As lockdown continues, most of us will by now have had some experience with Zoom or Skype, whether it’s an online tutorial or seminar, an overly complex ‘pub’ quiz, or a slightly awkward conversation with family, where you struggle to think of anything new to talk about and end up in an excited debate about which supermarket is most likely to have eggs.
Sometimes, it’s a fantastic experience, and it helps to maintain connections with other people in an isolated world. But it’s far from perfect. Has someone frozen or are they just sitting really still? Is this an awkward silence or have I been dropped? Did grandma always sound like that or has she accidentally turned on a robot voice filter? How do we tactfully bring up that someone has turned themselves into a potato (see image below)? Not to mention the extra mental strain that video calling can introduce (https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200421-why-zoom-video-chats-are-so-exhausting).
Not everyone has access to blazing fast WiFi, or a high-quality webcam and microphone, and time zones can make accessing synchronous content difficult or impossible for international students. So, after a slightly painful half an hour long set up for a video podcast with the other student fellows last week, I did some digging on the internet, and have put together a short list of other tools that can be used to help students collaborate without Skype or Zoom.
Discord – Synchronous and Asynchronous
I’m a huge fan of Discord. Originally created to help teams of gamers crush goblins in World of Warcraft, Discord has seen huge uptake as a simple and effective way for people to communicate online.
To get started you set up a private server which requires a specific invite to join. What’s great about the server is that you can have multiple chat and voice channels under one umbrella, so all students can be in one place and interact with everyone, but also break out into groups for group work, or have specific areas to talk about certain subjects or assignments. This really helps to streamline chat, making it less confusing when there’s large groups, and means students can find the right place to ask a question or have a discussion quickly or easily.
Voice channels are there for synchronous teaching or group work. Discord is really reliable for voice-only, and it often allows students with less than stellar WiFi to get involved or use data without eating up all of their allowance. Although voice only can feel less interactive, it allows students to use their computers for research or other tasks at the same time, and fewer connectivity issues can make things go a lot more smoothly and facilitate better discussion. There’s also a ‘Go-Live’ feature which allows an instructor to share their screen with up to 50 people, which can be great for delivering focussed online teaching. There is video calling built in but at the moment the limit is 25 people and in my experience you’re better off sticking to Skype or Zoom for video chat.
Chat channels allow for collaboration in an asynchronous manner. They can be joined at any time, so students can use them like a forum to discuss material and ask questions, or post useful files, links and images. Chat is also continuously available, so if there has been a synchronous teaching session, students can still scroll up and look through the chat to see the discussion and any key points they might have missed.
- Really reliable for voice-only calls
- Discussion can be easily split into different voice and text channels for group work and focussed discussion
- All shared content and text discussion is available 24/7
- Tutorials available for how to use Discord for online teaching
- Not great for video chat
- Does require an account and an app or desktop program (but is free!)
Collaborative Documents – Asynchronous
The ease with which you can collaborate in real-time on a document without being in the same room still amazes me. The best two free tools for this are Office 365 (which all Bristol students have access to) and Google Docs (which requires a Gmail account but is free).
An entire group of students can work together on the same piece of work at once, or whenever they are able to, and everyone else can see the changes as they happen. You can see who’s made changes where and which bits have been contributed by different authors, which makes it easy to split work up. The most useful feature, however, is the ability to give highly specified feedback on a word, line or entire section, which can be responded to, to track changes. This means that if students can’t find time to work on something all together, they can still have a discussion about specific elements and give each other helpful feedback and comments.
It doesn’t have to just be used for group work either – it can be a great way to scaffold whole class discussion and tasks. For example, a paper or piece of writing can be added to a collaborative document, and students can add comments and thoughts all over the document, and respond to what other students have said. It can be a lot more natural than trying to explain yourself in a Facebook chat or on a forum if people can see exactly what you are referring to. Using collaborative documents for whole class work means there is a valuable resource for students to go back to for reference at any time.
- Free and very easy to use
- Allows for collaboration across large timescales
- Detailed and specific feedback and comments can be given
- Doesn’t allow for the same freedom of discussion as specific chat-based services
- Might require some set-up from the instructor for it to be used most effectively
Confluence – Asynchronous
Confluence is similar to Office 365/Google Docs but with group work features dialled up to 11. It’s a simple word processor, allowing the same real time collaboration and in-context feedback, but it offers a far greater ability to organise documents and work as a small team. Work is split up into ‘rooms’ which group relevant work together, whether it’s individual notes or key projects or topic areas. Where it shines over the collaborative document processors is in the ability to set up teams, include key project management information, and include other services like to-do lists, calendars and project timelines.
Confluence is industry-standard which has advantages and disadvantages. It means that it’s designed to work as effectively as possible, without confusing or unnecessary features, and helps students to develop key digital skills and project management skills that are relevant to the workplace. Unfortunately, it also means there’s a cost involved. There is a free plan, which gives you many features with a limited team size, or paid plans are available depending on the features that are needed.
- Easy and simple organisation of a project
- Integration of project management tools
- Experience using industry-standard software
- Free plan has limited tools
- May take some time for students to get used to it
- Only really works for small-group project-based work
Of course, these are just a drop in the ocean compared to the hordes of collaboration tools out there. But with the possibility of teaching going digital for the foreseeable future, the more ways students can still work together, even while physically apart, the better. If there’s one thing to take away from this article – go and check out Discord. Creating a sense of community for incoming students looks like it might be one of the biggest challenges facing the university. If used well, providing students with a single unified space where they can talk in their own time, and quickly and easily join live discussions might go some way towards helping with that.
Toby Roberts, BILT Student Fellow