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Discord in the Post-Post Covid Classroom

    By Nicolas Williams

    We are officially in the POST-post-Covid universe.  Most of the technology that teachers were required to learn during the pandemic, like Zoom or Teams, is already starting to collect dust on our desktops.  In the post post-Covid era, we need to think about not only the new tools that have come and gone, but also how we can iterate on the lessons and techniques we internalized, and adapt them in this crazy world. 

    Here is one main lesson that I internalized: A WILLINGNESS to adapt and to learn new methods.  Perhaps “willingness” is a strong word – but, if you had asked a veteran teacher to incorporate Google Classroom before they were literally forced to, many might have scoffed.  The cat is out of the bag now.  You can, if the circumstances present themselves, incorporate all these new-fangled Gen Z ideas into your classroom.  It now becomes about creating those circumstances and conditions that facilitate engagement.

    Zoom can act as a facsimile for the teacher standing in the physical space of a classroom, but it kind of ignores all of the other stuff, like casual interactions and community. Meanwhile, while we were all fiddling around, trying to learn Zoom, the students had already found another platform: Discord.  For those unfamiliar, Discord is the application that students are probably frantically minimizing when you do your rounds of the classroom.  

    Also, there is nothing particularly groundbreaking about Discord.

    Also, adults use Discord all of the time.  I use it to organize my Dungeons and Dragons sessions for example.  

    Discord is an online chat and voice platform, not entirely dissimilar from Zoom.

    In fact, Discord has already been built with potential classroom implementation in mind!  When you choose to create a new group, as seen in the image below, you can choose to create a “school club” or “study group,” which will help to determine the options provided by the program.  On the right hand image below, you can see these preset categories (e.g. Information, Text channels, Voice channels) that were automatically generated by choosing “Study Group”, for instance.

    You might also notice that there are pre-set sub-categories for “welcome and rules,”  “notes-resources,” and “home-work help.”  These are text chat channels, but you will also notice there are voice channels down below.  Theoretically, a student could hop into the voice channel on their phone, ask a quick question to another student or staff member (who could also respond by text or voice through their phone), and then log back off.

    Why is Discord more popular than other similar messaging platforms, like Facebook or Telegram?  I don’t know, actually.  But it isn’t really important either, because all of the students use it, and that’s the only thing that really matters.   They are familiar with it.  It isn’t a school-thing.  It isn’t a distance-learning, COVID thing.  It’s just the thing they use to chat with their friends.  Simple as.

    I am minimizing a little bit for effect.

    There are a few differences between Discord and other platforms.

    Discord allows for the creation of closed communities, essentially group chats.  It also allows for the sharing of images and memes.  Finally, Discord is rooted in gaming culture, so it has more of a “cool-factor” than something like Zoom

    Connecting Disparate Worlds and Personas in the Classroom

    I think that, through platforms like Discord, Instagram and Snapchat, students from the COVID-age have been simultaneously building two different personas: their in-person, student-in-a-school persona, as well as their online persona which can be found in community and social spaces like Discord and online games.  This is important, because finding a way to accommodate these two personas in the classroom will lead to a boom in classroom engagement.  

    It is not just students who are being forced to manage the intersection of their online and in-person personalities. One look at Reddit or the comments section on a controversial news story will underscore the idea that people believe that they can express their deepest, most cynical selves online without fear of it being connected to their everyday self.

    Even if this is not a new phenomenon, I think that it is becoming more pronounced in younger generations. I believe that this generation of students is even more fundamentally connected to their online selves; beyond that, there is a much sharper contrast between their online and in-person personalities.  These students were circumstantially streamlined into an “online existence” – many used these online spaces to cope with the realities of life stuck at home.  

    So, how do we get students to share that rich “other” personality in the classroom?

    I am sure many educators have encountered a student who seems shy, resigned or bored in class – but online, whether that be on Discord or just on their phones, they can’t seem to STOP chatting with their friends. So then, I would suggest finding solutions that will help to draw these rich online personalities into the classroom – into their written work, their creativity, and the fostering of positive, safe spaces.

    I believe that once students understand that their wacky, meme-posting, chatty selves are welcome in the theoretical and physical space of the classroom, the quality of interactions, discussion and writing will greatly improve.  

    Some Practical Suggestions    

    1. Use Discord for group discussions and distance learning

    Next time you want to try and draw students into sharing content or ideas in an informal space – try using Discord set-up specifically for your classroom.   It is relatively simple to learn, and offers a deep amount of options and functions if you are willing to deep dive.

    The above link provides some basic steps and information on how to get started, but Discord goes much further.  You can even go so far as to “program” AIs to accomplish specific tasks.  For example, you can have an AI automatically quietly play a Spotify playlist in the background, or respond with a “WELCOME” emoji when a new person joins. 

    Even though, fundamentally, there is not a huge difference between Discord and Teams, students will appreciate being able to use a program they are comfortable with. Some of the most creative and absurd writing I have ever been shown is when a student trusts me enough to show me material they have posted online.

    1. Encourage Roleplaying (I, for example, use Dungeons and Dragons in the ELA Classroom)

    Roleplaying is a suggestion that comes up sometimes in University education textbooks and makes everyone cringe.  Adding predetermined structure and rules helps to minimize the embarrassing nature of acting in front of your peers.

    Whether a person is roleplaying on the internet as someone, or role-playing in-person as a student, there is a lot of acting that goes into being a member of a community.  Heck, I believe that as teachers, many are roleplaying every time they step into the classroom or deliver a lesson.

    In 2022, I decided to incorporate Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) as a unit in my Secondary V ELA classroom.  Dungeons and Dragons was a pencil-and-paper based roleplaying game, popularized in the 80s, where players would assume the role of a character, and, well – explore dungeons and slay dragons.  Thanks to the popular Netflix show Stranger Things, and due to people being bored and starved for human interaction during COVID, DnD has seen a huge resurgence in popularity.  To make matters easier, the entire platform has been moved online for ease of access.

    In the above image, you can see a character that I created to play my classroom campaign.  Look complicated?  Well, to be honest, it sort of is.  However, the (the official DnD website) does a great job of walking you through character creation, step-by-step.  Additionally, there are premade campaigns that can be played.  Ultimately, you are moderating and creating an interactive, community-based narrative experience.  

    During my DnD unit, I had students: create their own characters, including backgrounds and personalities.  Design monsters and villains that would suit the storyline.  Learn mechanics and read rules.  Roleplay, and engage in classroom discussions about the events that transpired in the story.  I found that when the students were having fun, they were more willing to open up, get goofy, make jokes, and therefore, enrich the learning experience and community around them.

    Not only did I manage to hit all of the ELA competencies during this unit, but I even managed to convince the students they were having fun while doing so! 

    I think one of the main reasons so many students feel disconnected and resigned in school is because they devote most of their time and social energy to their online spaces.  If we can find ways to bridge that gap between spaces, I think that students will be more willing to engage, and to share their most authentic ideas, experiences and selves.