Kate Roll (Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose)
For the last two years IIPP has used the online sharing platform, Slack, as an ‘virtual common room’ and informal meeting place for MPA students and faculty. It has emerged as a site for discussion on difficult topics, teamwork, and peer-to-peer support. In addition, the messaging functions have also been popular with many students, including those who may be less comfortable face-to-face, improving inclusivity. This presentation would focus on sharing IIPP’s experience and encouraging other departments who do not yet use this type of platform.
Slack me!: Online Platform for the MPA Community
At the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, we have used the online platform Slack to create a virtual ‘space’ for our students; while it has been used throughout the year, it has been particularly nice to have this student forum in place during the Covid-19 pandemic. We use a free version of the software.
For those unfamiliar, Slack enables open sharing (similar to newsfeeds) and private messaging, either between individuals or in groups. Users can set up specific channels to keep these conversations focused. Channels that appear to be most used by our students include ‘essential readings’ (for assigned texts), ‘interesting readings’ (blogs, news articles, papers, etc.), and ‘iipp opportunities’ (job postings).
We are seeing three main benefits to using Slack; other online platforms would likely have the same effect.
- Firstly, we see substantive peer-to-peer support. This can be students sharing assigned readings, advertising events or talks, and seeking sources or support for arguments; this happily reduces demands on faculty and makes communication on various questions open rather than closed between two individuals.
- Secondly, the platform reduces formality, allowing for easy exchanges and a sense of community. Both students and faculty post and react to news stories, for example. Relatedly, many students appear to be more comfortable using the messaging function to reach faculty as it feels less formal than email.
- Thirdly, Slack provides an alternative to mass email messages regarding events, small changes to reading lists, fixed links, etc. This helps us to keep in frequent contact with students without overwhelming their inboxes. It also helps to distinguish between essential communications (via email) and FYI communications (via Slack).
In addition, as a text-based platform it has the potential to be more inclusive to students for whom English is not their first language and those who feel less comfortable speaking in class. Our experience on this front has been mixed; the most vocal students in the classroom appear to be the most prominent on the Slack page. However, we see this as something to continue to explore.
Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, the Slack page has continued to be active, with many of the shared articles and discussions focusing on questions of how the pandemic will change work, the economy, and green transitions. Alongside efforts to increase the number of informal online gatherings, Slack has been a key tool in keeping the course feeling ‘together’ despite the circumstances.
I would be more than happy to share more information on how we use Slack at IIPP; I am also aware that other, larger and longer-established departments also use the platform and have even experimented with using bots to answer queries!