As Research Project Tutor on the teacher training programme at IH Montevideo, I have always been on the lookout for more efficient ways to improve communication with my trainees. In this two-year programme, which consists of nine subjects, trainees are expected to write a final 3500-word Research Report which must be handed in and submitted to the College of Teachers, University of London, which issues the degree. My most immediate concern has been how to follow the weekly progress of their work and at the same time be able to send and receive feedback in real time. This is why this year, after reading extensively on the implementation of new technologies to improve the quality of learning, I decided to leave my comfort zone and take some risks. After exchanging some ideas with my son, a telematics engineer, he recommended Slack, a useful, effective and fun team messaging tool created to improve communication in the 21 century.
After a couple of briefing sessions and several attempts I hit my enter key and sent my first message. What seemed daunting at the very first soon became an exciting, natural way of communicating with my trainees. More importantly perhaps is the fact that they find it fun and useful although for some, I must admit, the integration took longer than expected, however once they managed to sign up and were encouraged to use the app, communication was natural and fluid. To start chatting to your trainees all you need to do is create a group and invite them to join in. Through this integration zone my students and I can share thoughts, resources, ideas, I can check their progress in no time and for those who fall behind, a quick tip with a custom emoji or suggestion can change their level of work.
How Slack makes my work easier
Slack is a chat room where you can communicate with students using different channels, such as talking with whole groups or reaching individual students through safe and private channels, in case they need instant feedback. I can access my Slack everywhere, on my cell phone, tablet or laptop and talk with them any time, any place. You can attach files, videos, integrate other tools, with everything there, one click away and for free.
Before using this tool, my communication with trainees was not always fluid and consistent; I would read their work in class, correct it, send it back via mail and days or even weeks later I would get the corrected version. The result was students often falling behind and demotivated writers. It must be pointed out that, since this is basically a writing course, each trainee must write several drafts for every stage in order to complete their projects, with the feedback given on these stages obviously a lot of time commitment on the part of the tutor. Fortunately, since I implemented Slack, this has changed dramatically simply due to the fact that sending and receiving feedback may last a few minutes instead of weeks. As a result, now most of my trainees are finishing their projects in due time by the end of the semester.
What have I learnt during my first year with Slack?
First and perhaps more importantly this experience has changed the dynamics of my courses since I have established new, richer channels of communication in real time. This goes hand in hand with another important benefit since, in the case of second language learning, it is a continuing opportunity for the skill of writing to be practised and improved; in fact, based on my experience this year, I can affirm that the amount of writing has improved significantly. In classes, which take place once a week and last 45 minutes, it is virtually impossible to see and check the work of all my trainees; however, with Slack, the average number of posts I can see per trainee per week is about 6 or 7. The results then speak for themselves.
Secondly, on a personal level, trainees are intrinsically motivated to write, which is the ultimate goal of the course. It is true that not all the trainees experience the same level of motivation; however, when asked about the new application, they have stated they enjoy using it and feel Slack is a useful and fun way to work. And for those more reluctant students who fall behind, just a quick reminder is enough to get them back on track again.
All of the above has affected the role of the teacher. The demands on the tutor’s level of work, and resulting increase in responsibility, have meant more hours of correction and supervision since, as mentioned earlier, the amount of output has more than doubled. I must say, however, that the benefits outweigh the increased work by far.
Bottom line: it is of critical importance that we keep up-to-date with the level of change in today’s world and technology, one such area, can certainly help us meet students’ growing demands. As Lowerison, Sclater, Schmid, and Abrami (2006) have suggested “technology has the potential to transform the learning environment from passive to active and more subject to the control of the learner”. Slack has enriched my classrooms and has taken interaction to the next level. The next challenge then will be to continue integrating technology into the curriculum.
Lowerison, Sclater, Schmid and Abrami (2006) in Lavin. M, Korte. M & Davis.T The Impact of Classroom Technology on Student Behaviour, (2009) Journal of Technology Research. (1 -13)