Give Teachers Some Slack: A Tool for Connecting Educators

Teachers are known for their tendency to beg, borrow, and plead for the resources they need to create the best-possible classroom experiences for their students — especially when school budgets fail to cover such minor (but essential) expenses as classroom supplies.

Their resourcefulness extends beyond procuring pencils and paper; educators are also embracing digital tools that enable collaboration and resource-sharing at no cost. For instance, teachers and other education professionals have a major presence on social media sites like Twitter and Pinterest because these platforms facilitate networking with others who have shared goals. Twitter, in particular, is teeming with worldwide networks of teachers and administrators who participate in education-centered chats. The award-winning weekly #EdChat is moderated by professionals in the education field who facilitate information-sharing about pedagogical practices, policy and reform, and the integration of technology into the classroom.

Slack in the Ed Space

Enter Slack. Slack functions like Twitter, using @mentions and #hashtags to organize conversations around themes, which take place in specific channels — either public or private. These dedicated channels allow conversations to occur without the noise of a Twitter feed.

Slack may at first seem an unlikely educator tool. After all, it is not a social networking site, but rather an office chat service that allows teams to collaborate and communicate with each other. It decreases the need for email and helps team members manage and organize conversations within a searchable platform. Slack is often used in small startups and office — but it is quickly growing in popularity among educators.

Applications to Education

One origin of Slack’s education story is Tim Monreal, a cofounder of Crowdschool and a middle school social studies teacher. He launched SlackEDU as an experiment to unite the world’s education professionals on their own version of a Slack team. His aim was to promote connectivity within the education field. There are currently 252 educators on the team, and more join every day. Users can participate in theme-based conversations like #engaginglearners, #teachsmarter, and #middleschool, without having to limit their thoughts to 140 characters. In the #middleschool channel, an educator recently asked for “cool activities to help students learn about Mesopotamia” and was met with a number of new resources and ideas.

One of the most active channels is called #slowchat, which is a forum where teachers debate current policy and practice issues. A recent topic of discussion in the #slowchat channel was the continuing use of education practices or tools that don’t necessarily produce the desired outcomes.

Those interested in exchanging longer-form communications can also use the app to share files. Slack currently integrates 80 other tools; for instance, Google Drive and Dropbox work seamlessly with Slack so that users can develop and share resources instantly. (In both cases, sharing files is as easy as pasting a link or importing a document.)

While SlackEDU and other user-created forums are not affiliated with Slack itself, the company does have a program called Slack for Education, which offers 85 percent discounts on annual plans for nonprofit, accredited K–12 institutions.

Uses for Many Disciplines

The physical education/gym teacher community has found a use for Slack, according to ThePhysicalEducator blog. For physical education teachers, standard professional development activities, or PLCs — Professional Learning Communities — may not always be available or necessarily useful if the topic of discussion isn’t relevant for all subjects or electives. The founder of Team #PhysEd has created several channels — including #pegeeks — in which members can talk about “the meaningful application of technology in physical education pedagogy.”

Educators who are dedicated to ESL instruction, counseling, gifted and talented teaching, and speech therapy may similarly find a lack of time and opportunity to work with colleagues in their fields — and turn to Slack to meet the need to share resources and information.

The Need for Community and Collaboration

The ability to collaborate and communicate is important, especially because teaching can be a desperately isolating profession. In the traditional model of schooling in which teachers are responsible for their own classes, they often work alone with only brief periods of collaboration. According to Primary Sources: America's Teachers on the Teaching Profession, published by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2012, teachers spend on average only 15 minutes a day collaborating with colleagues. But of teachers surveyed, 89 percent indicated that time for teachers to collaborate was “Absolutely Essential” or “Very Important.”

Unfortunately, teachers’ collaborative planning time is often eaten away by mandatory professional development, staff meetings, or parent conferences, a reality that leaves little time for teamwork. Collaboration, therefore, occurs informally, often over a hurried lunch or in the hallway. PLCs have created more space for shared work, but they are constrained by time. Teacher schedules are like stacks of Swiss cheese: The open spaces rarely align so that teachers can actually meet.

Time will tell if Slack will be adopted by the education community to the extent that Twitter and Pinterest have been. The question is certainly on many educators’ minds, though. There is a SlackEDU channel called #future-of-slack-edu. This channel mirrors the aims of SlackEDU at large: It is meant to ensure that best practices for the tool itself are conceived and communicated as effectively as best practices for teaching are on SlackEDU.

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