Using Project Management Tools in the Writing Classroom

It’s 11:45 pm and my phone starts buzzing. Half asleep, I reach for it, worried there’s an emergency. Instead, I see a long series of comments from students in one of my classes, working through the details of a research question one of them is pursuing. I turn off the notifications and go back to bed, wondering why so many students do their writing in the middle of the night.

This semester, I opted to use #slack as a management tool for my writing classes in an effort to reduce student-email fatigue. At first, it was selfish – if one student posted a question about the class in a common space, then I wouldn’t have to answer it in multiple, individualized emails (which usually began, “On page X of the syllabus, you’ll see…”). Though I’ve used discussion boards in the past for this purpose, I find that students don’t use them because the boards often feel separate from the other work we do as a class. (Like a syllabus, you have to consciously go look for the information, which is not as easy as dashing off a one-sentence email to your professor.) Using #slack as the main communication forum, though, means that students, hypothetically, are regularly engaged with the conversations taking place. In essence, unless they completely ignore the tool (which would mean ignoring most of the class), they are kept in the know by default.

But in the past week (and particularly last night), I’ve noticed that something else is happening. Students are collaborating and communicating with one another about their writing projects not because I’ve required them to, but because they want to. They are genuinely engaged with one another’s work and the degree to which this is happening is unlike anything I’ve seen in my classes before.

To back up a bit, #slack is a free project management tool that can be used on a mobile device (hence my phone buzzing at 11:45 pm) or via a web browser. It’s private; as the instructor, I set up the space with a unique URL and only those who have that URL can access it. Like many social platforms, it’s fairly intuitive. I create a channel related to a specific subject (e.g., “litreviewrqs” for literature review research questions) and then any questions or comments related to that topic can be posted within it. Replying to each comment creates a thread, within which conversations take place. Each channel is both a conversation space and an archive.

Though it took a week or so for us all to get used to the platform, its use kicked off when I asked students to post their working research questions for the upcoming literature review assignment. Not only did students comment on whether or not one another’s questions seemed answerable, they asked critical questions about the areas of inquiry – in many cases helping one another refine their questions early on. Rather than end there, the conversations have continued within the thread – students are sharing source information that might be useful, they are asking follow-up questions related to what they are finding in their literature searches, and even clarifying terminology. In short, they have started to build a knowledge community that doesn’t have me, the professor, at the center.

Since the classes I’m using this with are both online, the virtual platform alone is helpful in building a multi-directional flow of information, rather than the uni-directional flow I often feel happens in online learning. The immediacy of it, as well, helps us feel connected in a central space. But as I watch how students are collaborating in a constructive way, I am thinking about how this can translate to face-to-face courses.

All of this is not to say there aren’t hidden or explicit challenges to the platform. I don’t, for example, have any students this semester for which #slack would pose accessibility issues – though I can foresee that being a potential problem. Being an online class, also, it was a prerequisite that students have regular internet access to take the course. Face-to-face courses don’t necessarily have such requirements. But I’m excited to explore the use of this tool in my autumn classes to see if the positive, communal effect persists. If you have used #slack (or a similar tool), what have been your experiences?

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