Tech-Based Teaching: Computational Thinking in the Classroom
Apr 29, 2021
If you game, you might already be familiar with Discord. Discord is a chat platform that initially grew out of gaming communities. There are chat spaces — called “servers” — dedicated to just about anything. There are servers for work, for play and for learning.
In spring 2020, with teachers looking to meet their students where they were — that is, chatting with friends online — classroom Discord servers were created. More and more educators began looking at using Discord as a place to learn as much as hang out. A year later, Discord is still an option for virtual classrooms and group gatherings.
As mentioned, Discord is a chat platform that works on your browser, via an app or through a downloadable application. You’ll need a free account to get started. You can use Discord to both join existing servers or create your own. You can also contact individuals directly through private chats.
Chat servers are where the discussion happens. You can do everything from talking about books in a virtual book club or griping about your latest match over voice chat, depending on the purpose of the server. Within servers, there are “channels” that act as topic-specific spaces where you can chat about a certain thing.
Channels aren’t threaded, so they’re more like chatrooms than forums. That said, as nothing is deleted and chat is always on, students can just as easily look at old messages after the fact as they can chat live. You can even slow chat down if messages are moving too quickly.
Although Discord is primarily text based, you can also find or set up voice channels, which act as a conferencing space for real-time chat. Discord also supports assigning server roles (such as mods) as well as the use of “bots,” which can do all sorts of things, like auto-moderation for language or helping students change their account settings.
Due to Discord’s flexibility, there are many use cases for school-focused servers. Some professors moved to Discord for their virtual classrooms, particularly those not bound to a specific learning management system. Others used Discord to help facilitate professional development, such as creating conference servers for backchannel communication and setting up virtual expo halls.
One guide points out Discord’s strength at providing ways for students to interact with a course in multimodal ways, such as through link sharing, posting GIFS or using emojis. (You can also add custom emojis to your server, making them unique to your students and your school.) Being able to switch between channels, both text and voice, supports student choice.
Like with social annotation, Discord’s live-asynchronous flexibility is especially useful for getting students discussing things without relying solely on “post once, reply twice”-type forums. There are downsides: it can be easy to get lost in unthreaded messages; in busy channels, reading over old, single-line comments can be a challenge. That said, managing server expectations (such as whether there are designated class times or office hours) can help to mitigate these effects.
To start, you can get a feel for Discord by joining a few servers to test things out from the participant’s side. If you search for “topic” plus “discord server” on your search engine of choice, you can sometimes find links to servers relevant to your interests posted online. People can also send you direct invitations to private servers.
Discord shared a blog post at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to help teachers set up classroom servers. Additionally, they created an education-specific template to facilitate quick setup for teachers. This companion guide was still being updated late into the year and gives more detailed setup information.
This guide on teaching on Discord provides some nice basic info, offering a glossary and linking to resources such as useful bots while sharing personal experiences in using the platform. It also points out other use cases for Discord, such as writing groups. Another guide, this one published in early 2021, offers nitty-gritty details like specific role ideas for a classroom server.
Like all online spaces, Discord can have its share of bad apples. For all that servers can be invite only and specific roles can be assigned, it’s possible for people to act inappropriately. When initializing servers, be sure to manage roles and double-check settings. Let students know their expectations as digital citizens, laying out a code of contact and sharing server rules early on. This guide provides suggestions on server rules and links to a “sterling model” of a code of conduct (in addition to sharing hard-won lessons).
Conversations about building communities for students online won’t go away even as classes begin to resume in person. Remote, hybrid and online learning are likely to be a constant moving forward, and through it all, one question will remain: how do you reach students? Discord, with its flexible features, customization options and ability to integrate with other tools, will continue to be an option for connecting online.
Jesika Brooks is an editor and bookworm with a Master of Library and Information Science degree. She works in the field of higher education as an educational technology librarian, assisting with everything from setting up Learning Management Systems to teaching students how to use edtech tools. A lifelong learner herself, she has always been fascinated by the intersection of education and technology. She edits the Tech-Based Teaching blog (and always wants to hear from new voices!).
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