Using Slack as a Closed Twitter Chat for Online Classes

Last semester I taught a master’s level introduction to digital humanities at Pratt’s School of Information. You know, the one where the pandemic interrupted everything and we all suddenly had to move online? Listen. It was a lot.

Now that the dust has settled (has it?), and folks are developing their online classes for the fall, I thought I’d share an online discussion assignment using Slack that worked surprisingly well.

The course functions a bit like a seminar, and each week a student was tasked with leading a group discussion on the week’s readings. I found the materials produced by Pratt’s Teaching and Learning Center to be very helpful, and the communications from the Provost about the move to a pass/fail grading system made it clear that the priority for the semester was our learning outcomes; we were given freedom to experiment without the burden of having to precisely replicate what had been developed in pre-pandemic times.

It’s hard to describe the experience of New York City in March/April 2020. We peaked at 800 deaths per day, a fact made visceral by the backdrop of constant sirens—that is, if you were lucky enough to not be sick yourself or caring for someone who was. The idea that anyone could think deeply about anything, much less the digital humanities, in those moments was a farce.

The one advantage we had in this term was precisely what made it so hard to imagine doing it online: we’d already had several weeks of thoughtful and engaged discussion in person. We already knew each other and had developed some group dynamics. It was an exceptional group of students, who brought all kinds of expertise to the subject and the conversation just flowed. I’m still mad that we got cut off the way we did.

As I thought about how to transition the course’s seminar format to an online mode of instruction, I was wary of the temporal burden that synchronous sessions would place on all of us. I would have crafted an entirely asynchronous mode of completing the semester, but there was that sticking point: some students had already completed the “lead class discussion” assignment, and others hadn’t. I had to find a way to recreate this assignment in an online environment, but I knew that asking students to moderate a discussion using videoconferencing was just too much.

So, I did what I’d been taught to do and began with the learning outcomes. Leading a discussion means you really read that week’s readings, but it also gives you experience in crafting generative questions, drawing connections/synthesizing, and time management. When I thought about translating those skills into an online environment, I realized that moderating a Twitter chat would be pretty comparable! Twitter chats are weirdly common in library and information science; two of the biggest in my areas are #critlib and #DLFTeach. They’re usually an hour long, with a set of questions circulated in advance and a moderator who keeps things moving. So instead of trying to replicate the discussion online, which would be near impossible to do with all of our crazy circumstances, I focused on the skills that the moderator would come away with. And, hey, moderating a Twitter chat can be a useful skill in LIS.

The only problem was that I’d already committed to keeping our class sessions private. I wanted to do a Twitter chat without pushing my students onto Twitter.

So, here’s the assignment I devised for using Slack as a “closed” Twitter chat.

I’m really pleased with the way it worked out, and the students spoke favorably about it in their evaluations (many commented how they were surprised by how engaging the weekly chats were!). I should add that we also used a group for our readings, which allowed for more contemplative—and asynchronous—comments. But the weekly chats were a low-stakes conversation, where we felt a sense of community without the pressure of drafting a RESPONSE post to an LMS forum. We were together, in real-time, just chatting about DH.

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