Build a community with your students

Cat on a laptop

As we move into online and remote (and hybrid, whatever that is, for however long/short it lasts) teaching, a few folks have asked about having a “teaching on Discord” tutorial.

Well, I won’t call this a tutorial; rather it’s an overview of how I’ve used Discord on various servers (note: I’ve included a glossary at the end of this post) for online community interaction. A quick caveat: I’ve only been using Discord since March 2020, though I’ve now used it for my writing/postgrad community, set up and moderated two servers for online conferences, and one for online teaching in higher education. I certainly don’t know everything about it, but I’ll try to include the resources I’ve used here.

What is Discord

Discord is a chat (text, voice, and video) platform (OS-independent). You can use it in-browser, as a desktop application, and/or a mobile app. It was originally created (and is still largely used for) gamer communities, thus its icon resembling a game controller. When COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns hit, a lot of people turned to the platform to reconnect with their communities, as I did.

What makes it different from Slack or Canvas or a lot of other platforms many are turning to is that it was always open and flexible, making it highly adaptable for a lot of uses. A lot of the other platforms are specifically built for one type of user (business, schools, etc.), and many of them require institutional subscriptions. Discord does not, and I have yet to be very limited by its free services given the scales of the communities I build. Premium services seem to be for servers with much larger communities than I have yet anticipated building.

This openness also means it’s moddable, resulting in a rich assortment of “bots” you can use to perform customized functions within a single server. If you’re so inclined, you can even build your own (though it’s quite a process requiring some tech skills, so I tend to stick with the existing bots).

What is Discord Good For

Community

Most of the activity takes place on the text channels, which means server members can chat with one another asynchronously. This is a big benefit to online classes, as students can connect to one another in a common space, but don’t need a timetable to do so.

Flexibility

You can add and modify channels on whims. You can slow down discussions if they’re going too fast. You can add automated moderation bots that look out for banned words, and temporarily mute the offenders. You can set member roles and use those to limit access to specific channels, or grant specific powers. You can hop onto a voice channel if necessary. You can split groups out into voice channels or text channels for group work or smaller discussions.

Archiving

Discord doesn’t delete anything. Ever. So all the chats and resources posted in text channels will remain, as long as you don’t delete them (and you can limit students’ power to delete their stuff). (Voice/video chatting is not recorded.)

Automation

You can set bots to do specific tasks so you don’t have to. Class schedule with reminders. Server moderation. FAQ responses. Yes, there’s a bit of a learning curve to this. There’s a learning curve to everything. But I’m always up for learning a little bit of something if it will cut down on the dang student emails.

Names/pronouns

Each member can update their displayed name on each server, so you can easily see who they are. And by allowing students to choose a specific role for their pronouns (such as with a reaction bot, see below), you can easily see what their pronouns are.

Some Downsides to Discord

The learning curve

The same flexibility and adaptability that make it so useful can make it overwhelming for new users, especially if you’re joining a few already-established servers, because it can do a lot of things. Nothing has ever been deleted, tons of people are hopping around on different channels, bots are botting, and you feel like you can’t keep up.

My suggestion: it costs you nothing to create a test server and play with it. Create and delete channels. Create and delete roles and permissions and bots. Set things up and play around with them. Second, take a deep breath and see what you like about those other servers: is there anything you can duplicate? Anything you definitely don’t want to do?

Limited file sharing

There’s not much organization or infrastructure for a lot of file sharing, which makes sense when you consider Discord’s origins. You can post plenty of links and memes, and indeed post some files in the text channels, but they’re ugly and disorganized, with no way to edit organization after posting. At best you can include a resources channel where only admins can post, and put up resources there. (I haven’t yet found a bot with this functionality — happy to edit if one exists!)

Limits on upload size

I can’t even post a 30-second video of my chickens. It’s easy to get around by posting on YouTube and putting the link in Discord, but it’s not as nice as native capability. This is just about the one and only limit I’ve encountered with the free vs. premium use of Discord.

Lack of threaded conversations

The text channels are one big thread. If someone replies to another person, it could have 10 messages separating the two. This is probably one reason for Discord’s “slow down” function for text channels; the conversation can quickly get unwieldy. It makes it hard for students who, say, aren’t there for the primary discussion to catch up later.

Security/privacy

I haven’t researched this extensively, as I haven’t officially taught a module using Discord. I would put it on a level with Facebook and other social media. I wouldn’t post individual assessment feedback or marks on Discord, that’s for sure. Stick to official institutional platforms for sensitive information.

Some Examples of How I’ve Used Discord

Writing Community

This community is composed of current students (postgrads), former students, colleagues, friends, and other writers/game designers. It’s expanded beyond my own circle as server members extend invitations to their own circles, but for the most part it tends to be people I know in one way or the other. Like any community, it has a core group, which is mostly my current postgrads, as they are the ones still intensively doing work and needing community, but they are by no means the only active members.

We do a lot of different things here. We run timed writing sessions on voice or text channels. We’ve played role-playing games (a common use for Discord). We have collaborated on some fiction and game designs. We have an A/V club to discuss podcasts and books and TV and film and games. We share art and writing and games and memes with one another. This has been the key social resource for many of us in the last few months, and the added benefit is that being a part of this community has really boosted the creative juices for many of us.

Online conferences

For the two conferences where I created a Discord server (ELO 2020 and ACM-Hypertext 2020), it served as the “coffee in the hallways between talks” space. The talks themselves took place on Zoom or Twitch, and then attendees returned to Discord to chat, post resources, ask questions; these conversations could carry on for days after the original talk.

The Discord space also provided channels to prep for talks and workshops, if such was needed. We enabled a schedule bot (SESH) that had all sessions posted in its channel; attendees could RSVP to specific talks, and opt in for direct message reminders. We even managed a cross ELO-ACMHT text channel (using HaileyBot) that populated in both servers simultaneously.

Teaching (obviously)

As noted, I use this with my postgrads, and it makes for a nice replacement to the weekly “lab” meetings I used to hold with them. Others are trialling it for teaching undergrad courses this year, and I’m eager to see what they’re doing with them. So far people are attempting to use the voice channels for smaller breakout groups or different topic discussions and supervision for programming sessions. One instructor has created channels where the students can have discussion without the instructor, giving them a space of their own.

Resources for Discord

First, let me point out that Discord, like many digital things these days, doesn’t really come with a step-by-step set of instructions. It’s more an intuitive thing. So I urge you to just grab an account and create a server and have a play with it. You can’t break it.

The bots I’ve used are:

Carl-bot. Carl-bot is a multi-use bot I use to let members set their pronouns (through Reaction Roles), and to send a custom welcome message to each person as they join the server. TBH, I haven’t even used Carl-bot for all his functions, which include auto-modding. I can see this really coming in handy for big classes of undergrads. Carl-bot can also set up polls, which can be really useful in discussions.

HaileyBot. HaileyBot is another multi-use bot, with polling, look-up, translation, and calculation functions. What I used her for, however, was one specific function that is rare among Discord servers: the ability to have a “cross-server” text channel (or what HaileyBot calls “global chat”). This could be really useful, for instance, if you’ve got one server for each module, and you want to make a global announcements channel across all of them.

SESH. SESH has the best scheduling and reminder functions I could find. It would be ideal if a bot could connect to an established calendar (say on G-Cal) and use that as the basis for a class schedule and reminders, but as of July, I couldn’t find one that really worked well. You create the calendar events through SESH, and it creates a G-Cal for you. It then posts the schedule in a specified channel on your server, and can be set to give reminders either in channel or through DM. Useful little guy.

IFTTT/Zapier. These are services that allow you to set up automated “if-this-then-that” workflow functions across multiple digital apps, including Discord. A mod on one of the Discord conference servers created a Zapier workflow that took events from a Google Calendar and posted them in the server. In the end, it worked okay, just not as cleanly and with as many functions as SESH (and I didn’t have time to fiddle with it). But if you’re a bit of a tinkerer, you can use these to build some automated things for your server without resorting to creating your own bot.

Of course, there are tons of other bots out there: bots that can play YouTube as background music on voice channels, create anime characters, reward points, play games, and even archive your server.

Have suggestions and updates? Let me know in the comments and I’ll edit to include!

Discord Glossary

Server — Basically like a main forum. Social media equivalents are: a subreddit, a Facebook group, a Slack channel. You can be a member of many different servers. If you’d like to join others, there are lists online. You can also create your own!

Channel — These are basically separate forums on a particular server (like threads in a subreddit). There are Text Channels (for text chatting) and Voice Channels (for voice and/or video chatting). If you’re not sure what a channel is for, click on it. It may have a description that appears on the top bar of the channel window, or some explanatory “pinned” posts that you can access by clicking the pushpin icon on the top bar of the window.

Pinned Posts — Posts that are important to a particular channel can be pinned and accessed through the pushpin icon on the top bar of the Discord window. Multiple posts can be pinned.

Role — Roles are categories of members on a particular Discord server. Different roles can have different permissions, allowing the server admin a level of control over what members can read and post.

Bot — You may see some bots appearing in forums and in the members list of a server. Bots are how server admins mod the server for specific functions. These include special welcome messages when you arrive on the server and auto-assigning you pronouns in the #roles-and-pronouns channel.

Some things you can do:

Change your “nickname” (what is displayed when you post a chat): find yourself in the list of users to the right. Right-click, and select “change nickname”.

Update your profile (right-click on a username and select “Profile”) You can change your user description to inform folks about yourself and your area of expertise. Find your username either from a message you posted or in the list of users on the right, right-click your name, and click “Profile”. This will give you a text box where you can update your user description.

Text vs. Voice Channels: Discord channels are either “Text Channels” or “Voice Channels” (which can also be used for vidchat). If anyone is in a Voice Channel, you will see their username/nickname listed underneath the channel name. To enter a Voice Channel, simply click on the name of the channel. You will see your username/nickname appear in that channel. Your mic & speaker controls are available below the channels list. To leave a Voice Channel, click the phone hangup icon below the channels list. To link to a specific channel in a server, type #. You’ll get a list of channels you can select as a link.

“Ping” members: type @ in a text channel to get a list of members and roles that you can mention in your post, and they will get a specific notification. This is useful if you need to find someone or ask someone a specific question.

Mute servers and channels, and Set Notifications: tired of constant pings every time someone posts? Use either right-clicks or the settings icon (gear symbol) to mute a channel or server for a specific length of time, and to manage your notifications. (Your user settings are bottom-left, below the channels list.)

Writer/researcher in digital writing, interactive narrative, & digital publishing. Hoping for the United Federation of Planets; worried we’re doomed to the 100.

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