In 2013, Richard Saller, dean of Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, argued that teaching the humanities online was nearly impossible. “The humanities have to deal with ambiguity [and] with multiple answers,” he said, “My hunch is that the kinds of platforms that are available now can provide a forum for exchange among students with different ideas, but I doubt that that will come anywhere near the quality that we have in our introductory seminars.”
He had thrown down the gauntlet. Several professors took up Saller’s challenge and piloted ways to capture small group discussion in an online format. Al Filreis, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, filmed discussions of poetry with his graduate students and put them on Coursera to create a conversational experience. Scott Klemmer’s research group at UC San Diego and Stanford developed the talkabout tool to help students organize synchronous Google hangout discussions with peers in a MOOC. Similarly, the MIT Media Lab developed unhangout, an open-source platform for creating small breakout groups. Last October, Dartmouth even hosted a symposium on MOOCs and the Humanities to share approaches.
Despite these efforts, the challenge persists: how can we teach and assess subjects that are nuanced, nonlinear and deeply human on platforms that are increasingly adaptive and automated?
Enter Slack. The online communication platform launched two years ago and now has more than 2.3 million users. It facilitates an online, supercharged version of watercooler conversation, enabling people to trade information and chat informally with colleagues. And it might just be a game changer for online education.
When Slacking Spurs Action
Slack users log 100 million collective hours on the platform per month, meaning that it has acquired a kind of conversational “stickiness” that most MOOC discussion boards never achieve. On Slack there are flexible public channels, along with small private groups for exchanges between just a few people. Media companies including the New York Times are using it as a content management system, and corporations from Walmart to Blue Bottle Coffee rely on it to keep globally distributed teams in sync.
At +Acumen we were intrigued when marketing guru Seth Godin used Slack for an experiment in online learning. In 2014 he started altMBA, an online leadership workshop, and hosted it in Slack. People logged in, were broken into smaller “channels” where they could trade ideas in real-time and post links to their assignments. Godin hosted two subsequent leadership workshops in Slack and had more than 590 paying customers participate each time (full disclosure: Godin donated all proceeds to +Acumen).
Clearly, Slack was working to facilitate closed online workshops. We wondered if we could democratize this format further and host conversations about literature or current events online. To experiment, we decided to run a public pop-up discussion of Amin Maalouf’s "In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong" in Slack. This text deals with identity politics, the rise of fundamentalism and violence. In other words, it is about as ambiguous and risky a topic to discuss on the Internet as you can get.
How We Built an Online Seminar
We invited anyone with an Internet connection to claim a “seat” for the conversation. We split participants into “rooms” that corresponded to a channel in Slack. Once the pop-up conversation started, we dropped short videos including this one introducing discussion topics into a central channel on Slack at 15-minute intervals. Participants watched the video prompt, completed a solo writing exercise, and then shared it with their “room” to debate and discuss. Like a webinar, this all took place synchronously, but was much more learner-driven.
The result? People from a range of backgrounds joined the real-time conversation, including a high school student in Seattle, a UX designer from Sydney, a front-end developer from Indonesia, an activist from Virginia and a professor working on MOOCs at Cornell. We had four active Slack rooms and 22 people dynamically contributing—an admittedly small sample size in the world of online learning, but instructive for a prototype.
The conversations were able to get deep and complex quickly and the platform enabled the +Acumen team to dip in and out of conversations in a way we can’t do in our traditional MOOCs. “Very fast moving. Amazing to see such wisdom and deep discussions shared,” one participant observed. “In a very small amount of time, we touched on a lot of key and very insightful points,” another added.
From a facilitator’s point of view, the experiment felt more like running a seminar than designing a MOOC:
- Before the live session, we developed an instructional guide to orient participants to Slack.
- We pre-recorded videos with context on the reading and descriptions of the activities.
- We scripted instructional prompts to post in the Slack channels once the event kicked off.
- Once the event launched, two facilitators from +Acumen were in multiple places at once: we were posting instructions in the central channel; monitoring conversations in each “room” and helping to keep participants on track; and we were responding to technical support requests that came into our inbox.
- After the event, we analyzed the transcripts of the conversations to detect patterns and insights. We created a word cloud to visualize themes in the conversation .
- We hosted follow-up calls and collected survey results to hear how participants would improve the experience. One surprising thing we learned was that in addition to the public conversation, several participants had also traded private direct messages with each other to go even deeper on specific topics.
At +Acumen, we’re planning to use Slack as a component of future MOOCs, and as part of our internal onboarding for our global staff. We’re eagerly following how other instructors are using this tool and recently learned that General Assembly has also adopted Slack to add a social learning component to its online workshops. According to Max Alexander, director of instructional design at General Assembly: “As Slack has become more ubiquitous, we’re finding that our participants are becoming more eager users.” For each GA course, there is a content expert and a mentor who actively monitors the discussion and can step in to provide personalized support.
There are still limitations. Slack isn’t intuitive for all first-time users to navigate, and if people don’t show up, the rooms need to be reshuffled. You still have to assign groups manually and rely on participants to step up and facilitate the dialogue. In other words, there is still human agency and human effort required. But perhaps that’s the point.
If we’re trying to build courses that elicit multiple points of view and nuanced conversation, we don’t need platforms that automate, adapt or operate solely by algorithms. We need platforms that enable us to pivot between large-group, small-group and solo learning. Slack is not the perfect learning platform (yet!), but it signals a new way to house learning online, more akin to the seminar classroom than the lecture hall.