Using Slack for Online Teaching

Today’s post is by guest contributor William R. Wilkerson, Professor of American Government and Politics at SUNY-Oneonta. He can be reached at bill [dot] wilkerson [at] oneonta [dot] edu.

As I noted in my previous post, I am teaching Law Courts and Politics as an online course this summer. In the past, I have used email and the Blackboard LMS for communication in online courses. Students don’t respond to email as they once did, and while Blackboard has about every tool you could imagine, discussion forums are clunky and the mobile app is unsatisfactory. After listening to a podcast interview with political scientist Steven Michels, I decided to give Slack a try. My wife uses Slack at work as an officer of a professional association board and she had good things to say about it. Examples of teaching with Slack are described here and here.

Slack is an integrated team communication tool. Only invited participants can be part of a team workspace, and it has tools for group discussion that can be divided into forums that are called channels. Channels can be open to the entire team or part of the team. Slack also has features like direct messaging, file sharing, video conferencing, and tagging of individuals. The free version works great for most purposes and its apps are fully compatible across platforms.

My hope is that Slack’s ease of use on mobile devices will encourage student discussion, which is an integral part of my course. Each week the class discusses two or three questions, and each question has a separate Slack channel. Hashtags help people track the multiple discussion threads. For example students are asked to tag posts about jury nullification using the hashtag #nullify. I have included other channels for questions on the grading system, announcements, links to readings, and video and audio clips. You can “pin” content to the top of a channel so it doesn’t get buried.

While I am using Slack for direct messaging and announcements instead of email and Blackboard, quizzes, submission of assignments, and grading still take place on Blackboard. Blackboard has robust grading tools that have worked well for me in the past and grading with rubrics simplifies the process. I also like the transparency of the gradebook.

After one week students have learned what to do where and discussion is at least as good as in the past, though I am still trying to get students to engage consistently throughout the week. Students seem comfortable asking questions through direct messages. I will give a full report on my use of Slack after the course ends in August.