Slack Bots for Remote Asynchronous Education

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Elle O’Brien, School of Information

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Slack Bots for Remote Asynchronous Education
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Science, Technology, and Math
Faculty Name:
Elle O’Brien

Elle O'Brien headshot

For my students in the Masters of Applied Data Science program's Capstone class, I asked students to create group projects that show mastery of data science skills learned in the program. This posed a challenge for a fully online class- how do we keep a sense of class unity AND get meaningful updates on progress from ~70 students? I designed an assignment where students post 5-minute video standups (a standard form of progress updates in the tech world) in a shared Slack channel about the status of their work, and then leave encouraging comments and suggestions on other team's standups. I wrote a Slackbot (a Python program that interacts with Slack) to grade their participation sharing videos and leaving comments, which allows the assignment to scale to potentially hundreds of students as remote & hybrid learning becomes a bigger part of higher education.

Students reported feeling a sense of pride and excitement sharing their project updates with the class via video. Some students gave very informal reflections on their progress (which is great, because the assignment was intended to be low-stakes to reduce pressure), whereas others made videos that were polished and professional (one team modeling ecosystems in Michigan even used drone footage!). The teaching team was able to monitor the progress of many teams at once and flag projects that might need some assistance or intervention, and students gained a sense of community and camaraderie from seeing one another's projects develop. Students frequently went above-and-beyond leaving responses to their classmates; although I didn't impose any minimum word counts, many students left thoughtful and extensive responses on more videos than they were required to.

By automating the tedious process of tallying which students posted videos and responses in a course Slack channel, instructors are freed up to offer more substantial and thoughtful responses. They can also shift roles, acting more as a discussion facilitator for the channel than as graders. This lets students practice delivering and receiving feedback on technical projects in a professional setting.

The potential for widespread use is that the Slackbot enables instructors to automate participation grading in a Slack channel (either posts or responses), which can be used in many kinds of assignments for many disciplines. While there are plenty of teaching tools that allow students to share and discuss content, Slack is likely to be an increasingly popular platform of choice for a few reasons:

  1. Professional development: Slack is standard for many companies, so it prepares students for the workforce.
  2. Expressivity: Slack supports expressive messaging with emojis, gifs, videos, and more. With increasing options for hybrid and remote learning, this capacity is important for building a sense of community that keeps students engaged with learning.
  3. Scalability: Slack can support learner communities from single to quadruple digits. Being able to grade participation at scale via automation means instructors can spend time facilitating the community.

Above photo:

Elle O’Brien,School of Information