By Kirk Lunsford
When we look to the future of collaborative learning in higher Ed, there are a couple of trends to consider. Firstly, the number of students seeking higher education online continues to grow. Secondly, the demand for higher education will exceed what can be provided in face to face instruction by universities. It’s also likely the spaces in which people will learn will be decided by the users, not technology. Knowing these things, it’s possible to imagine a future where instructional delivery is online and the spaces in which these learning opportunities are hosted are more like an affinity space.
Affinity spaces are known to deliver user based interactions much like connectivism theory. People who are interested in learning about a subject congregate to areas hosted by moderators and facilitators, who interact with users and cohorts. The connections made in these spaces, amongst the various users, could last years and spark or fuel development and personal growth. Common places where these interactions happen are wikis and forums. To liken this to a familiar online course in a LMS, the moderators would be instructors, facilitators are teaching assistants, and cohorts/users would be students. These types of platforms for affinity spaces and online classes offer mostly textual based interfaces via postings with the occasional embedded media or link. However, recent emerging technologies have provided new ways for interacting in affinity spaces, classes, and professional work that offer instantaneous communication via instant text or voice chat.
Slack, a project management platform is changing the way people collaborate in professional groups. At least it’s marketed towards corporate and business collaborators. It could however be used for students working on group projects. In fact, my group for INTE 6750 ‘Trends’ wanted to try Slack to collaborate on our group project this term. Most of us were new to this software however I really enjoyed using it. It felt very intuitive and simple. The hashtag system made it easy to track conversations and use the instant text effectively. Using the pins allowed us to track the critical posts that included embedded media or files associated with the assignments, the syllabus, and rubrics. The simple framework made it more accessible than most LMS platforms because there was less digging around to find needed things. We had instant access to each other and we could see if another one was online. But for one reason or another, after a few weeks, we abandoned Slack for simpler interfaces in gmail and google docs. It appears there are still some technology gaps for adoption among our group.
In contrast to my experiences in Slack, I’ve had great success in another emerging technology in the gaming domain. Although this technology could be adopted for education or various affinity groups. Like Slack, Discord is a platform that offers instant text and voice chat among many other great things. It’s important to note it’s available for all platforms and is available in a browser. This makes communication constant, on the go, and instantaneous should one choose to maximize use of this platform. Discord has most if not all of the features previously mentioned about slack, except it boasts the best performance because it needs to in order to succeed. Because the platform is marketed to gamers and used widely by them, players need to utilize this interface to communicate rapidly. Milliseconds count in the competitive gaming world. It’s interesting how a performance demands can push technology into new domains and be so readily adopted.
To give us an idea of how I experienced Discord for the first time last Fall, I would like to share some of the key features that make it so exciting.
1. Friends lists and groups are easy to access. In the educational domain, we can see this as a way to quickly access different courses and friends from various courses all in one place. The power of ‘connections’ through this platform for social learning are strong.
2. The ability to converse in Discord through instant text, voice chat, and personal messaging give it the most versatile synchronous and asynchronous means for discussion.
3. Pinned discussions and various text channels offer ways to quickly access topics and core learning materials. These text channels and pins are continuously updated as the collective provides learning materials.
As we think about the future of education, it’s likely the platforms for learning will be decided by the users, not technology, and not the institutions. It’s probable users will choose platforms like Discord or Slack because of the seamless myriad of means for social interaction. The interface is secondary to these ways of interacting making it user friendly and accessible to communicate. Although technology is always changing, the need to communicate in a variety of means, both synchronous and asynchronous, across multiple devices and platforms, should remain a constant need for education. I look forward to a future where technology seems secondary to user interaction. Discord and Slack seem to be a step in the right direction.