Slack for managing course TAs

slackI meant to write this post last year when I was teaching a large course with lots of teaching assistants to manage, but, well, I was teaching a large course with lots of teaching assistants to manage, so I ran out of time…

There is nothing all that revolutionary here. People have been using Slack to manage teams for a while now. I’ve even come across some articles / posts on using Slack as a course discussion forum, so use of Slack in an educational setting is not all that new either. But I have not heard of people using Slack for organizing the course and managing TAs, so I figured it might be worthwhile to write about my experience.

TL;DR: A+, would do it again!

I’ll be honest, when I first found out about Slack, I wasn’t all that impressed. First, I kept thinking it’s called Slacker, and I was like, “hey, I’m no slacker!” (I totally am…). Second, I initially thought one had to use Slack in the browser, and accidentally kept closing the tab and hence missing messages. There is a Slack app that you can run on your computer or phone, it took me a while to realize that. Because of my rocky start with it, I didn’t think to use Slack in my teaching. I must credit my co-instructor, Anthea Monod, for the idea of using Slack for communicating with our TAs.

Between the two instructors we had 12 TAs to manage. We set up a Slack team for the course with channels like #labs, #problem sets, #office_hours, #meetings, etc.

This setup worked really well for us for a variety of reasons:

  • Keep course management related emails out of email inbox: These really add up. At this point, any email I can keep out of my inbox is a win in my book!
  • Easily keep all TAs in the loop: Need to announce a typo in a solution key? Or give TAs a heads up about questions they might expect in office hours? I used to handle these by emailing them all, and either I’d miss one or two or a TA responding to my email would forget to reply all (people never seem to reply all when they should, but they always do when they shouldn’t!)
  • Provide a space for TAs to easily communicate with each other: Our TAs used Slack to let others know they might need someone to cover for them for office hours, or teaching a section, etc. It was nice to be able to alert all of them at once, and also for everyone to see when someone responded saying they’re available to cover.
  • Keep a record of decisions made in an easily searchable space: Slack’s search is not great, but it’s better than my email’s for sure. Plus, since you’re searching only within that team’s communication, as opposed to through all your emails, it’s a lot easier to find what you’re looking for.
  • It’s fun: The #random channel was a place people shared funny tidbits or cool blog posts etc. I doubt the TAs would be emailing each other with these if this communication channel wasn’t there. It made them act more like a community than they would otherwise.
  • It’s free: At least for a reasonable amount of usage for a semester long course.

Some words of advice if you decide to use Slack for managing your own course:

  • There is a start-up cost: Not cost as in $$, but cost as in time… At the beginning of the semester you’ll need to make sure everyone gets in the team and sets up Slack on their devices. We did this during our first meeting, it was a lot more efficient than emailing reminders.
  • It takes time for people to break their emailing habits: For the first couple weeks TAs would still email me their questions instead of using Slack. It took some time and nudging, but eventually everyone shifted all course related communication to Slack.

If you’re teaching a course with TAs this semester, especially a large one with many people to manage, I strongly recommend giving Slack a try.