different roles, such as ‘Group 1’, and then give that group its own chat and voice channel. Sure, Discord doesn’t have video access or screen sharing, but voice-only access puts less of a strain on the system and doesn’t leave out students that don’t have cameras. Combine this with links to documents (in a google drive or shared one drive or dropbox), and I think Discord will do everything you need it to communicate with students and have high quality discussions.

I’m not teaching right now so I can’t try this out myself, but if someone else wants to take this idea and run with it, please do. I can walk you through the server set up and how to invite your students. All I ask is that you tell me how it goes!

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