August 27, 2017

This week a few colleagues and I investigated a collaboration & communication app called Slack. I first heard of Slack from my cousin who was raving about its use in a business environment, and he wanted to know if we have tried it in school yet. I have to admit at first glance I was not very impressed. Slack seems to take a simple concept like Whatsapp groups and complicate it. But having played around with it for a few weeks, have opened my eyes to some of the possibilities.

How does Slack work?

Slack is a hybrid between emails and Whatsapp groups aiming to streamline intra-organisational communication. It is based on organisations or teams with different channels (groups) in the organisation. When you get invited to an organisation, you have access to and can join any of the open channels in the team. When you add a message on a channel everybody in that channel immediately receives it. You could also create private channels, that can only be joined by invitation or send direct messages to a particular person. Since you could log into Slack from both your phone and computer, files, links and not just photos can be shared with ease.

Slack vs Whatsapp groups

We all know that teachers struggle not to take their work home. By keeping all school conversations in Slack and personal conversations in Whatsapp, it is easier to separate work and play. Slack also has a nice feature to set office hours, so I have set mine not to sent me notifications after 18:00.

When a new teacher joins the staff, it can be cumbersome to add them to all the appropriate Whatsapp groups. If you are using Slack instead, you only need to invite the new teacher to the team, and they can browse the list of channels and join everything that applies to them. You can also set certain channels so that everybody gets added to them automatically.

While I am sitting here, my phone is pinging the whole time, because the grade 8 teachers on our maths group have a discussion that I do not need to take part in. Slack allows you to take a conversation off to the side if it is between just a few people in a channel of to the side, so everybody does not need to follow it.

While new channels on Slack can be created on an ad-hoc basis like Whatsapp groups, unlike Whatsapp, Slack offers the opportunity to create a structure according to a plan. I think the success of Slack is going to depend heavily on how well you plan it initially. One person needs to be responsible for creating channels and making sure that the right people are on the right channels. (And that people use the appropriate channels for their message, not just any channel.) Slack also offer different options as to how you want your channels to be displayed. No more scrolling down, searching for a group.

One of the things that always bother me from Whatsapp is that once you join a group everybody in the group has your phone number. Slack is email based, so there is no need to exchange phone numbers. This is especially useful if you are planning to use Slack to communicate with learners.

On a practical side, Slack can be used both in your web browser and on your phone. I found downloading the phone app to make it much easier to use, but it is nice that you can use it from your computer especially if you want to share files.

The downside of Slack in schools

Like everything in life, there are disadvantages. The first problem is that it is another app that you have register for, download and check regularly. (I also still have a few questions about the privacy of messages on Slack)

Slack can also easily be over whelming. If there is no clear structure to the channels and somebody that initially ensure that everybody is in the right channels, it can quickly become chaos.

The successful use of Slack will also depend heavily on total buy in from everybody involved. Either everybody is using it, and it is the only channel for communication, or it is not worth it. For Slack to work, everybody needs the app on their phone and Slack open in their browser all the time. And even then it has the potential of just becoming another online chat room.

3 Ways to use Slack in schools

The most obvious way to use it is a medium for all staff communication. Create channels for every subject group, committee and sport. Morning meetings, notices and announcements can very easily be posted on Slack, and even the part-time teachers will be up to date. By moving all internal communication to Slack, email inboxes will be reserved for external communication and will hopefully be more manageable. However, this can have an adverse effect if it means that staff do not check their emails as often anymore.

If your subject includes a comprehensive group project, like Drama practicals, Slack will be ideally suited to keep track of the different groups. You create a team for your class with a different channel for each group. You will be able to easily keep track of where the groups are in their project and give a little direction or motivation where necessary, all in one place and without infringing on your or their privacy.

My ultimate dream for something like Slack would be to get the whole school on board and use it as a type of helpline. You have different channels for the various subjects and anybody can post a question they are struggling with and get help from anyone in the school. So a grade 8 can post a question and receive help from a grade 10 or 11. And while you have everybody on Slack you can have channels for all sports teams, committees etc.

In the future, I expect we are going to see apps like Slack play a bigger and bigger role as everybody attempts to find the most effective way to deal with the increase in communication in the workplace.

How would you use Slack in your school?

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