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digital rhetoric Teaching Uncategorized

discord in the online classroom

Unsurprisingly, when you search the web for information about “discord” in the online college classroom, you get results about unruliness or some such, but I’m talking about the application. There’s an insightful piece on the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative titled “Discord: Gaming App to Rhetoric Class,” by Kristin Ravel and her students, that details their experience moving to Discord during the shutdown last semester. It raises some important questions about privacy, accessibility, and usability. These are important questions that must be investigated in the context of the alternatives.

Indeed one might suggest that we could productively examine the privacy, accessibility, and usability of the F2F classroom!

University at Buffalo Classrooms, before and after the shutdown

There is some useful, albeit basic, information out there for those, like me, thinking about using Discord. Discord’s own support site has advice for creating a classroom server. And I thought this pre-pandemic post by Blair MacIntrye does a good job a describing some differences between Slack and Discord from an academic perspective. Still, there’s not really been much done on such matters. Perhaps there’s some scholarship to be done there; there’s at least some kairos around the matter.

Potentially the main drawback with Discord in relation to Zoom might be that there’s no built-in way to record video or audio channels. With Zoom, in theory, I could record a class meeting for students who were absent. For my purposes I’m not sure that’s a big deal. First, if there’s going to a lecture or something like that I need all the students to see, I’m not going to do that live during class. It will be separately recorded. Second, I am planning that students will spend a good portion of a synchronous classes in small groups anyway, so there’s not a usable way to record that in Zoom. Third, I don’t record F2F classes, so I don’t see this as a requirement. Fourth, I’m skeptical anyone would watch them anyway.

The other matter that I see raised is that it can be difficult to follow the channel discussions in Discord. I agree with that limitation. I mostly use Discord to participate in two Arsenal FC communities related to podcasts. I say participate but it’s mostly lurking. I can be hard at times to follow a conversation back and forth between a couple users as it is interspersed with other posts in the same channel. So here’s how I’m addressing that. Primarily, we will use a WordPress blog for the bulk of our asynchronous conversation. The course site will be private once the semester starts, but I’ve set it to public for next couple weeks, just to see if I can get some feedback on it. The Discord community will be for synchronous class meetings and more informal chat.

In other words, where most of my colleagues at UB will combine Blackboard and Zoom, I will combine WordPress and Discord. There’s some slippage in that analogy, but it basically works. And the fundamental reasons for doing so are

  • to offer students greater freedom of expression and wider role in shaping the contours of the course
  • to have more flexibility in including media and more control over the design from the basic look/feel of the site to the layout/content of individual posts
  • to improve the user student experience, and quite honestly
  • to improve my own experience, because after all this is where I work!

One final thing I should note here, which is probably obvious to anyone familiar with my work: I study digital media and rhetoric/communication. My classes have/will always include(d) an objective of helping students develop a productive and critical orientation toward emerging media. I want them to have critical-analytical tools. I also want them to be flexible, adaptive, and experimental, and I try to embody that in my teaching and course design. For me, WordPress is a tried and true technology. I’ve used it for close to a decade in classes. It actually has some new features with its “blocks” and “patterns” that make it easier for users to do more with their posts. On the other hand, Discord is new territory, at least pedagogically, so I’m leaning toward giving it a try, though I’m doing so with the notion that I could always “fall back” to Zoom. Not every academic wants the challenges of dealing with new technologies to be integral to what’s going on in their class. In fact 99% don’t. And that’s fine. They have other stuff to do.

But for me, this is part of what I’d be doing even if there wasn’t a pandemic.

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