For several semesters now, I’ve used Slack for my graduate courses in digital history. (Here’s a good introduction to Slack for teaching.) Judging by what the students tell me and what they write on the student evaluations, nothing I’ve done as a teacher has been as universally popular. Students appreciate a way to get detailed help from me quickly. Students seem to be less reluctant to ask questions when they can see that other people are asking questions, and when the answer is public for everyone’s benefit. And I can tell from the reports Slack sends that they use Slack to talk to one another.
I like Slack because it encourages an ongoing connection between the students and me during the week. Rather than only hearing from students once or twice a week when the class meets, I have a more or less continuous connection to them, at least to the extent that they choose. Slack has cut student e-mails in those courses to virtually nil. It’s very helpful for me to have a single place to go to communicate with students, and where I can easily turn a query directed only at me into a general lesson for the entire group. For technical questions, it is far easier to give explanations with code blocks and screenshots. It’s also really nice to see students help one another figure out difficult assignments.
There are definite downsides to Slack. The most obvious one is that Slack’s chatroom style invites an immediate response. I don’t think students necessarily expect instantaneous replies—at least, they are unlikely to tell me so. But as soon as I see a student’s query, I feel an obligation to answer promptly so that they aren’t delayed in getting on with the work assigned them. This tends to mean that I reply to queries at all hours of the day or interrupt writing or course prep to talk with students. I also go back and forth about how long I should let a student struggle through a problem, even if the answer is obvious to me, or to what extent I should encourage other students in the course to figure out the problem and then explain how they did it. (Part of the pedagogical question is that some students will ask questions the moment they encounter difficulty; other students will suffer needlessly for days before they ask anything.) Dealing with this downside just requires more discipline from me: turning on the do-not-disturb feature more regularly, and giving other students more time to come up with a solution.
Another problem is the number of Slack groups that I’ve accumulated. I’m a part of three groups not related to teaching, plus at least one new Slack group for a course each semester. (I haven’t yet used Slack in a course that has nothing to do with digital history, and I won’t try it with “Global History of Christianity” this semester since I am team-teaching that course.) One option would be to have a single Slack group for all of my courses, but that might lead to a lot of confusion. At the moment I’m leaning towards one ongoing Slack group for all of my graduate courses, since those students almost all know each other anyway, and since I am much more likely to have a continuing relationship with graduate students. Graduate students from previous semesters routinely use Slack to ask me questions related to the course. Then I’ll probably create a new Slack group for each instance of my “Digital Past” course for undergraduates.