Written By: Emily Crawford
Getting students to participate in class discussions can be difficult. Encouraging discussion outside of the classroom can be even more challenging. Luckily, there are an increasing number of applications out there that can conveniently facilitate discussion outside of the classroom in a streamlined, easy to use way. Here are our three top picks and how they compare!
Piazza is a “free online gathering place” offers excellent tools for both basic discussion and more complex collaboration, including trackable edits from both students and instructors. It uses a wiki-style framework, which means that students and instructors can edit one another’s posts. This feature may or may not be relevant for basic discussions, but it can be great for collaboration and providing group feedback on a specific project or document.
Students and instructors can post a “Note,” a “Question,” or a “Poll/In-Class Response,” all of which can be edited by classmates and instructors. A “note” is a simple post, like a comment on a forum. A “question” prompts a response, or “answer” post, which can come from any student or instructor. Anyone can post a “follow-up discussion” to any note, question, or poll.
The former two tend to be used most frequently. For basic discussion, the edit function is not really necessary, but it’s good to keep in mind that it exists.
Overall, Piazza is easy to set-up – it lives in your browser, and doesn’t require a download. There are some extraneous features which add clutter to the interface, but overall if you’re looking for a forum-style discussion platform with additional editing features for collaboration, Piazza is generally a great option.
Overall grade: B+
Basecamp was originally created with professional teams in mind for managing project workflows, but teachers have found it incredibly helpful as well, and are eligible for free accounts (unlike for-profit users). If you’re visually-minded, Basecamp has a lot of features that make for a pleasant and streamlined experience, like a timeline on the course homepage that tracks all activity since you created your “Basecamp,” or course homepage.
This web app is themed around a the metaphor of a mountain expedition, with the main discussion forum for a class labeled as the “campfire.” It also offers a message board, which has the potential for multiple comment threads, unlike the main “Campfire” forum. Users can create a “To-Do List,” which lets you set goals and assign tasks, a schedule, “Automatic Check-ins,” and a “Docs and Files” section where people can upload documents or create new ones directly in Basecamp.
It’s aesthetically pleasing, but the cutesy icons and expedition-themed names for functions may not be for all tastes. Because of its diverse features, Basecamp can function as a substitute for Blackboard, but students may miss the ability to easily track grades.
Overall, Basecamp has a lot of great functionality and is ideal for a class with a more project- centric structure, and is great for group work because of its orientation towards teams.
Overall grade: A-
Slack is a great all-purpose platform for discussion, collaboration, and general communication with students outside the of classroom. While the app has the framework and look of a instant messenger app, it has the potential to do so much more. With diverse features, this free application accessible from your computer, tablet, or phone gives users the ability to easily attach all types of media to any message.
Slack has all of the functionality of any messenger app (like Gchat), plus the ability to attach images, files, links, long-form content that you type into Slack itself, or even snippets of web code, should that be your area. It offers a great alternative to email between class members and professors alike, as you can easily set up mobile alerts to your phone, should you want respond to students on the go. Students can also message each other or create private group chats for team work. For discussions, you can create “Channels,” or content threads, to which multiple students and instructors can contribute. These comments can easily be tracked, if you require participation outside of class.
Slack is ideal for any class with a class participation component, especially for subject matter that may require sharing content like screenshots, other images, or even web code.
Overall grade: A
All three options are completely free for educators, but offer paid deluxe versions for large class sizes. Unfortunately, none of these applications can synchronize their functions with official grades. Slack, like Basecamp, can substitute for Blackboard in that it facilitates assignment submissions, discussion, and collaboration. Piazza offers much of the same functionality, but is less mobile-convenient and less team-oriented.
Slack is our current favorite, but all three of these applications are great options for facilitating discussion and collaboration outside of your classroom.
Emily Crawford in an Advanced Learning Technologies Consultant in CTRL.