Discord App Adds Options for Remote Learning & Teamwork

by Nathan Loewen, Faculty Technology Liaison & Department of Religious Studies

Someone responded to the survey for Last Week’s Teaching in 2020 with a comment about the Discord app. It turns out plenty of people use Discord for teaching and learning (Several teachers in France and Quebec are adopting Discord). Here are the experiences of four people at UA. (Please continue to share your ideas and experiences here, and your entry could spark another cross-campus search for teaching innovation!)

Creating an Informal Grad Cohort

When I started my MA program in 2019, I made a Discord server for my classmates. Since then, it’s become an invaluable resource for the cohort to share material, ask questions, and cultivate our sense of community. Compared to emailing or direct messages, it’s a lot less intimidating to just hop onto the server and field questions to the group as a whole. Because of that, the server has been able to facilitate something of an informal mentorship structure between 2nd- and 1st-year students.

Additionally, students were motivated to start their own political theory reading group using Discord’s integrated voice and video services. Probably Discord’s greatest advantage, the voice and video functionalities are integrated within the server itself, enabling it to serve as your all-in-one virtual meeting-place, chat-room, and bulletin-board. On account of the flexibility in server customization, voice and video services, and the inviting design of its user interface, I’d definitely recommend Discord as a classroom management tool.

Maintaining Student Engagement

I’ve been using Discord for my classes this semester. It provides students a place to reach out to each other for help and advice, and I am able to send off announcements and reminders much more easily. I have even been holding office hours via Discord. For a set period of time each week, I am logged in and actively available to answer chat messages or engage in individual video calls with students who wish to meet with me. If students have a particular question for me or the GTA, they can use the mention function with the roles I created (@prof and @GTA). I have one class that is doing a final group project, and I created channels for the different groups so they can communicate with each other in an acceptable format (I have had so many issues with GroupMe cheating, it’s ridiculous).

I’ve also had them interact in Discord during AV Interactive classes, as they seem to be more at ease with contributing via chat than video/audio. I have received a lot of positive feedback from the students on the use of Discord, and I fully intend to keep using it in upcoming semesters. I ended up creating a template based on my server community from this semester.

Supporting Students’ Group-Based Assignments

As for my own experience, Discord has changed a lot in the short time since I was teaching with it last Spring — the biggest thing being the addition of classroom-based templates for school-oriented servers. That alone has been a huge improvement. Otherwise, here’s a few key takeaways from my own experience, if it’s helpful:

  • The biggest advantage of Discord was the “drop-in, drop-out” system. Since my class involved a lot of group work, I set up team channels in Discord. Students would often meet outside of our regular class hours to get their projects done. If they needed me, and I happened to be available, I could easily “pop in” for a minute to explain something, and then drop back out. For classrooms with a strong project emphasis, this is wonderful; since all text chats, meetings, and file-sharing happen in the same place, it’s easy to keep tabs on students’ collective progress.
  • The “gamer” aesthetic is deeply embedded into Discord, and this is unfortunate — since it can be intimidating. Students outside that discourse won’t be familiar with the loading or welcome messages. That said, doing things like adding a classroom banner, creating some custom emojis related to your class, and posting a video showing students how to join is almost certainly essential.
  • Deputizing students who were already familiar with Discord was easy and extremely useful. I even gave mine additional roles (one of the best features) so they could help their friends by moving them between voice channels and such if they became stuck.

Reducing the Logistics of Teaching 300-level Courses

I’m aware that Discord originated as a gaming-discussion platform. While its aesthetics are tied into gamer culture, that hasn’t been an issue for my small course. My students found Discord intuitive and easy to use. I set up a Discord server for my class with channels for introductions, information, assignments, “office hours/conferences” text, and video channel. Workshop meetings themselves happen in a dedicated video channel, with a text channel available for folks with mic problems or loud environments to participate in real-time.

I prefer Discord to Zoom for a few reasons:

  • I can control the privacy of our calls without having to use a waiting room and/or a passcode.
  • The audio and video quality are better. The noise-suppression tool eliminates background sounds!
  • I use it for a dedicated submissions channel, too. Everyone can easily access their files at all times, while still remaining within the server’s privacy controls. It handles large files. I don’t have to keep track of a million emails or manage the distribution of updated/revised versions. That saves me a lot of logistical time and headaches.
  • Discord generally reduces my amount of emails with students; if one person has a question, they can ask it in the relevant channel. Sometimes other students answer it. More often, other students will second it and I can answer all of them at once.

Helping GTAs Organize Student Work

Discord’s user interface is excellent for group work: it prioritizes easy movement between voice and text “channels,” which can be organized under overarching topics. For example, my class had a main workshop channel and a secondary channel(s) for group work. Additionally, you can grant permissions to different students based on “roles.”

In my own class, I utilized roles to create three-person groups, with access to exclusive text and voice channels that users outside of their group could not see or interact with. Instead of handing in their weekly work to me alone, students posted their work in their own text channels for group discussion, where I would check in/comment on them each week.

Not only does Discord offer pre-made templates for educators, but users can make server templates as well, allowing for the easy dissemination of course “shells”: I copied my course template for another GTA, and this cut out some of their prep work.

* Discord bots helped me customize my server to specific needs. For example, I integrated bots to send students messages based on course due dates.

Disadvantages and Precautions

Discord has some definite disadvantages. Its “gamer” aesthetic can be off-putting for some students. Additionally, if instructors are not careful in their server setup/security, they may be subject to server “raiding”: a phenomenon where a server participant invites outsiders to a Discord server, whereupon it is flooded with irrelevant/offensive imagery and behavior. As such, I would not recommend using Discord for larger classes without careful attention to security measures, such as phone number verification and instituting an auto-moderator bot to help prevent raiding.