Building community through Slack: a student-owned digital space for connectivity and collaboration

In this blogpost, I’ll summarise my presentation with Richard Walker at the Association of Learning Technology’s annual conference (ALT-C, September 2021). We reported on a recent pilot study where online postgraduate students from the Management School were given access to Slack for the purpose of community building/informal learning. In the presentation we:

  • Set the context for digital communities – at our institution, across the HE sector and in terms of key concepts around this area
  • Reported on the set-up of the pilot study and its evaluation
  • Drew out implications for digital communities, particularly in terms of identifying barriers and enablers to participation, and recommendations for future practice in this area

If you would like to watch the video of our session (26 minutes) and/or access our slides, they can be found here:

Rationale for a digital community: why set one up for students?

The benefits for learners of being active in a community of peers are thought to include:

  • Opportunities for informal learning / the development of learning communities (De Wilde, 2019)
  • Enhancement of social and emotional well-being (THE Campus Weekly, 2021)
  • Piquing academic interest / drawing on peers for motivation, confidence and encouragement towards study
  • Networking – either for current academic endeavours (within and beyond discipline/cohort) and/or future professional networks and associated opportunities (Haythornthwaite, 2006; Bayne and Gallagher, 2020)

These points make intuitive sense, and there is an emerging focus on the importance of community for learners in the practice and scholarship of higher education. This is true for all learners but arguably has particular significance for those who are fully online, who will not experience the socialisation aspects afforded by on-campus study. This is one reason that fully online learners were chosen for piloting the use of Slack for community building, as they had previously only been able to interact within module learning activities and not at all at the programme-level, apart from any student created digital communities they might already participate in.

Set-up and evaluation of the pilot

The rationale for using Slack for the pilot was as follows:

  • It had been successfully used by many staff at the time of planning the pilot, particularly as a solution for collaborating and networking during home working
  • When compared to alternatives such as a discussion board within Canvas (the virtual learning environment used by this cohort), there are numerous communication benefits of Canvas such as: the ability for students to create their own channels, it’s synchronous/semi-synchronous nature (ability to chat via text in ‘real time’) and other features that you would expect of a modern communication platform such as the use of threading, emoticons etc.

As part of a working group at the university, I developed plans for the target cohort to be added to a pilot Slack workspace, initially in a small number tied to a specific module (approx 30 students, from May – July) then including all current students across the programme (approx 400 students, from July – September).

The set-up was fairly light touch: essentially students were invited to participate by email, and along with a welcoming message to encourage their participation in the pilot community space, they were given some tips and resources (how to use Slack, a ‘code of conduct’ couched in positive terms around community building). Staff were not active in any of the channels that were set-up (either the default programme-level or channel or the module-specific ones) and students were left to their own devices after set-up. This aspect – along with the consultation with student representatives that we carried out during planning – were the main ways in which we tried to make the spaced student owned and led (more on this later). I evaluated the pilot by:

  • Looking at the amount of usage and what the channels were being used for
  • Running a questionnaire and a focus group

Findings and implications

Participation in the workspace was low: we only had around 100 uses of Slack (posts, replies, reactions) and 25 distinct users (6% of the possible number). There were clearly some students who wanted to engage, and some interactions that could be seen as beneficial to those taking part in terms of peer support and informal learning, however the channels never really got enough momentum, so even the keen students were less likely to return and make use of it. Having said this, based on the 16 questionnaire responses, 94% said that providing a digital community was a good idea and only 6% were not sure.

Based on the questionnaire and focus group, perceived barriers to participation in the digital community pilot were as follows:

  • Reluctance to use a new tool, for reasons including
    • Confusion around notifications (the need to manage)
    • Dislike of using multiple systems
    • Data protection concerns
  • Perception (by some) that this cohort is less likely to engage in anything outside core learning / assessment activities, due to time pressures, work/life balance etc.
  • Success of existing student-created channels on WhatsApp and Discord mean that students are less likely to engage with a new community space
  • Hosts / facilitators are needed to encourage engagement

Students felt that the following features might facilitate engagement in future digital community spaces:

  1. Active promotion / facilitation e.g. recruiting students into facilitator roles
  2. Fuller introduction to Slack and the benefits of using it
  3. Integration of Slack with other systems (VLE and email)
  4. Integration of this network with campus communities
  5. Implementation of the community space as part of a wider communication and networking strategy
  6. Establishing the benefits for professional networking beyond the programme, incorporate events e.g. alumni talks
  7. Running wider University induction  / support services through Slack, to increase the number of students using the platform (and how frequently)

These points are all interesting recommendations and many might become viable options in the future. A major takeaway from the pilot is that community spaces need ‘hosts’ or ‘facilitators’ – users that add energy and draw in participation from others. Students from the pilot told us that the self-created community spaces all had this – essentially the person or people who created them naturally play that kind of hosting role and this is what the pilot seemed to lack.

It is our understanding at the time of writing that Slack will be rolled out to all taught postgraduate students at the University, in a workspace which is run/managed by the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA). This is a very good development from our perspective, as it would mean that communities and networks which emerge there will be truly student-led, naturally giving them more energy and dynamism. This fits with the notion of finding an appropriate ‘third space’ (Verjans & Rajagopal, 2019), where the community platform would be delivered by the university but the environment, its culture and practices can be shaped and led by learners therefore it is neither wholly institution or student-owned, which offers key affordances compared to being only one or the other.

Conclusion

The process described here – running the pilot, evaluating it and presenting findings to our peers – taught us a lot about digital communities, in particular:

  • The need to avoid a ‘build it and they will come’ attitude, that there are specific factors that will impact engagement with a digital community space and that these should be considered carefully to avoid providing a space that isn’t taken up
  • What some of the specific factors impacting engagement are – including barriers e.g. unfamiliarity/lack of induction to using the chosen communication tool, and enablers e.g. making the community as student-led as possible, including allowing students to create and host their own channels rather than these being entirely pre-built

The concept of community for learners is now extremely important in our sector as could be seen by its prevalence in recent presentations at ALT-C (for example Allam et al, 2021; Evans et al, 2021) and beyond (Bills, 2021 – from a recent digital education webinar series from the University of Kent). These resources show that the drive for community is often connected with other innovations such as the actual learning and teaching of a module or some other initiative such as a mentoring scheme.

Bryant (2021) frames ‘connected learning’ as a contemporary view of education – a concept which has obvious relevance to learner communities, including the ‘network and connection making’ element of Bryant’s model (see the visualisation at the end of his blogpost) – and it’s hard to disagree with this perspective. Our pilot study helped us to further understand learner communities in our own context, and points to the importance of having a ‘third space’ digital community available for learners – supplied by the University but owned and run by students. This is already taking place for PG students at York and in the wider sector. It will be very interesting what the future holds in this area, including whether digital communities will be opened up in a similar way for UG learners.

References

Allam, J., Westwood, J., Hill, S. & Longbone, A. (2021). Challenges and lessons learnt in building a student led online learning community in a pandemic. Association of Learning Technology, Annual Conference Presentation.

Bayne, S. & Gallagher, M. (2020). ‘Anticipating the near future of teaching’. Twelfth International Conference on Networked Learning, Denmark.

Bills, O. (2021). Taking the university community virtual with Discord: A Success Story. University of Kent, Digitally Enhanced Education Webinar Series.

Bryant, P. (2021). Be more cockatoo: Learning design ecosystems for a post-crisis world. Blogpost [accessed October 1st 2021].

De Wilde, J. (2019). Creating online postgraduate communities of practice: between pedagogy and practice. UKCGE Workshop, London.

Evans, S., Spender, E., Williams, T. & Davies, L. (2021). Creating a student led on-line inclusive community of learning and co-creation of programme content using digital technology. Association of Learning Technology, Annual Conference Presentation.

Haythornthwaite, C. (2006). Learning and knowledge networks in interdisciplinary collaborations. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 57(8), 1079-1092.

THE Campus Weekly (2021). ‘Supporting student well-being from afar. Advice on supporting student well-being through your online teaching practices’. THE Campus Weekly, Friday 21st May.

Verjans, S. & Rajagopal, K. (2019). Seeking support, seeking challenges or something else? The case of a student-driven ecosystem of Facebook groups as ‘third space’ at a distance learning university. Association of Learning Technology, Annual Conference Presentation.

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