Experimenting with Slack in the Classroom

A reflection on my initial experiences using Slack in online and face-to-face classes.

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This past March, I came across some resources about how educators were using Slack to collaborate and do PLCs asynchronously and at a distance.  I was very intrigued by the potential of this platform to help me solve an issue my education students face.  Most of the teacher candidates in our programs end up working in rural schools.  This means they are often the only person teaching their grade level or in their content area in the building, and sometimes even in their entire district.  This holds a lot of potential for isolation and can be a roadblock to effective professional development.  Our programs are cohort models, so I started looking for ways to help our cohorts stay connected to us, their professors, and to other students, their future colleagues (all be it at a distance).  I wanted to model how an effective Professional/Personal Learning Network (PLN) functions.  I believe PLNs are an excellent way to help insulate teachers from isolation in rural schools.  In addition, our hybrid programs are about to significantly reduce our face-to-face time in favor of online learning (due to severe market pressures), so I’m searching for ways to help students feel more connected in a mostly online learning environment.  As a result, I decided to bring Slack into my classes this spring to see if it would meet my needs.

I looked at a lot of different resources on Slack (I listed several at the bottom of this post) and decided it was worth trying for a few reasons.  First, I saw it has the potential to be a way to keep teachers connected when they work in isolated areas.  Second, I’m looking for ways to allow course conversations be more natural and informal (I’m not a fan of formal discussion boards).  And third, I want something that allows students and professors to problem solve more easily while students teach in far flung K-12 classrooms for the duration of our hybrid programs.  Our students do create their own private Facebook pages which seem to help the cohorts, but these do not allow for professor involvement in problem-solving and modeling how an effective PLN functions.  Slack does seem to do these things.

First, I test drove it in a methods course with 6 students I taught for the previous 8 months.  I find it more effective to test drive new technology with students I know well.  Then, I tried it in a short 1-credit situation with 29 students at the end of their MAT program.  One of the topics of this short course included DIY professional development (including PLNs), so it fit well into what I was already doing.

How I Used Slack

“Getting to Know Slack” Assignment – I used this assignment to help students become familiar with the platform and to show students the types of things I’d like them to use it for as we learned about opportunities for online professional development.

Slack App – I encouraged students to download the Slack app for their computer or phone.  This seems to encourage better engagement than using it in a browser.

Students shared assignments – Assignments turned in via Slack were mostly lesson plans and curated resource lists that I wanted students to share with one another.  Students directly uploaded documents, shared with Google Drive or Dropbox, and dropped in links to social bookmarking lists using services like Diigo.  Since this was my first foray with Slack, I also had students turn in documents to Canvas (our LMS) as a failsafe.  All grading was done in Canvas.  It was handy for students to have immediate access to each other’s work, but over the long term, it was too disorganized to have that in Slack.  We decided a Google Drive folder or a Google Drive Team might serve better for sharing work.

Announcements – I did all announcements for the face-to-face class in Slack.  I found this meant I provided them more information of this type than I normally do, but I tried to keep it brief.

Lots of DMs – Students in both classes used the Direct Message feature a lot.  In the larger class, I told students to DM me rather than email me.  Personally, I liked this method a lot better than email.  Some of my students told me they liked it better as well.

Silent Chat – Students in the face-to-face class had a silent chat to help familiarize them with the platform and share classroom management strategies.

Organize a field trip – My online course used Slack to help organize a field trip.

Polls & RSVPs – I tried a poll app, but it was too clunky and not user-friendly.  So I reverted to using emoji responses for easy polls.  Students voted on things and RSVP’d for optional class events.  Here is an example of a RSVP:

Slack RSVP

Sharing Resources – I shared resources with students as I came across them in my own professional reading.

RSS Feeds – Both students and I added blogs feeds, YouTube channels, and Twitter feeds through various RSS type apps in Slack.  I didn’t like how the Twitter feeds only came in as a link to the Tweet instead of the Tweet itself.  I used Zapier to bring in YouTube channels.  The RSS app was handy, but students found it challenging to locate RSS information to add. (Lots of blogs seem to have abandoned RSS in favor of email subscriptions? This is disappointing to me.)  I also created my own private RSS feed channel for blogs I like so it could serve as a sort of personal feed reader.

Directed students to create their own channels – I did this more in the online course and had the students decide most of the channels they wanted for the team.  However, I don’t feel I set up that particular project too well and it didn’t work out how I wanted it to.  I like the flexibility for students to create their own channels, but I need to provide better context on how this can work to their advantage.

Created channels for the other classes they were taking & invited the faculty – One of our faculty was good enough to interact with students a bit in the team.

Apps – I used Giphy, Google Calendar, Zapier, Booky, Dropbox, Google Drive, RSS, and Simple Poll.

Basic usage stats – These were pretty interesting.  Here are the stats for the second week of the face-to-face class.  Just for reference, the silent chat happened during the first week.

Screenshot 2017-07-20 20.36.50.png

 

Setup

Here are the channels from each team.

This class was an online social studies methods course where I added some channels and then had students add channels for things that interested them.

Screenshot 2017-07-20 19.53.53

 

This was the setup for the face-to-face course in a secondary education program.  Each content area had their own channel, along with a few for the other classes happening during that term.  There were also a few topic specific channels related to what we were studying, such as #diy_pd and #grants_and_funding.  Students created some channels on their own such as #class_craft and #pe_tools.

Screenshot 2017-07-20 19.57.08

 

How Students Used Slack

Organize –  Students used Slack to organize their own after hours face-to-face PD session on teaching with ClassCraft.

Channels – Students created channels related to their interests.

Collaboration – Students shared resources, reviews, and helped one another problem solve.  Group pictures were also shared.

They Stopped – Students stopped using the team almost as soon as the classes were over. In both cases, the cohort already had a very active (as far as I can tell) private Facebook page that already served their collaboration needs.  However, I did get some positive feedback from some of the students encouraging me to start using Slack right away with the incoming cohorts.

 

What I Want To Do Next

  • Create a Slack team for each cohort instead of for individual classes.  Each class can have its own channel.
  • Do a better job of teaching students how to use Slack from the beginning.
  • Do a better job of checking in with students on notifications and ask them to review these every so often.
  • Be more intentional about channel setup.  Include the channels I know I want and allow students to add to that.  I just need to make sure it is not overwhelming at first.
  • Provide Slack as a venue for virtual office hours for students at a distance.
  • Get students checking-in, reflecting, problem-solving, & sharing resources of their own accord.
  • Connect my secondary methods students to myself and to each other before starting their methods courses.  In the previous version of the program, I had classes with them almost the whole year.  I now have them for less than half that time in the new program (but for only 1 credit less than before).  I want these students to be a solid collaborative PLN and cohort throughout the year.
  • Synchronous chats for online courses modeled after Twitter education chats.
  • Encourage students to create private channels (they don’t have to invite me).
  • Explore more app integrations.
  • Explore integrations with Canvas.

This is still a work in progress for me, but I’m happy with the results so far.  I plan to continue exploring this platform and how it can serve my purposes.

How have you used Slack or how do you want to use Slack in your classroom or for professional development?  Do you use a Slack alternative and how do you like it?  What questions do you have?

 

Slack Resources

 

Slack Teams for Educators

Google Docs in the Classroom

Creative commons photo by Mark Knol on Flickr.

I’ve worked a lot with Google Docs in the past.  I’ve used it to collaborate with colleagues, formally taught educators how to use it, researched ways to incorporate it into teaching, and I’ve used it on a small scale with students.  This was my first term regularly using Google Docs on a large scale with all of my classes.  It was an interesting experience and I thought I would share some of the things that I’ve learned along the way.

I want to note that my university uses Google Apps, and all students have a Google account.

Purposes for incorporating Google Docs into my courses:

  • Help new freshman develop technology skills needed in future classes.
  • Provide students with effective collaboration tools.
  • Increase the quantity and quality of feedback I am able to give students.
  • Enhance my own organization and efficiency as I move between working in the classroom, my office, and my home.

As I went into this venture, I realized there were some other handy benefits.

  • Students who use the computer labs on campus have useful file storage right on hand.
  • Revision histories are very helpful for a variety of reasons.
  • Easily archive student examples.
  • I’ve become more efficient at grading, taking less time to provide a greater amount of feedback (I type WAY faster than I can write!).
  • My desk is cleaner, with less physical paper to shuffle.
  • My backpack is lighter, since I wasn’t carrying as many stacks of paper between school and home.

Whenever you try something new, there are some roadblocks.  Here are some of the issues I ran into:

  • Formatting problems both with GDocs itself and when uploading MS Word documents or PPT files.
  • Student complaints of “imploding” email in-boxes when I began giving feedback.  GDocs sends a separate email for each individual comment added to a paper.
  • My own email in-box imploding with GDocs notifications for every student assignment turned in.
  • Students constantly asking if I received their assignments either because they didn’t trust GDocs or their own skills with the technology.
  • Issues with students forgetting to share their assignments (one place where the revision history came in handy).
  • Not enough class time spent in the computer lab for initial instruction on how to use this and other important technology.

Here are some of the ways I approached the use of Google Docs.

Sharing – Instead of using the big blue Share button, each student created a course collection (or folder) of their class assignments that they shared with me.  I chose to use the collection route to help students better see the development of their work throughout the term.  One of my classes also includes a portfolio, and I hoped this would help make that process easier.  Using collection sharing was a problem at times, since the big Share button is so tempting to push.  When students would use the Share button instead of sharing documents into their collection, it caused organization issues.  Most of these were ironed out by the end of the term.  A handy tip for using student collections: Color code the collections for each class with a different color. Then you can quickly look through the GDocs home page to see the documents for each class.

Naming Conventions – To help both students and myself with organization, I instituted a system for naming files.  The search box in GDocs makes it very easy to type in part of the file name and get the list of student assignments that need feedback.  When students used their own file names, don’t use spaces, or abbreviate file names, it caused organization headaches for me.  Instead of quickly and easily using the search box to get assignments, I had to go through student collections or the long list of GDoc files and search for individual student assignments that were named incorrectly.  I hate being picky about such little things, but I think I need to really stress using correct file names for my own sanity.  I spent a LOT of time just searching for individual assignments at the beginning of the term.  Originally, I had students add their last name and first initial to the end of a file name.  I realized this was an unnecessary extra step since each document is already tagged with the owner’s name, so I stopped requiring students to do this.

Templates – I found in the previous term that students had issues including everything they needed in the handwritten reflections for class.  To help with this, I created a template for each reflection with a small grading/feedback chart.  The chart serves as a checklist for students, as well as a way for me to quickly organize and give more detailed feedback.  I use templates for other assignments in class as well.  I make these files so they can only be edited by me.  Students make a copy of the document and type their assignment into it.  This would sometimes cause me to receive panicked emails from students who told me GDocs wouldn’t let them type their assignments.  I just had to remind them to make a copy of the template and all was well.

To-Do List – I realized pretty quickly that I needed an easy way to handle incoming assignments.  The approach that I came up with worked pretty well for me.  I left documents “unviewed” on my Home page until I was able to provide feedback.  Once a document received feedback, I used the “Don’t Show in Home” option to move it off of my to-do list.  I could always click on “All Items” to see all of the documents I had access to.

GMail Filters – When I first started using GDocs on a large scale, I knew the deluge of email notifications had to go.  I set up a GMail filter to keep any GDoc notifications from ever hitting my inbox.  However, I chose not to set the filter up to delete them so I have a time-stamped record of submissions (I’ve been told students can tamper with submission times that show up on GDocs itself).

Some things I would like to work on in the future with Google Docs:

  • When I have an assignment that needs a more specific length requirement, I will be switching to a word count range rather than page numbers.  This will help with the formatting issues that students and I encountered this past term.
  • One of the main topics of my courses is time management.  I see potential in using the time stamps in the revision history.  Students could use this tool to be more reflective about how they use their time and they could also use it to evaluate their own writing process.
  • Use the comment feature to encourage more two-way dialogue with students.  Right now I get an occasional comment back from a student, and I see the potential of this feature as a two-way communication and revision tool.
  • I would like to use the computer lab more during class to help students learn the ins and outs of this technology.
What questions do you have about using Google Docs with students?  Do you already use GDocs and have some suggestions or thoughts you’d like to share?  Thank you!

Technology vs. Kinesthetic Learning

“A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” -Mark Twain

Originally Posted January 10, 2009

As of this year, my current school has become a 1:1 or “High Access” school.  This means that every student was given a laptop and all kinds of technology is the fingertips of our students and staff.  It has been an interesting ride in my position of supporting teachers as they integrate new ideas into their classrooms.  I have seen some great implementation of creative ideas.  I strongly believe that technology is an important aspect of public education as long as we keep in mind that our content comes first and technology is a tool to teach that content.

However, a concern has begun cropping up among our staff.  We have all of these wonderful tools at our disposal, all you have to do is turn on the laptop.  But are we sacrificing kinesthetic/hands-on learning to the gods of technology?

Please understand that this concern in no way degrades the wonderful investment that has been made by my district.  I am ecstatic to have the opportunity to work in a high access environment.  I just want to make sure that we don’t abandon one of the greatest tools of learning.

One of my colleagues decided to do an informal experiment with his students.  He was curious about effect that computer notes vs. handwritten notes would have on test scores.  So he allowed students to take notes on their laptops for one test, and then required them to take handwritten notes for another test.  There was about a 20% increase in test scores for the handwritten notes.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to listen to a keynote speech by Neuroscience education consultant Kenneth Wesson and participate in a round table discussion afterwords.  I had the chance to discuss this idea of computer vs. handwritten notes with him.  He gave us the following information:

Computer Typed NotesStudents are concerned mostly with accuracy.  This is the “wrong tool for the job.”

Handwritten NotesStudents write the information in a way that works for them.  You make it your own and there is more of a personal connection (which increases understanding and recall).  He went on to state the printing is more effective than cursive.

Mr. Wesson also talked about virtual surgery computer programs vs. hands-on learning in the medical world.  He said that the hands-on learning was a much more effective way to train surgeons.

I also asked him about reading new information on a screen vs. having a tangible book in your hand.  Some of my colleagues are concerned that in the future they may be denied the funds to purchase actual books in favor of all electronic resources.  Since textbooks are such an expensive affair, some in the district believe this is a major plus of acquiring the laptops.  Mr. Wesson discussed the idea, but stated that there is not yet enough research in this area.

This is a very worthwhile discussion to be having in my building.  While we are technology focused, there is a strong element of brain based learning.  This involves movement and integrating a hands-on approach.  We are in the early stages of our large-scale computer integration and it will be interesting to see how it all unfolds.  All things in moderation?

Book Recommendations by Mr. Wesson:
The New Brain: How the Modern Age is Rewiring Your Mind
by Richard Restak

Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 by Rafe Esquith

Possible Questions for Comment:

  • Is there such a thing as too much technology, or can we never have enough?
  • Do you have any experiences of technology vs. hands-on learning?
  • Is there a way to integrate technology & the kinesthetic?
  • What thoughts do you have on these ideas?