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  • Writer's pictureHeather Saigo

Use Discord for Online Learning Environment

Social media platforms may not be considered "official" educational technology, but they offer features and affordances that can be used to support learning. During distance learning, whether planned or in response to an emergency such as COVID-19, educators use learning management systems (LMS) platforms such as Moodle to manage students and resources. However, traditional LMS seem to lack some characteristics associated with effective learning environments.

For example, while an LMS may provide a useful place to store and distribute course materials and assignments, it might not support the type of social interactions that accompany learning in other settings. Developing relationships with peers and instructors occurs not only during class meetings, but in hallways and cafeterias, in small project groups, and during office hours. These contexts are difficult to replicate using LMS platforms that are designed for assignment tracking and structured forum-style discussions.

Discord adds features beyond the LMS

I think social media might be used to fill a gap in learning environments. One platform that seems particularly well-suited to support learning communities is Discord. Discord is a communication platform that was launched in 2015 as a tool for video game players to chat and maintain friendships online. It has since evolved into a mainstream solution for community-building and engagement.

Discord is available for most desktop and mobile operating systems, and is free to use. It is popular with many students, which means they already have it installed on their devices, making it easy to adopt. If you aren't familiar with Discord, I have previously written about how to set up a Discord server, and tips for teachers using Discord.

Find the spaces between formal activities

Here I will share some suggestions for setting up a Discord server to parallel a traditional classroom or campus environment. My goal with this design is to create places for student-initiated interactions, such as those that occur in what I call interstitial learning spaces, between and around formal educational activities.

Setting up a Discord server with voice and text channels allows students to choose how and when to engage. Some are more comfortable lurking quietly or communicating by typing. Others might enjoy sharing gifs, images, and video links. Discord supports text chat, audio calls, and video conferencing. By designing a server with options, I try to encourage all types of communicators to find a way to engage.

How to set up Discord for online learning

In the diagram below, the blue area represents the Discord server for a group of students. The border indicates that the server is somewhat private since participants may only join via invitation, which keeps it focused on the intended learning community. The double arrows show that participants can visit the server anytime and bring or share resources with the group.

The center is occupied by a general channel that serves as the primary meeting area, and the rounded rectangles are additional channels for designated purposes. There is a lounge for socializing and off-topic chat, a news channel for official announcements, office rooms for instructor and teaching assistant office hours and meetings, and a handful of tables for lab groups, study buddies, and project meetings. The number, names, and types of channels are customizable for the needs of your group, and this is just a starting place for building a learning community.

Diagram of online learning environment set up in Discord with names of channels to parallel classrooms and study group spaces.
Example of how to set up a Discord online learning environment. Copyright 2023 Heather Saigo.

Here is what the diagram might look like set up as Discord channels in a server. You can change the names to suit your needs. I have changed the settings of the office channels to limit those rooms to two users at a time (indicated by the 00/02) to provide private one-on-one meeting spaces for students and instructors.

Screen capture of channels in a Discord online learning environment
Discord online learning environment channels

Adapt your Discord online learning environment as needed

As the Discord online learning community grows, students may request additional features or channels. There is a growing library of bots that make it easy to add moderation tools, course administration features, and games to servers. I have found that Discord's always-open platform appeals to early birds and nightowls alike, and its support for synchronous and asynchronous communication provides opportunities for almost everyone to participate in a conversation.

I have even used Discord for hosting Jackbox games and movie nights. I think it puts some of the social engagement back into online learning. Give it a try and see how it works for your learning community. If you have any questions or suggestions, please get in touch!

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