Zoom is sooooo 2020 – Welcome to Discord!

If you’ve been following me or have taken an online class with me, you know I privilege text over video in teaching, and I like asynchronous best of all. I’ve learned from the best (@OnlineCrsLady!) about the many advantages or “affordances” of text-based teaching for online classes, and I am a convert.

(BTW, I am not alone. Did you know that Automattic, the company behind WordPress,has a fully text-based hiring process for most positions?!)

In Fall ‘21 I found myself in an unforeseen situation: I could finally travel out of the US and visit my family after 22 months, but it was not clear if it would take me 3 or even 6 months to get the actual stamp in my passport. My department chair (bless her!) told me to just go, and teach online. This remedial pivot was executed somewhat more gracefully than in Spring ‘20, but still came with its own problems. My Fall semester ended online, on Zoom, and it was not great. So I was all ears when I saw a thread from sarah madoka currie on online pedagogy and Discord, in a way that privileges text yet allows for synchronous and A/V (audio-visual) communication if so desired.

Table of contents

What is Discord

“Discord is a free chat application that serves as a hub for people to connect.”

There are a ton of ways you can use it, but it always comes down to joining or creating a community with a shared interest, and hanging out together.

You can chat via text, or talk, and even see each other on video. The chat is always present, even after you leave the call. That makes it already superior to Zoom, where the chat simply disappears!

Setting up a server

You join a server on Discord, or create your own. A server is a community you want to hang out with. For teaching classes, you want your own server, where you’re in charge. It’s really easy. I’d never been on Discord, and a couple of hours later I had a fully equipped server for my courses! One server will do for multiple courses if you follow my suggestions.

Download the app from their start page, create an account, and then in the left sidebar, click on the big + sign; select “Create my own”; then “for me and my friends.” You can change the server name later: click on the little arrow next to your server’s name at the top (not in screenshot), and go to Server Settings.

Screenshot of lefthand menu bar and list of channels in Discord server. Second button from the bottom in the left menu is a big plus button to create a new server.
Screenshot – second button from the bottom in the left menu is for creating your own server

Setting up channels

Your new server has some channels already there, under the tabs “Text channels”; and “Voice channels”.

Just click on the + sign next to those tabs to add more.

I have an “off-topic-chat” channel, and here students from all courses can chat with each other (e.g. announce games, activities, but I can also easily announce changes to my availability). The voice channel for that purpose is the “Tea Room,” where I host what you call “office hours”, and what I call the “Tea Room.” If you come to my campus office during the opening times, you’ll get a cup of tea!

In addition, I created one voice and one chat channel for every course each, but I never seem to do anything with the Information channels I created. (Mhhh maybe I should Marie-Kondo them). I made the class channels “Private”: that means they are invisible, unless if I give you access. Let me explain why, and how.

Roles and permissions

How do you keep students from one course running into the chat or video stream for another course? In particular when I was teaching online on Zoom, that was a headache! A Zoom waiting room distracts me with people knocking to get in. With a single link for all classes occasionally I had students barge in at the wrong time. I also didn’t like having four different links (one for each of my classes, and one for office hours), too complicated.

In an article from the Teaching ProfessorShaun Iles mentions he created two roles: student and professor. That put me on the right track, and I can’t remember where I saw the idea to combine that with a more granular level of roles and permissions.

The two terms are different, but they go hand in hand: you set the permissions (what a user can do) for a specific role. Then you assign a user to that role (e.g. “HST107 student”), and that automatically allows them to do only certain things on the server.

Every class has a role associated with it, e.g. “HST107 student” or “HST259 student”. But every role has access to the Tea Room and the Off-topic-chat channels, because those are open to all students.

Then, if I assign you the role HST107 student, you suddenly see also the text and voice channels “HST107” appear, and only other students from our class have access.

How do I do that?

Create roles

Screenshot of Server settings in Discord, on the section "Roles".
The button "Create role" is in blue to the right of the search bar for the different roles.
Screenshot of the Settings, Roles section
  • In the server settings (click on server name in the top left corner), select “Roles”.
  • Click on “Create Role”, and give the role a name. You can change this later when you edit the role. I use the course number + student (clarity is useful, isn’t it?)
Screenshot of editing a role in the Discord server, the role "Blogger" is selected, and the tab "Display" shows we picked a hard pink for its dot or text color
Screenshot of editing a role in the Discord server.
  • Display is the first tab, where you can pick a colour or add an icon.
  • The tab “Permissions”, right next to it, is where we need to refine things. In “General server” and “member permissions” I turn on:
    • View channels
    • Change nickname
  • In the “Text channel permissions” I switch off “Mention @everyone@here, and All Roles”. I think it prevents potential mayhem but maybe I’m too cautious.
    • Make sure “Read Message History” is ON: this allows everyone to see the chat even when they weren’t online at the time. Big difference with Zoom!
    • For accessibility: turn on “Send text-to-speech messages”
  • I don’t change anything in the “Video channel permissions”

I haven’t had a chance to experiment with what all of the permissions do, but so far these settings work for the students.

Once you’ve created a role for your students in one class, make sure to create the roles for the other classes too.

Should you make your server private?

You can set up a private server. That means nobody can engage with it, unless you assign them a role.

My server is open, because occasionally I have (had) guests joining me online, or I had advisees not in courses visiting me virtually in the Tea Room. I’ve not been overrun with random people, but if privacy/safety is a concern: know there are options to “hide” and protect your community.

“Tuning” the channels

I’m not sure what the official term is, but I think “tuning” works 🙂

I now have a server, and roles for students with permissions. But how do I make sure they can see the channels they’re supposed to have their class on?? The channels (voice and text) need to be matched up so only the right people can see the right channel.

As you hover over the name of a channel, you see a little person with a plus sign, and a cog wheel. Click on the cog wheel to access the channel settings.

Screenshot of list of channels. The selected channel also shows an invite icon of a person with a + symbol, and a settings icon as a cogwheel.
Screenshot of list of channels – note the “invite” icon, and the “settings” cog wheel

There is a “Permissions” section here too. Confusing, isn’t it? You can now add roles to the Private channels: e.g. “HST107 student” needs to be added to “HST107” text and video channels. Just click on the “Add members or roles”, and check the correct box.

Then, under advanced permissions, there is more potential for confusion: “@everyone” is selected by default, and “View channel” is X-ed out in red. That’s because this is a private channel! To fine-tune the permissions for the HST107 students, click on their role, and check all the permissions are ok. (They usually are for me.)

You have to do this for every private channel you associate with that class. It takes a bit of work to set up, but the rest of the semester I don’t even think about it anymore.

Inviting the students

Onboarding the students is a breeze, courtesy of sarah’s document which I copied almost word for word. It goes in detail through the why and how of Discord. If you want my instructions because you want to use Discord for your classes, drop me a line and I’ll share!

But really, all you need to do is send them the invitation code, which looks like a URL. Click on the server name, and the second item (after “Server boost”) is “Invite people”. Copy, and paste it in a message to your students. They receive the link, click on it, and they’ll automatically go to your server. Of course, at this point you have already shared your onboarding instructions with them, haven’t you?

Screenshot of the drop-down menu from clicking "Server name" shows the second item under "Server boost" is "Invite people"
Find the Invitation link!

Does it work?

Students have found their way to the server without trouble so far; there’s been the odd one who dropped out of a call or had tech issues on a call but we always had text to save us. Audio overall seems to be better than with Zoom or Google meet.

I’ve not used this to teach a asynchronous course, but I can see it work better than my previous set-up for that, because of the primacy of text.

Does it build community? Students occasionally help each other out with queries in the chat, and they share fun stuff in the off-topic-chat; but I think many of them are right now very busy having a social life in the 3D world and there is simply less of a need for a classroom community online: we see each other 2x per week mask-to-mask.

I haven’t run a survey, but what I hear is that most prefer this over Zoom, because they are familiar with it already. One or two have worried about me seeing them “play games” (in their status updates), but in return they can also see me being online at strange hours. (You can switch to “invisible” but I often forget.) I honestly don’t even notice.

Those who claim to prefer Zoom have a “tech-shy profile” and take time to get into blogging and hypothes.is too. There are always a few who resist any change, and I have accepted that one platform can’t be everything to all people. A large group finds Discord works better for them, including some students mentioning accessibility (but they did not provide further info). That’s good enough for me!

Personally, I far prefer Discord over Zoom or Google meet, because the text chat remains, and so our conversations can keep going. And open communication is a good thing.

About this blog series

This post is part of the second series explaining the digital tools I use for teaching courses online, face-to-face, and mask-to-mask.

If you like this post, please explore the others in the series, and sign up for new posts in the sidebar, under the Growth Mindset Cats 😀, add the blog to your RSS reader, or check back every other Monday, 6pm CET/12 noon EST, so you’ll never miss a post!

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