I have talked about how I used Twitch.tv to stream the lecture and the challenges and advantages associated with this approach. Today I want to talk about the other software I use for my teaching: Discord.
Discord is a free software usually used by gamers that offers lot of flexibility. As per usual, when something is free, the consumer might actually be the product. In this case, Discord collects pretty much all data that ends up on its servers and has a range of options what to do with that data (More information). That is something to keep in mind and also inform students of this beforehand. Hence, I have not made the usage of Discord mandatory in my lecture.
Discord uses "Servers", that are essentially just your own personal collection of chatrooms. You can manage who and how people can enter (via link or invitation only) and assign roles to members of your server (such as Teaching Assistant). It also allows you to add chat-rooms for specific purposes, such as asking questions, sharing memes or closed channels to communicate with your team.
Besides a basic browser solution and a nifty desktop application, you can also install the app on your phone or tablet and carry it with you, which I like a lot.
Discord also allows to have audio and video conferences. In an audio channel you have up to 99 members talking to each other. I have not tried the limit for video conferencing, but a colleague is actually using discord to teach a seminar. The usual functions of sharing a screen or slides are also available, making discord a nice tool for teaching in Covid-19 times.
Here we can see the basic setup of my server, with text-channels for different purposes and voice/video-channels mostly for staff meetings.
So far the audio/video quality has been good and the permanence of text-chat allows students to look up questions that someone else asked before. If only they did that a little more often.
At the moment I am planning on conducting my teaching the next semester completely on Discord, with a cloud server for depositing documents as support.
The thing that I appreciate about Discord the most, however, is probably the ability to reduce the distance between lecturer and students. Asking questions in a channel is a lot more informal than writing a "Dear Dr. Tillman.."-email that I also have to respond to in some more formal manner. It also reduces the distance to the teaching assistants, so they can ask questions and get fast answers (as long as I am online).It is a nice equivalent to just coming by the office.
However, this reduced distance also comes at a cost: Students asking questions at 21.00 in the evening while you're watching TV. Of course, you can turn off all notifications on your phone, so not doing that is a personal choice. So far, I have received feedback that the relatively quick answers I have provided so far are much appreciated by the students and I personally have the feeling that they are more willing to ask questions this way than be email. Sometimes that can have the curious effect of receiving questions where my initial reaction is more like:
And sure, sometimes students pick an easy way of finding information by asking the lecturer, instead of trying their own search first. Reducing distance increases these questions.
However, I find that when students ask something, most of the time they have attempted to find answers and were not succesful. In that case, it helps not just to answer the question, but also to ask: How did you try to find the answer? That way, you can help them to improve their skills and avoid apparently silly questions next time.
Overall, I can recommend Discord as a virtual working environment to replace the open office door policy. It does come with some risks, especially with dangers to time resources, but these dangers can be limited by conducting office hours or practicing some kind of self-discipline when it comes to when or how to answer questions. I also noticed that I have an annoying habit of answering questions directed at the TAs if the question lingers for a while (not the TAs fault!). Really need to stop doing that.