How to use Slack for teaching a large university course

Last fall I taught the course Computational Tools for Big Data at The Technical University of Denmark (DTU). The course had 122 students, two assistant teachers, one single-topic lecturer and myself. The course setup was that I gave a weekly lecture on a topic related to “big data”, then the students solved exercises (they can be found on the website of the course if you are interested). The students spent some time writing their solutions up into 3 reports and during the last weeks, they created a YouTube-video presenting a new relevant topic of their choosing.

Normally at DTU we use the internal university administration system CampusNet for communication between teachers, teaching assistants and students. CampusNet is fine for one-way communication — it even supports broadcasting SMS-messages to all students. Unfortunately, it is not very well-suited when it comes to having an instant and ongoing dialogue.

When we work at Peergrade (the startup I am part of), when we talk together in Nest Copenhagen (the co-living space where I live), when I communicate with my research colleagues at Section for Cognitive Systems (the research section I am part of) we use the same tool: Slack. The assistant teachers and I quickly decided to test out using Slack as the primary communication tool in the course.

We created a Slack team for the course, invited all students and assistant teachers. We then created a public channel for each of the 4 homework assignments, a public channel for talking about Peergrade.io (which we used in the course) and a private channel for me and the assistant teachers.

We tried to keep all course communication on Slack so the students would only have to go one place to get their information. Whenever there was extremely important information — for example about the exam — we would also post it on CampusNet to be sure nobody had an excuse for not seeing it.

Through the semester, around 7000 messages were sent on Slack — around 5000 of those direct messages and around 1500 in public channels. A common usage was that a student would write a private group message to me and the assistant teachers (this was a feature Slack introduced in the middle of the course), and then one of us would assist the student. We were also happily surprised to see that the students used the direct messages for communicating internally.

Talking to the students, it was clear that they loved being able to easily get in contact with me and the assistant teachers — some of them even convinced their teacher in a different course to do the same. For me and the TA’s, using Slack made it much easier to respond to student requests and whoever was online at the moment could answer the question — or pass it on to someone else. We even had two days where the TA’s were only available on Slack — which worked perfectly!

The problem with Slack is that since it is SO easy to get in contact, students will not hesitate to write at 2 am about technical problems and they are likely to ask a few more questions than before. This meant that we ended up spending quite a bit of time on helping the student — but after all, that is how it is supposed to be.

Do you think it makes sense to use Slack in university courses? What do you use to make sure students are engaged and communicating?

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