Online faculty tend to assume that all student communication needs to go through the learning management system (LMS). But the LMS is not designed for the more spontaneous synchronous chat that you might get in a campus hallway or coffee shop, where someone might say, “Hey, did you see that article yesterday in the newspaper?” Faculty can recover that immediacy using the free chat app Discord.
Discord allows users to post voice or video comments that everyone registered for the same chat area can see. It was originally popular with multiplayer gamers who wanted to speak to one another as they played. But it has since expanded into a variety of realms, including education. In fact, it now boasts over 250 million users.
To use Discord, faculty first sign up and then create a “server”—Discord’s name for a private chat area. (The term is a holdover from its gaming origins; games like World of Warcraft divide players by server.) You can create up to 100 servers, and once they’re created, you invite students to join. I recommend using a different server for each class you teach. The server allows you to immediately send the invite link to your students or post it to your LMS message board.
When someone posts a voice message to a server, everyone registered for it receives a text that there is a conversation happening and can chime in as they wish. Students can also privately message you or anyone else in the server if they would like to ask a question without the entire class being able to read it.
I started using Discord in all my classes in the fall 2020 semester to enable students to share and spontaneously communicate with one another and build community while online. Since I was delivering my lectures asynchronously, I would post my lecture on Canvas and then be available on Discord for conversation if needed. Outside of class time I would reply to Discord when I could, but often I was much faster replying to Discord chat than to emails. This is because it was like a text message on my phone rather than a proper, formal response. It was just easier. With Discord, there is no need to log in each time you want to check for a message. You know when people are reading your posts and responding to your messages by way of animations in the app and notifications on your device if you have left the app, and you can simply give a thumbs up on a message to let people know you understand.
To promote conversation, every other morning over coffee I started to post articles from my phone’s news feed before heading to campus. After a few days, students started commenting on the articles I was posting, and we would discuss the content and how it applied to our communities and personal lives. Sometimes these conversations lasted an hour, other times less than 20 minutes. But students were engaging with the content, and we started to get to know each other and where we stood on important topics from my lessons. All conversations took place in a community forum where all students could chime in. After about two weeks, students were answering each others’ questions about the course content without any nudge from me; they then asked me to create a “game night” section in the course server so they could chat and get together on their own. I also learned that they were creating their own Discord servers for classes that did not have a place for them to meet and chat. Discord has proven to be a powerful tool in my online delivery, allowing me to connect with students and students to connect with each other in a familiar text messaging medium.
Unlike an LMS, Discord can run as a background app on a smartphone, making it more likely that students will post messages about things they encounter in their daily lives. I almost exclusively use Discord from my phone unless a student asks to chat at a scheduled time; then I will get on my computer (this is just in case I need to share my screen with them to explain something more thoroughly). If students need more help than can be offered through chat, you can not only cast your screen to the group or private chat areas but also use video chat if necessary. With the help of this software, I have helped students understand bivariate analysis from my cell phone while walking along the river near my house; I have also connected students to campus support teams for counseling and financial aid to get through difficult times caused by pandemic isolation. I believe that the use of this software has had an enormous impact on student engagement in my courses, allowing me to reach students more quickly and informally, which has helped us all work more efficiently. As one of my students put it,
Discord has been an exceptional addition to my experience of the Environmental Sustainability course. It allows real-time discussion with professors and students at any time of the week and keeps students informed on what is going on in the class. It is far easier to use than MyCanvas or Outlook, and I find that Discord brings back the social aspect of school that is otherwise omitted with online classes. Students can share articles, stories, and have discussions easily, and professors can join in and answer students’ questions anytime. Overall, Discord has made my experience of this semester far less lonely, as it has provided me with a sense of community with my classmates and has made the course easier to understand and work with overall.
Discord also allows instructors to set roles for users. Typically, I set up two roles. The first is a student role that limits students to posting in the text chat and speaking in the voice channels. I also set up a professor role that has control of the entire server. This way the user list is separated so they can see when I am online as my username will be a different color than theirs and I can easily be found. Setting a restricted role for students also means that they cannot really mess with each other. If these roles were not set, students could change each others’ names, kick and ban each other from the server, and post any media they wanted. In other words, the server could become a mess if roles are not set before students access the server. I also recommend having students use their real names as their Discord nicknames. This makes it easy to know who said what.
Discord also includes “bots,” which are a kind of artificial intelligence that can be set to scan messages for key words and phrases. The bots available in Discord can do all sorts of impressive things, and you could spend hours searching through them. I use a bot called MEE6. MEE6 can “automatically scan your server’s chat for foul language, bad links, spam, and spoilers and warn users of rule violations. You can also configure MEE6 to mute, kick, or ban users after a certain number of infractions” (Taylor, 2020). Most important, MEE6 can set roles for anyone that joins your server and send them a message explaining what actions they need to take to stay on the server. My MEE6 automatically assigns any user other than myself to a student role and walks them through the rules. Surprisingly, after using Discord with 500 students I have heard no complaints.
Discord has been a great addition to my teaching. If you want to learn more, take a look at this post for educators on Discord’s blog and try it yourself.
Taylor, M. (2020, June 8). How to add Discord bots. https://droplr.com/how-to/productivity-tools/how-to-use-discord-bots
Shaun Iles, MEd, is a liberal studies professor at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario.