Want better class discussions? There’s an app for that.

Daily Briefing

Want better class discussions? There’s an app for that.

Students are more politically divided today than they’ve ever been before. In such a climate, how can faculty members teach students how to debate sensitive issues productively? Too often, the discussion either falls silent or escalates out of control.

Writing for EdSurge, two teachers—Zach Seagle and Justin Taylor—discuss how and why they’ve turned to Slack, an online messaging app, to help facilitate thoughtful debate.

Though Slack wasn’t designed with classrooms in mind, Seagle and Taylor have started using the app to encourage students to pay closer attention to the way they discuss topics.

Now, Seagle and Taylor start each session of their classes with a mini-lecture on one of the core habits of academic discussion (based on a framework developed by Stanford University‘s Center to Support Excellence in Teaching). Then, they explain why the habit is helpful and provide examples of how to use it. Finally, they kick off discussion in Slack, focusing their feedback and prompts for student reflection on the particular habit of the day.

“During the discussion, students are using Slack to post clarifying questions, challenging the reasoning of others, linking relevant multimedia sources to promote a deeper conversation or pushing the conversation in a different direction,” Seagle and Taylor write.

The messaging app teaches students how to be “reflective participants in a reactive digital world,” they explain. Slack’s features make it easy for students to pay attention to their discussion techniques, reply to specific posts, and incorporate sources into their comments. Other instructors use Slack to help coordinate full-class projects. Loyola University New Orleans visiting professor Lisa Collins has used Slack to bring students from a TV news production class and a capstone journalism class together to produce a newscast. Students dedicated a Slack channel to each newscast and used the platform to upload elements such as scripts, video packages, and photos.

“What I really appreciated about it was I could see discussion happening or not happening,” she says. “I could go in and… see who was contributing and who was not participating in the conversation, and that was really helpful as an educational tool where I could track student involvement.”

Paul Bush, associate journalism professor at Franklin Pierce University, uses Slack to curate stories to share and discuss with students. He also says it’s a helpful alternative to email, which students don’t always read (Seagle/Taylor, EdSurge, 5/21/18).

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