If You Build It, They Might Slack off…

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It's Not Always A Field of Dreams Ending

As some who know me and read this blog will know, I am the course director for the Foundation Degree in Computing in Nothern Regional College.

Moving beyond my administrative and teaching duties on the course, it is partly my responsibility on the course to implement innovation for the benefit of the students. This post will tell of one of the most recent episodes were a well-reasoned and logical idea didn’t work out as successfully as hoped.

And so the title is half-borrowed from the 1989 film, Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner (I know I agree too! I don’t look old enough to remember it!). The film tells the story of a corn farmer in Iowa who builds a baseball field where his crops once grew. While the story ended well for Ray Kinsella (the character Kevin Costner plays, in case you’re too young or have forgotten), it didn’t end so well for us – but that does make it sound much more dramatic than it actually is – but I want you to read on, so I had to create a bit of a cliffhanger, no?

When Innovation Doesn't Catch the Imagination

Yes! You made it past the video link! I’ve got you now!

So last year, the foundation degree course trialed a messaging app called Slack – there was a helpful product placement section at the beginning of the post, but I can assure you, that no one from Slack has contacted me, or asked me to write this post, nor am I receiving any benefits – financial or otherwise – for writing this post. It is all for the recording of details of how innovation doesn’t always work, but we move on and more importantly we keep trying.

So What is Slack?

For those who have never heard of Slack before,  it’s very simply a messaging app – think WhatsApp, but for business.

Similar to WhatsApp you can create groups – but as it’s a business app, they’re called channels, but work in exactly the same way – they allow for people to be part of specific groups that are centred around certain tasks, or groups in a business. In our course, we created these channels for each module – each lecturer was responsible for maintaining communication through the channel as a different but more direct way of contacting students. Today’s student might not always check their email, but they will always have their phone with them, so one of the core motivations for trialing the app with our course was that we could have a quicker and more direct form of communication than email.

What Was Good About the Trial?

It was one of the first innovations I trialed with the lecturing team and with the students.

This was a way to bring better communication between the students and lectuers and in a way that did not compromise the lecturers’ privacy or reveal their mobile phone number – which would have been their personal mobile number as we don’t have phones provided by our employer (we don’t really need them for our roles in college).

It could be used as a means of revision. In the Introduction to Programming module I posted one question per evening to help with revision.

There were a number of second year students who found the app useful for the reasons I set it up – getting a quick question answered that avoided an email and a long wait.

At the end of the academic year, there were a number of students who spoke up to share that their placement employer used Slack and so they could settle in quicker to their placement. With this – my core reason had been achieved. Those students were able to connect something in the classroom with the ‘real’ world. The connection was real, it was helpful and they could see the benefit, which meant that they were more prepared to invest time in something they could see a proper return on the investment of their time, effort and interest.

What Went Wrong?

Not many people outside myself and a core group of students used the app. That included the other lecturers and the student body. Some lecturers were very forthright about the narrow settings in which they were prepared to use the app – it would not infringe on their life outside of college.

In short, I did not have a majority buy in from the college team. Innovation was present, but looking back, it was a one man effort.

On one level I understand this. The college does not pay me, or the staff to be available on a 24/7 basis. We are never on call and as human beings we need to have a time to switch off from work. It cannot stretch its tentacles into every aspect of our life.

But on the other hand, there is a part of me that sees a good idea being dead in the water before it had a chance to develop. I am a firm believer that improvement and innovation in the classroom comes from a personal desire to improve. I am not for one second saying that my lecturers do not have this – they certainly do, but maybe just not in this particular area.  I am saying that to improve, to challenge the status quo, we must do something different and we must be prepared to fall flat on our face. This will sound toe-curlingly cheesy, but I am not defined by the number of times I fall, but the number of times I get back to my feet to keep moving forward. As a lecturer I will must take those risks because I want to make this course the best it can be. I routinely tell my students that I want employers to know and hear of the reputation of my students because the foundation degree course produces students who are prepared to challenge themselves to improve no matter what. This takes time and it takes honesty – the students need to see the master fail in order to know what it looks like to get back to their feet. There is teachable moment in every part of life. But only if we’re prepared to put aside our own pride and show a bit of weakness.

As I mentioned in the section above, I used Slack to send out a revision question in the lead up to the Introduction to Programming exam at the end of semester 1. I did not get any responses to any of these questions, but always provided the ‘textbook’ answer for student learning. Looking back ,it was like the episode of Friends, where Phoebe goes to night school, brings Monica along, who answers her own questions…


when slack doesn't work - you're left answering your own questions

Of course the reasons for this are many – students probably don’t want to converse with their lecturer outside of college. I am a professional and not their friend after all. They may have used the question, found out the answer and not communicated back – but I have no empirical proof of this. There may have also been facts of life in play here also – students work part-time jobs and this could have had an impact also – but again would this account for zero responses? I’m not so sure.

But That's Not the End?

The results of this trial may have not been completely successful for everyone, but they were successful for some and this is the ground in which teachers and lecturers operate. I am pleased to have trialed it and happy to have heard feedback from students on placement that their employers used Slack. This justifies the reasons for using it in the original decision, even if it wasn’t successful.

I have discussed it with other colleagues in the college and their response has been very positive – they have been working with WhatsApp groups and not every lecturer is happy for students to know their personal mobile numbers. Slack gives them the opportunity to work under the same environment, with the same student satisfaction, but the added lecturer satisfaction that their privacy is being protected. It also works much better from a safeguarding perspective that students and lecturers operate in a safe environment for all.

From my perspective, I have trialed one idea and learned from it. In the next part of introducing new ideas to the course, we are implementing student use of GitHub and Genius Hour. For GitHub, I have made sure to enlist the motivated participation of relevant lecturers – specifically those who teach programming modules. Genius Hour will be a tutorial based initiative and will be individually led by me. I don’t foresee needing outside assistance from other lecturers.

I will keep innovating because I know my job well.

I will keep innovating because I know I am a good teacher.

I will keep innovating because I know that what I learn today, I will implement tomorrow.

I will keep innovating because I know where I fail today, I will improve upon tomorrow.

I will keep innovating because I know my students require it of me.

I will keep innovating because I know they will benefit.

I will keep innovating because I know it is in me to give them my students the very best of my expertise.

I will keep innovating until every last one of my students learn what they need to learn in order to be successful.


Michael Johnston

About Michael Johnston

I'm a Lecturer in Computing and the Foundation Degree Director in Computing for the Northern Regional College in Northern Ireland. My research interests in the areas of technology enhanced learning, how we interact with technology, blended learning and professional development. Michael currently specialises in the computing areas of web development technologies, cyber security, software development and IoT. Michael has worked in a range of different roles in IT-from teaching roles to running his own web design company, Michael is equally at home working with theory, as he is conducting research, or building a bespoke IT solution. Michael is currently studying a PhD in Cyberpsychology.

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