Using Slack in the Classroom

Slack is a collaboration and messaging app.

I admit I didn’t come up with this myself.  At the start of last Spring semester, we had a great Open Conference on Teaching and Technology at GSU, where faculty members shared a lot of great stuff about what they were doing in their classes.
One of the participants, Fernando Rochaix, an Art Professor at GSU Perimeter’s Decatur Campus, who is light-years ahead of me in the use of mobile technology in the classroom.  He shared some awesome technology he was using in his classroom–including Google Cardboard and Slack.

I’m still looking into ways I can incorporate AR, VR, and Gamification into my own Literature and Writing courses, but in the meantime, but I wanted to play with Slack right away.


I’ll start with what Slack is (and what it is not!), and why I needed an app like this for my classes.

Slack is a collaboration platform for communication and sharing.  It is used primarily in business in order to limit the need for email.  It allows group and direct messaging, file sharing, and 3rd party app integrations.  It is also FREE! (Yeah!!)


The reason I needed an app like Slack is because I wanted to integrate more mobile technology into my classroom.  Every one of my students has a cell phone, and I want to leverage this technology toward classroom use.  I know we have an LMS for our classes, but it is clunky and students have to sign-in every time (even on their mobile device).  I was looking for something a bit lighter and easier to use.

I had already tried to use Facebook, Twitter as “back-channel” communication in my courses, but none of my students were very happy with any of those integrations in the past–mostly because they intermixed their own personal social network lives with class social network–a big no-no!  GroupMe was pretty good–but it notified via the student’s own text messaging, and this was also a bad intermix of class-life with personal-life.

Slack seemed different.  First of all, Slack notifies through the app–not through text messaging.  Also, none of my students had slack accounts, so it wasn’t poaching on their already-established social spaces.  A third advantage is that I could get my students familiar with an app that was already adopted by businesses all over the world–so they might have an advantage when they left my class and moved into the “real world.”

I also wanted to do more with mobile than provide back-channel communication in my course.  I also wanted to provide a way that students could easily reference files from my course when they were working in groups.  Slack provides a nice space where we can all upload files to share with one another.  We can also break into casual “teams” at any time and share files only with that team.  It is flexible and, I thought, intuitive.

The proof is in the pudding, however.  I wouldn’t know whether it was a fit for my course until I tried it out.  I wanted to start out slow and see how my students liked Slack.   So, as a test, I started using it in my relatively small English Comp class this summer.


OK, this wasn’t as smooth and professional as it sounds.  I just kind of announced that we would be using Slack in the classroom, and I pulled up the website on my class computer.  I did a brief explanation (very brief, because I wasn’t really a heavy user myself!), and I asked them to download the app on their phones and come up and add their “real” every-day email address to the slack group membership page.  I though to myself, “Yeah!  I’ve got this!” and I was patting myself on the back about how efficiently I had added everyone to the group–until I checked later and found out that only one student had been added!

InviteSlackApparently, after each addition, you have to click the green “Invite 1 Person” button.  My students didn’t do that.  Instead, they just typed their information over the information of the previous student.  So, only the last student was added when I pushed the button at the end of our “sign up” session.

So, I went into the student information system and looked up each student’s non-official email address and emailed the membership to them.

Most of my students didn’t check their email and never clicked on the invitation.

The next class, I asked them all to check their email to accept the invitation, and spent about 15 minutes helping individual students figure out how to join the class.  Sigh.

Woot!So, it wasn’t as easy as I thought to get them all added–but now they were in there and I could communicate with them and share files.


After the initial burp, the students seem to have accepted the app.  A few of them have commented that it is much better than GroupMe or Remind because they can easily share files, and they can choose how they want to communicate and with whom.  They can also use the app to make in-app phone calls to members of the team.  Mostly, they commented how they like that it is a separate app that doesn’t come through their regular text messaging.  When they see an alert there, they know it is class related and it is probably important.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 12.49.44 PMI have also been using the app in my teaching–telling students I have uploaded a handout as a JPG or PDF in Slack so that they can reference it while they work with a computer or another device or in group work in the class.  This saves me time–and I don’t have to use the crummy departmental copy machine, ever.

One of the best things with the app happens by accident.  A few weeks ago I had a Jewish Holiday, and was offline for three days.  My students have become accustomed to instantaneous casual communication with me, so this was a bit of a hardship–at first.  Fortunately, we are all on slack, and they handled it themselves, even when I was back online on Monday:




Setting Up Amazon Echo’s Alexa to Alert Family to Emergency

Getting Amazon #Echo's #Alexa to Notify Family of an Emergency Using #IFTTT

My Alexa now notifies the family if there is an emergency.

My mom is pretty dang tech savvy for an 84-year-old.  She has an iPhone 6, she texts, and she even has a Snapchat (although we made her promise not to sext!).

So, when she called me up in February and told me she had a new Amazon Echo and wanted to set it up, I wasn’t surprised.  I hadn’t gotten an Echo, but I had watched from the sidelines–reading everything I could about Amazon’s wonderful speaker with the AI assistant, Alexa, available, like a genie in a bottle, to grant your every wish.  You can shop, listen to music, track your packages, and even control a smart home–why wouldn’t I be impressed?

A long time ago, my mother and I started sharing our Amazon Prime account, and so when I went to set up the Echo for her, it was a breeze.  Almost immediately, I wondered, “If my mother fell or had an emergency, could she use Alexa to call for help?”  I Googled the question, only to find that the new Alexa “skills” marketplace had no way to connect Alexa to 911 or any emergency services.  Developers had complained saying that only Amazon engineers could install that capability.

So, I looked for another option.  Yesterday, I started looking at recipes for Alexa in the very wonderful “If This Then That” app (IFTTT) on my iPhone.  I discovered that there was a way to have Alexa call your phone–even an IFTTT recipe for that–but all it would do is call.  It was good for finding your phone, but not much else.

What about texting?  I couldn’t find a recipe to directly text, but I did find a recipe for an app I use a lot:  GroupMe.  GroupMe allows you to create a group of people you want to text.  I have used it a lot with my classes to inform them when I am late, or when class is cancelled, or when we have an assignment coming up. I also have a group for family that I established years ago when my son was seriously ill in the hospital.  It was PERFECT.

In the IFTTT app, I created the following recipe:

Getting Amazon #Echo's #Alexa to Notify Family of an Emergency Using #IFTTT

I set up the “Alexa” part of the recipe by first connecting the Alexa app on my phone to IFTTT (it’s painless, they just ask you for permission), then I chose “say a specific phrase” as the Alexa trigger.  I set that phrase to be “emergency.”

For the GroupMe part of the recipe I already had a group set up, but if you don’t, first establish a group of family and/or friends that you would want to notify in an emergency on the GroupMe app on your phone.  Then add GroupMe to the recipe.  It will ask you which group to connect to. Select the group you established for the emergency notification.

Next it will ask what you want the message to say.  I knew I wanted to test the recipe first to make sure it worked, so I put in “This is a test.  I am setting up an emergency notification for Mom’s Alexa.  If you see this message, it worked!”

Make sure you save the recipe before you test it.  To test it, I called my mother and asked her to say, “Alexa trigger emergency.”  She replied “Sending to IFTTT,” and I immediately received a text on my phone with the message I had typed.

I then went back into the IFTTT app and changed the message to read, “Someone at mom’s house has just indicated there is an emergency.  Please call:  (I added her house phone here).  If there is no answer, please notify 911.  Her address is:  (I put in my mother’s address and zip code.)”

That’s it. Now we have an emergency notification set up and, as I said to my mother, “I hope we never need it.”

It’s Time for Technology for Technology Sake

Gadgets Galore!


I’m so done with article after article about how we should use Technology in the Classroom when it is “called for” or “appropriate.” I think these were fine articles about five years ago, but they aren’t fine now.

Why has my attitude changed?

Because my colleagues haven’t.


Gratuitous TechMy colleagues who teach in colleges and university English departments across the country are still teaching students to write their essays on paper with pencils, skipping every-other line. They are still spending weeks of instruction on using MLA style. They are still lecturing on spelling and grammar.

Why am I upset? Because they are wasting their time teaching things that can be better handled with technological tools, and ignoring the important aspects of writing that can’t be taught with anything but a competent professional with a heck of a lot of writing experience. Why are we wasting our student’s time, and ours??

Just for Technology’s Sake: Move your paper-and-pencil work to Google Docs, Microsoft Word, and Scrivner for goodness sakes!! Teach students how to format their work with technology. Push them to add pictures and captions and fonts. Encourage them to think beyond paper to include videos, visualizations, infographics and timelines.

Just for Technology’s Sake:

Teach them to use Zotero, Mendeley or EasyBib or any of a thousand different bibliographic software programs .

Just for Technology’s Sake:

Try teaching students to use some artificial intelligence to help craft their essays, create their thesis statements, or check over their style and grammar.

As a bonus

Try creating a “Dork Short” session in your class where students present their favorite tech tool to their peers in a lightning fast (2 minutes or less) presentation, accompanied by two slides. This might help refresh their tool box, and yours!

So lets stop with all those articles that seem to take a careful middle path and start to look at an alternative message. Tell me, what is wrong with “Technology for Technology’s Sake” in the classroom? What is wrong with me saying, “Hey, students! I have decided to include technology in my classroom because it’s 2015. You need technology to get a job, and I need technology to keep my job.”

It’s time to do that. It’s time to be messy and uncomfortable and ungainly with technology every day because every day technology changes, and I will never really be great with it. Technology will never be smooth or appropriate or called for, but technology is here to stay. Yes, there is the outside chance that a electronic pulse bomb will eliminate all technology on earth–but if that happens, there is still ample opportunity to learn to write on paper. In the meantime, let’s use some Google Docs to create our rough drafts, then let’s organize them in Scrivner or mix-it-up in Twine! Let’s use some open-source textbooks, or Curriculate, and annotate them with LitGenius!

Let’s call for gratuitous technology in every classroom all the time. This is the only way that we will prepare our students for life outside our classrooms, and it is the only way we can prepare ourselves for life tomorrow within our classrooms.

Do You Love a Free and Open Internet? Then Get Rid of Your AdBlock NOW!

imgresI just removed Adblock from my phone and my computer.  Yeah, I will miss being free of the advertisements, but I also want to make sure that the internet that I love–the one with all the free tools and great advice and wonderful blogs–stays that way.

Every single one of you that still has an adblocker needs to realize that what you are doing is wrong.  You should not be enjoying the free internet if you won’t at least spend some time looking at the ads that support it.  Yes, those ads are annoying, but they are also paying for your right to access free content.  Those businesses, and spammers, and silly cat video promoters are doing you a big favor–so, you should , at least, spend some time looking over what they have to share with you.

I will even readily admit that I do, on occasion, click on the ads I see, just to make sure that my favorite internet blogger gets some traction on the ads on their site.  I want to make sure that the advertisers know that some of us do see those ads, do notice them, and do click.

Like it or not, the world runs on money, and the people who share great tools and advice and great blogs need to get paid at the end of the day.  If you start blocking the very same ads that give those people revenue, you are insuring that the next generation of internet stars are practicing their craft behind an internet paywall.

I think of using an adblocker somewhat like being a petty thief.  Yeah, you may get away with it, but you will, eventually, make everything a lot more expensive for everyone else.  It’s not fair to enjoy the benefits of an open internet if you won’t at least spend a few minutes closing pop-ups.

So, I’m hoping that you will join me.  Get rid of the adblocker on your computer and your mobile phone, and take a stand to protect free and open internet access–an internet paid for by those annoying, essential, and sometimes creepy ads.


Goodbye “Hello.” Evernote has killed you.

I have received several notifications from Evernote lately regarding one of my favorite Evernote add-ons, “Hello.” I am sorry to see that Evernote will stop supporting and updating the app as of February 7, 2015.

I’m really bummed because Hello was such a wonderful concept.  I loved handing my phone to a new person and explaining that Hello was a type of digital card and, as soon as they gave me their contact info, it would magically send them mine.  I loved watching the take a selfie for the Hello directory in my phone.

Yes, I know.  Evernote can scan business cards.  Yeah, yeah, Evernote can keep track of my location and my information.  But, dang it!  Evernote Hello was better than Evernote in the “keeping contacts in one place” scenario.

I didn’t have to go trudging through my voluminous Evernote files to find the contact I met at the ISTE conference because, in Hello, I could just pull it up, browse, and get that contact right away.

Hello was the digital equivalent of a digital Rolodex that was right at my fingertips.

Evernote is more like a filing cabinet.

Yes, I love Evernote, but it’s not Hello!  I can’t just hand over my phone and have someone add their name and contact info into Evernote with a handy little form like I did with Hello.

So, Goodbye Hello.  We had some good times.

Meanwhile, if you were an avid Hello fan, you want to make sure you sync your Hello contacts before Evernote pulls the plug on February 7.  There are specific directions for doing so here.