Dorian Hunter Davis, American University
This exercise, an interactive alternative to the more traditional class blog, asks students to respond outside of class to an open-ended prompt their instructor posts on the Slack application, based on the required readings for an upcoming class. Designed to encourage continuous engagement with and critical thinking about course materials, this exercise advances concise writing skills, develops editorial judgment, and reinforces a pedagogical approach in which education is a collaborative process between instructor and students, and among students themselves.
Slack is a no-cost, Web-based “real-time messaging and archiving” application (Slack.com) whose interface allows users to post comments, links and images on a homepage feed, or in customizable “channels.” As with Facebook or Twitter, users can tag each other in their public posts or send each other private messages. However, the use of Slack also allows students to keep their own social media accounts private.
This exercise requires about five to 15 minutes outside of class for students, and about one minute per student outside of class for instructors or teaching assistants weekly. It also requires at least five minutes of class time weekly.
Set up the Slack environment by creating a class account on the Website, and then in-put each student’s email address so that Slack can send them an invitation. Ask students to use their real names as their user names on Slack in order to make grading easier later.
Send out an email after each class asking students to do the readings required for the next meeting and respond in three to five sentences to a prompt related to those readings. Using the metric of sentences rather than word count allows for some flexibility in length, while requiring students to post their responses in advance facilitates in-class discussion.
Make the prompts open-ended, referencing course content but also allowing students to draw from their own observations and experience. For example:
- a prompt on grammar and style could ask students to consider how changing societal values influence our use of grammar;
- a prompt on journalism might require students to evaluate the merits of posting content warnings at the tops of news articles about sensitive subjects;
- a prompt about advertising could reflect on the ethics and effectiveness of scare tactics in ads or public service announcements.
Prompts should address topics are not specifically covered in their textbooks, requiring students to do some brief reflection or research.
After the deadline for posting has elapsed, instructors should take a few minutes to engage with student responses. Clicking a thumbs-up emoji on each post allows you to “like” students’ responses and thus acknowledge that you’ve seen them, before leaving brief public questions or comments on two or three of the most thought-provoking.
Finally, pick one or two responses to use as starting points for discussion at the next class meeting. Beginning the class with the Slack responses integrates the digital component into the classroom setting, linking the online and offline course experience, and allows the exercise to facilitate conversation.
Giving students the virtual space to engage with course content, and compelling them to use it, has several advantages. First and foremost, this exercise offers students a platform to engage with the material and demonstrate critical, media-literate thinking. It also affords students the time to develop arguments that elevate the caliber of classroom discussion. For example, in a course of professional communication, one student’s Slack observation, that overvaluing traditional grammar can limit opportunities for underrepresented groups in communication industries, inspired an in-class discussion about power and privilege embedded in language. The five-sentence maximum helps students refine technical skills – such as conciseness – at the heart of writing for media, and requires them to make editorial judgments based on length and prospective audience. In early iterations of this exercise, some of the responses were too vague to be compelling: requiring one brief example to support the argument in each response has improved their specificity.
Remember to decide on a grading policy during the preparation phase. I grade pass/fail based on effort. If a student posts before the deadline, I give them full credit. Because each student’s short responses amount to more than a thousand words over the fifteen weeks of our semester, I count this assignment as ten percent of the course grade.
While most students have responded well to this exercise, larger classes tend to see the most benefit. For example, some in a class of 16 students found it somewhat redundant to our face-to-face discussions because there was ample time for most of them to speak during our meetings. A group of 50, however, liked the option of participating on a digital platform, and felt it helped them engage with me and their peers despite the size of the class.
Students recognise that using Slack requires them to be active participants inside and outside of class, and to view the course as collaborative learning experience. This exercise, which is easily customizable for virtually any humanities course, also acclimates students to a digital tool that workplaces all over the world have adopted to enhance communication and promote teamwork.