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C'est la Z

Class Communications

Right now I'm on vacation in Harrogate England. Natan is here taking part in the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival so Devorah and I came along as tourists. Today we went to Knaresborough:

The River Nidd as seen from Knaresborough Castle

Normally when traveling I try to get everything in and that leaves me pretty exhausted at the end of each day. Since this time we'll be here for around two weeks, I'm trying a less hectic pace. Do some touring along with some rest and relaxation. I actually gave myself the time to do some recreational reading and just finished The Comeback by Daniel de Vise and have a big queue of what's next.

I'm also going to try to get a blog post or two out.

One thing I've been meaning to blog about for a while is class communication and having seen this the other day, I guess it's time.

In the article, Evan Peck talks about his experience using Slack as a means of class communications and why he likes it.

Here's my take:

Class communication takes many forms. It can be the dissemination of information such as assignments or announcements, assignment collection, presenting feedback either on assignments or in general, specific interactions between the instructor and the students, group discussions, and cross student interactions.

For sharing and collecting code as well as providing feedback, I like using Git and GitHub. I use it for homework, projects, sharing class code - pretty much anything involving code or student work. That leaves all of the basic communication platforms. The popular ones include:

  • The schools CMS – Moodle, Blackboard etc.
  • Piazza or other forum platforms
  • Slack and other chat platforms
  • Facebook groups
  • old school mail lists

Blackboard or your school's CMS

First up, Blackboard.

Just no.

In my experience, they're all slow and clunky and usually have an awkward interface. I've always found them hard to navigate and use and I find little value added.

Piazza and forum software

Piazza is a free to use discussion platform. Many schools use it. Personally, I don't like Piazza but it does have some good points:

  • The Q&A format works pretty well.
  • It allows anonymous posting which is sometimes desirable.
  • You can look at participation reports
  • TAs or instructors can approve questions and answers

There really is a lot to like about it but it doesn't work for me. Personally, I don't like the interface but that wouldn't be the deal breaker for me if my kids liked it. The deal breaker for me is that kids have to actively go to the site. Yes, they can set their preferences for alerts but if they don't and they don't check the site regularly they'll miss things. This is a big deal to me. If I send out something important I have no idea if or when people will check in on it. For me personally, it's yet another site that I have to actively and regularly check.

Another interesting thing I learned about Piazza has to do with students honesty about platforms. Back at Stuy a colleague used Piazza regularly and was getting good results with it - many active students. I couldn't get as much buy in. The teacher told me that the kids said they really liked the platform. A year or two later, I surveyed the kids in my class – they were in his and other teachers the previous year or two. I asked them about platforms they used and how they felt about them. The results were that they used Facebook groups on their own (I'll talk about them later) and used whatever platform we required because we required it. Even if they said they liked it, they really didn't.

Last semester I set up a Discourse server for HunterCS. Discourse is another discussion platform. I liked the fact that I could run the server and had ownership of the data. I also liked the way the forum software worked in general. On the other hand, it had similar overall problems as Piazza.


A hot contender and the one that Mr. Peck uses is Slack. It's a chat platform. It can be a separate app running on your phone or desktop or you can use a web interface. It has channels for topics, can thread discussions, it does alerts well and can integrate with tools like calendars and GitHub. Just like with Piazza, there's a lot to like.

My problem with Slack is that it's really for live communication not asynchronous after hours communication. It works best when you're working on something and you have your slack window open, you have a question so you type it in and get immediate answers. It just doesn't seem to work as well when you don't use it live. You can read the messages posted since you last checked but it can be really hard to follow unless people explicitly use the threading.

Slack also shares the issue of being another site or application to use but since it does alerts well it doesn't bother me as much.

Facebook groups

Facebook groups seem to have been the student go to for a while now. They create their own teacher/professor free student groups. I think it's great that they create resources like this and as I tell them, it's important for them to have a forum that's free from the teacher's eyes. I mean, how can they plan that surprise party for me on the class chatroom that I have access to :-). On the other hand, Facebook groups have some downsides:

  • Not searchable or discoverable. I've seen kids only find out about

them at the end of semesters.

  • In some cases, each year a new group is created so no institutional

memory develops.

  • All the info stays in Facebook

Mail lists

This all brings me to old school mailing lists. I've been using them for decades and I keep coming back to them. Since they're just email, no one has to check a separate app or site. Since they're email, they support threading. Also as email, they can be public to the list or private to just one or a few people.

Again, they're not perfect - I can't easily set up long term categories or channels like you can with Slack or Piazza and they don't integrate with tools like calendars so as with everything else, there's always some compromise.

What do you use?

I think I might try Slack again this semester if the students want to go for it or maybe discourse. If they don't want to try those, then it'll be back to mailing lists.

What do all of you use? What are the strong and weak points of your chosen platform and what would make the ideal platform for class communication?

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