Teaching Hub

Using Discord + GitHub to Organize Small Group Active Learning

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

Based on an interview and materials shared by Dr. Traci M. Nathans-Kelly, College of Engineering at Cornell University

I recently spoke to Dr. Traci Nathans-Kelly, who is a partner teacher for Games Design courses at Cornell University, where they have used Discord for Spring 2020 and 2021. This was a unique challenge for these courses that rely heavily on in-person teams and live playtesting. Dr. Walker White is the instructor for both Intro and Advanced Games design, and Dr. Traci Nathans-Kelly teaches a partnered engineering communication course for Games. These courses have websites and a bespoke CMS as “home base” instead of using Canvas.

In early March 2020, the instructors were entering a regular meeting with their team of TAs when everybody’s phone messages began to ping: the university was shutting down the physical campus in just three days. Suddenly, the instructors needed a means to remotely teach a course that had always been designed around small group in-class workdays, discussions, critiques, and playtesting days.

Just 20 minutes later, after discussing their options, the instructors and their undergrad TAs pivoted the courses to a Discord server to organize small group workdays and discussions. A pattern emerged in that moment that the instructors repeated in Spring 2021: course websites deliver recorded content for CIS 3152 and CIS 4152, live Zoom classes are used for in-class critiques, and there are twice-weekly Discord activities for active learning and teamwork sessions.

Discord originated as a platform for communications in multi-player online games. Some college-aged people have been using Discord since middle school! There was a sharp learning curve as Nathans-Kelly sorted through how it might be adapted for teaching content aimed at accomplishing the technical communication requirements of Cornell’s College of Engineering. In order to avoid any issues related to FERPA, nothing graded would take place on Discord. The platform is used for the following:

  • Announcements: The platform is one more location to copy/paste information about the course.
  • Student questions: Using a group chat, students can see the professors and TAs responding to questions. In this course, a culture was created where students began helping each other to answer queries, too.
  • Workday availability: During scheduled hours, students in any of the 21 teams can “ping” instructors and TAs in Discord. For example, once a team pings Nathans-Kelly, she can open an audio channel with one click for an efficient, targeted conversation while she is at her computer. Moving between student teams during any given course hour is quick, easy, and efficient — more so, she claims, than being in the physical classroom.
  • Workday sharing: In the moment, teams can immediately share documents, code snippets, screenshares, video, visual references for art, and a myriad of other course-related items.
  • Team organization: Each team is given a channel where they are expected to communicate about their projects. While students might choose to use other modes of communication, they quickly find the usefulness of the course resources — especially their TAs and professors — that are linked throughout the Discord server.

In this professor’s particular teaching context, using Discord seems to result in the creation of a place where students seem more themselves. Dr. Nathans-Kelly notes, carefully, that there is a process of professionalization for students as they work through issues of “netiquette” in a decentered work context. There’s a crucial observation to be made: When teachers adapt an online gaming platform for a professional environment like higher education — and when a platform presents students with an intuitive, familiar aesthetic — then the teachers must equip students with the self-reflexive, critical awareness about their online personas. Otherwise, teachers culpably risk harm to their students at the hands of other students who uncritically carry social behaviors into the learning environment. Nearly every university course uses online platforms. As discussed by Dr. Cassie Smith and Dr. Lisa Dorr, every professor should begin their course by engaging students in a dialogue about the rules of engagement and netiquette.

Unlike Slack or Piazza, Discord allows for immediate “communications via text, voice and video channels” within a single platform. In their view, Discord provides a means of real-time, private engagement in a “middle ground” between an LMS like Blackboard and videoconferencing platforms like Zoom. It gives professors and TAs more options than mute/unmute. And it easily enabled delegation throughout the class. The professor can assign permissions and freedoms across all elements of the platform.

For example, TAs may be enabled to move across groups and channels with a single click. And just like a classroom, Discord keeps everything within the walls of a secure, private environment. Raiding can be prevented (see below). The server can be configured to store everything — all the visual and textual actions — that takes place to provide “persistent information” for the professor (which may be essential for teaching netiquette). Finally, like an analog classroom full of workgroups, “multiple students [can] simultaneously stream in multiple channels without the platform sacrificing bandwidth and quality.”

There are several lessons learned that aren’t necessarily unique to Discord:

  • Everyone needs onboarding. There’s a learning curve for the professor, the GTAs, and the students.
  • Setting up a non-conventional online learning tool/option, such as Discord, must be done with intent and planning. Since everything is configurable, teaching staff need to understand and manage permissions thoroughly.
  • Interactions need persistent critical assessment. There is an upkeep demand that must be evaluated.
  • Teaching staff can be privately messaged by students at any hour. Instructors and TAs need to be able to set life/work balance rules for themselves.
  • Raiding (malicious invasion by external actors) can be prevented with specific measures such as:
    • Require participants to use their institutional IDs.
    • Default all new users to see only one channel, #verify, whose history is not viewable to users.
    • Teaching staff will enable further permissions after new users complete onboarding.
    • All of this requires hands-on management by a member of the teaching staff.

Finally, advanced instructors might want to consider Discord bots “to centralize course tasks and remove pressure on instructors or TAs to manage the course manually.” Discord offers templates for many kinds of bots, but the bot “Big Red” was developed to streamline some of the course administration tasks. Big Red’s open-source code can be found on GitHub.

Taking the lessons learned in Spring 2020 to Spring 2021, Dr. Nathans-Kelly plans to continue using Discord for targeted uses in courses, even when courses return to face-to-face.