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C'est la Z

Communicating With Students - maybe GitHub to the rescue

Out of class student communication is always a challenge. There are plenty of options:

  • Piazza
  • Facebook group
  • Slack, Discord, or other chat system
  • Discourse, Vanilla or other discussion forum system
  • Mailing list

but all have warts.

I shared my thoughts on a number of these options a while ago but thought I'd update them now.

Most of my opinions hold form my earlier post. I was using and continue to use a mailing list as I can be pretty sure that students will get the email and they don't have to go to any outside site or application. Now, getting them to respond or just use it for general class communication is another story.

I also tried Slack again but it fared no better than my last attempt with it. A couple of students used it but mostly, Slack was left to die. I could have forced some engagement by posting assignments on Slack but there wasn't any real upside.

Earlier this semester some students said we should set up Discord - "all the students use it!" was the line. Discord can be used as a chat server similar to Slack but was created for gaming and also does voice communication and other things. Personally, I prefer Slack. Funny thing was that as I discussed this with my students I pointed out "you know, we have a Slack channel set up and you all already have accounts on it." Most of them didn't even remember.

So, we tried Discord and there was the usual burst of activity when we first set it up but now it's again, mostly dormant. A few students who use Discord for personal use are usually online but I'd chalk it up as another failure.

So, what am I going to try next? GitHub.

GitHub doesn't provide a general chat or email solution but it does have what they call "issues." I got the idea from Eric Rosado of GitHub Education who clued me in on what issues can do.

When you create a GitHub repository - something I do for class web pages as well as assignments, you can also open issues. Issues are associated with the project but also act as a lightweight forum. You can go to a page and see all the issues (topics) and each one can have a chain of messages (thread). You can tag them, filter them, and when you're done, close them (and reopen them later if needs be). The big plusses are that:

  1. People who are subscribed to the repo (assignment, web page, etc.) automatically get email alerts on the issues.
  2. You can explicitly tag people to force them to get alerts.
  3. You can directly reply via email so you don't need to go to GitHub.
  4. Everything related to a given project or repo is self contained.
  5. If you're using GitHub / GitHub classroom you can use issues to create a logged communication with your students on specific assignments.

I haven't used this class wide yet - just experimented a bit but I plan to dive in much more deeply next semester.

This isn't an overall communication solution. I'm sticking with a mailing list for that until I can find a better solution but I think using GitHub issues will be a win for project and assignment related discussion.

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