Ashley Lear, Embry-RIddle Aeronautical University
Key Statement: Voice-over IP (VoIP) is an effective tool for engaging with students that produces a well-organized and hyper-filtered series of group chats, helping users shut out the noise of the internet and locate the signals through the static.
Discord is a voice-over IP (VoIP)—or a way to make voice calls using broadband internet, rather than phonelines—with widespread use among college students. The original purpose of Discord was a VoIP for gamers in multiplayer games. However, it has proven effective for engaging with students in hybrid or remote environments during the pandemic. Conversations in servers established in Discord are organized into administrator-defined channels that are either text-based or allow for video/audio stream. This produces a well-organized and hyper-filtered series of group chats that help users shut out the noise of the internet and locate the signals through the static.
photocredit Caspar Camille Rubin
Meeting Students Where They Are
Benefits of Using Discord
Discord works well as a communication tool because many students are already using it, and it does not require a social media presence. It is easy to access from any device, free to use, and does not include advertisements. Discord makes money through enhanced service packages and games sold in the Discord online store without advertising for those games and services on the main user site, meaning that you are not bombarded with ads or algorithms to detect your interests in purchasing items. The site gives students easy access to one another for questions related to the class or community building. Students in my class have even begun setting up peer tutoring for other classes using the community they have formed on my class’s server. The different channels allow them to share ideas and materials outside of class. During COVID-19, the Discord server has been invaluable in helping remote learners, students in quarantine, or students trying to decide whether they have a cold or COVID, join the class virtually and participate in discussions, small group activities, and lectures from the comfort of their homes, cars, or dorm rooms.
In my classroom, I encouraged participation on Discord by sending the invite link before our first class. Students were anxious to learn about one another and the class and joined to start conversing prior to class. During the first class, they were active on the server, commenting on the class, but also goofing off and doing the equivalent of “passing notes” to each other. I began the semester by making allowances for this behavior to make the students feel more comfortable in our strange new COVID-19 classroom environment and then became stricter when focused activities were required.
How To Use Discord
To get started, you simply need to set up a free member account at discord.com and create a server for your class with an icon and description. Because Discord is privately owned and not supported by most universities, faculty members will need to allow students the option of joining the class server and offer alternative ways of communicating information through the approved LMS. Faculty should also review any academic policies related to social media or online communication to ensure that they set up appropriate guidelines for students in the server. Students may choose not to use the application because of privacy issues or the saturation of communication applications. Once the server is created, an invite button will generate a shareable URL to allow other users (students) to join your server. By default, the invite URL expires in 24 hours, but you can extend that timeline in “invite settings” to make the URL permanent or to extend the period in which it can be used. Within your server you add channels for different types of communication and organize them into subgroups. These channels can be text/image or audio/video, and either directly related to class content (classroom, groups) or community-building (memes, general, shared interests):
Classroom - A video-based channel allows students learning remotely (e.g., distance learning or quarantining) to join our class through a video stream. Discord also allows full screen sharing with audio, so you can switch between browser screens and documents without needing to re-share the screen each time.
Groups - Video channels for group work allow students to complete in-class activities without having to worry about social distancing. Once the groups are established, you can drag and drop users from the classroom channel into different group channels and then drag them back into the classroom when the activity is over. Students can use the group channels outside of class for collaborative projects.
General - This is the default channel. Discussion happens during and between classes on a variety of issues. It tends to get messy and chaotic quickly.
Memes - Students love being able to share memes related to the class for community-building and entertainment.
Shared interests – The most active channel among my students is pet pictures, which features all my students' beloved pets.
Comparison With Similar Digital Tools
Zoom and Microsoft Teams are the current leaders in video chatting, used for remote classes, office hours, and tutoring centers during the pandemic. Both platforms are intended primarily for video calls and take up a good deal of computer processing power, not to mention that all such tools require downloading and familiarizing yourself with the different interfaces. Discord is meant primarily as a voice stream and can function in that capacity with limited use of processing power, while also having the capability to add video when needed for remote joining. For in-class activities and discussions that do not require grading, Discord works far better than Canvas or other learning management systems, especially in a socially distanced pandemic classroom. It is easy to set up and use the multiple channels. During class, students in one channel can be moved into another channel by the instructor or the students. For example, on one of our beautiful Florida days, students wanted to have class outside. It was easy to drag the remote learners into group channels with other students and have them continue their discussions in the quad without missing a beat. In class surveys administered to my students during and after the semester in which Discord was used, students who were familiar with Discord preferred it over other group communication apps, like GroupMe or WhatsApp, because of the tool’s ability to set up multiple servers and channels within servers to organize communication among different communities. A class server may use separate channels for in-class work or questions for the instructor. Using the @ designation, communication can be directed toward individual users within the group on the different channels. Like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, it works in a standalone application on a mobile or desktop device, but it can also be opened in an internet browser by logging into the Discord website.
Finally, Discord has become a new meeting place for Gen-Z students who eschew social networking as intrusive and overly controlled by system algorithms. Facebook and Twitter have been at the forefront of political propaganda and viral dissemination of materials on behalf of corporate and political entities. Instagram has the reputation of being self-promotional. TikTok and Snapchat, while entertaining, do not allow for the meaningful interactions and discussions that require more time and connection between users. Discord has become a new virtual hangout that gives students the connections they need without the interference and surveillance of typical social networking platforms.
Hopefully, I have convinced some of you to give Discord a chance in your classrooms or other meeting places. Adding flexibility and autonomy to our interactions with one another will be a positive step forward in today’s growing virtual environments.
How could Discord be used to promote better collaboration among students on group projects in your class?
What types of channels do you think your students would use for in-class and out-of-class communications?
What could be the drawbacks of implementing a technology such as Discord into your existing courses?
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