By: Nidia Alonso, Alexis Denton, Cory Godin, Merissa Hillary, Chandan Puri, and Kristin Ravel
Note on the shared authorship of this post: Although each individual author situates themselves in a specific section using first-person narrative, this post has been written collaboratively—all authors participated in the writing, revising, and editing of each section.
Given the unique challenges COVID-19 presents to traditional face-to-face coursework, more and more instructors are turning to freeware such as Discord, Slack, Padlet, and Jamboard in order to better support student engagement and learning.
In this post, we—Dr. Kristin Ravel and five students from her 2020 summer undergraduate course—describe our experiences with Discord, a group-chatting platform. Moreover, these student-centered perspectives will help bring greater understanding to the potentials and drawbacks of integrating Discord into an online or hybrid writing class.
The Decision to Try Discord
Back in March when Rockford University (RU) moved online due to COVID-19, I (Kristin writing now) distinctly remember the frustration of squeezing what was once our meaningful F2F course discussions into the shape of a course-management system’s discussion board.
Our institution uses Canvas, but I’m sure my frustrations with Canvas are not unique. Whether it’s D2L, Moodle, or Blackboard, such technologies are so often designed for traditional courses that prioritize instructor-student hierarchies and standard assessment practices: in other words, they support quizzes, exams, grades on a percentile, little long-form feedback, rigid rubrics, strict deadlines, and primarily linguistic-based assignments. What were they not designed for? The values of our writing courses: including post-process-based writing, peer-feedback, multimodal activities and composing, contract or labor-based grading, community-centered care, and complex discussion focused on connection. This is not to say that these things are all impossible on Canvas, but they certainly aren’t a priority based on its design, as we further describe in the next couple of sections.
Why Discord over other freeware options available?
With little time for planning between semesters, I was torn between depending more on blogging platforms (such as WordPress or Tumblr) or a wiki (such as Slimwiki) as I’ve done in the past or using something that was designed more for casual chatting (such as Discord or Slack). I settled on Discord for a few reasons: (1) I knew that I wanted the platform to be free and to offer an opportunity for students to engage organically with one another, like what happens in our college hallways or before and after our class time officially begins and ends. (2) I wanted to improve discussion experience, allowing for opportunities for more synchronous conversation than email or discussion boards allow. (3) Our course is a 300-level one titled ‘’The Rhetoric of Social Media,’ so it seemed fitting to use a social network platform, and all of the allowances this media provides, in a class centered on understanding the effects of such technologies. Additionally, unlike Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, Discord seemed less likely to uncomfortably break the personal/public divide students desire in their courses with their social media (Vie 2015). (4) And perhaps most importantly, it was actually Cory, one of the authors of this post, who convinced me to take the leap to Discord after I reached out to him via email (Cory is part of the Discord-centered gaming community, which I knew because he had already taken one of my courses in the Spring).
Before this class, I may have used Discord three times and always in a casual social setting. In the weeks leading up to our course, I was not entirely confident I had the expertise or familiarity to facilitate it for class use. With Cory’s insight and a few randomly-searched instructional Youtube videos later, I created a course server, asked students to make an account, and shared the permissions link with the class. If this sounds easy, it’s because it mostly was.
In the following section, Cory describes Discord, it’s relationship with the gaming community, and the setup for our asynchronous online course in more detail. Afterward, Merissa explains some of the advantages of Discord over Canvas for course discussion and instructor communication, primarily attending to it’s ‘templated’ features (Arola 2010).
Alexis and Chandan’s section focuses on the concerns and challenges that come with using Discord based on our course readings and activities (see, for instance, Husley and Reeves 2014; Noble 2018; and Beck 2015). More specifically, they include their own knowledge and analysis of Discord’s discussion features and its sticky issues with privacy and surveillance.
In the final section, Nidia examines Discord from a perspective of accessibility: through integrating research and personal experiences, Nidia brings awareness to how we need to be mindful about how Discord’s ‘user-friendliness’ may not always be friendly to everyone, especially when it comes to users with disabilities.
Overview of Discord
I (Cory) have been using Discord recreationally and to coordinate with my collegiate esports team, which I describe in more detail below. Before this class, I had not heard of it being used for education but was pleased to hear from my professor that we may be using Discord, as I had so many good memories with friends on this platform.
Discord and the Gaming Community
For online gamers, like myself, Discord has been completely incorporated into our lives since communication is so important: after all, losing a fight in a game because you couldn’t tell your teammate that someone was behind them is a frustrating experience!
Before using Discord for gaming communication, I had a group of friends from school I wanted to play with, but it was challenging to communicate with one another when I was not with them face-to-face. After downloading the application, I found that I could use it for far more reasons than just yelling at my teammates to “watch out!”.
For example, Discord also helps me stay involved in the online gaming community by following popular personalities who make gaming their professional lives. Larger gaming personalities on platforms such as Twitch, a video game streaming website, or Youtube began using Discord to communicate with their teammates and friends (just like myself), but as their gaming grew in popularity, there became a need for a space where viewers could stay up-to-date with their content. On Twitch, at any hour of the day, you could find many popular streamers with 20 thousand or more viewers who watch them play games for entertainment: almost all of these viewers now use Discord.
Discord is a natural platform for this type of interaction since it allows for easy moderation and channel customization, which gamer personalities need. On the viewers’ end, they enjoy the platform because this is where much of their online interaction with their friends takes place.
The increased popularity of gaming personalities took Discord from being a platform where people would go to talk with their friends, to a place where gamers could talk about their passions with people who loved their game as much as them. If I want to play a game but my friends are not on, I have hundreds of other people on a Discord looking to play.
While Discord has nice features and useful tools, the communal aspect is why my collegiate esports team, my favorite gaming personalities, and myself use Discord daily. Going from using Discord for recreation to a classroom setting was a little weird at first, but because of how Discord’s design allows one to section off different content, it became easy for me to flip back and forth between my gaming identity and my writing student identity.
Discord (in Our Class)
Since Discord at its core is an application to keep people connected, the application tries to keep things user-friendly for a general audience. Creating an account is as simple as creating an account on any other platform: you just need a username, email, and password.
Once you create an account there are a few ways to get started. If you get on Discord just to try it out, there is a way to search for servers on topics you enjoy, such as gaming, science, or movies. If you have a specific reason to be on the application, such as a class, esports team, or a once lost friend group, that group can invite you to their server where you can communicate with one another.
The ‘servers’ then break down into ‘channels’ (similar to how there are threads on a forum).
Adapting this interface to fit a classroom setting is simple, and our class is one example of how it can be done.The front page of our server is labeled general, and this is where Professor Ravel makes her announcements, links to videos she has recorded (in place of lectures), and other pertinent information about the class. In larger classes the instructor could disable other people posting on this page to make sure students do not have to scroll for very long to find the information they need.
There is another channel for questions that students may have about the course, and the student can send the instructor a notification by @-ing them. In our class, a large part of the time the question is answered quickly, and in many cases, by another student from the class.
Since the class is centered on social media, we also have a ‘news channel’ where people can post recent news about this topic.
Our class is split up into different writing groups, with 5 people per group. Each group has a place to discuss course readings, share links to their papers, and converse with the other group members. The last channel is a place where to discus DIY crafts and other ways they are entertaining themselves during quarantine, but this could be any type of unrelated channel. It is important to not forget that a classroom is not just a place for students to learn the course material, but a place for people to make friends and feel accepted, which a channel like this one can do.
Instructors can vary their approach according to the class topic and size. Small classes could choose to make a channel for each topic or a computer programming class could have a channel to troubleshoot code. There are a lot of useful settings to play around with course organization, and from experience, if you have a cool idea, odds are there is a way to implement it somewhat simply into a channel.
The other main aspect of the servers is the voice channels. These channels support both audio calls and video calls. You enter these rooms as a ‘voice call’ by clicking on the name of the channel. Voice channels can hold many people, with some groups getting over 200 people (not recommended).
To use the video features in the voice channel, which also allows for screen sharing, you just need to select the video or screen button in the channel.
One thing to keep in mind though is that the number of people you can fit in a voice channel room with video is more limited, capping at 25 people.
In a classroom setting, voice channels can be used as virtual office hours and the screen sharing features can be used to help people who are not familiar with computers. Additionally, video calls can humanize the instructor, because without that the teacher is just a name without a face.
The amount of flexibility, modality, and reliability is why Discord for many years has been the communication application of choice for many gamers, and I believe that it can serve students and educators just as well.
Advantages of Discord for Course Discussions
Before taking Rhetoric of Social Media, I (Merissa) had never even heard of Discord before.
Given I was already overwhelmed from the Spring 2020 semester due the recent pandemic, I was very frightened about taking an online class again. After finding out I had to learn a whole new platform to communicate with my fellow classmates for this course, I started to feel even more worried.
By a wonderful surprise, Discord was fairly easy to grasp, and I appreciated the platform’s trendy design that looks more like a social media or blog website rather than a management system for a college or business. Like Kristin and Cory describe above, making an account on Discord is straightforward, and the simple design allows for less confusion when trying to navigate the application for the first time.
Discord uses easy-to-read basic fonts and the right amount of color to direct the user’s eyes to its notifications and communication tools. Even though the design is simple, the platform allows for individual customizations such as adding a profile picture and creating a unique username. There is also the luxury of adding emojis, GIFs, and reactions (similar to Facebook’s but there are more options) to your messages to add character, emotion, and humor.
The organization of the Discord platform makes it an easy transition for students that are not familiar with this system or tech savvy, but are generally familiar with social media. This allows many students to be able to learn the server quickly and be able to continually communicate with the class under the professors direct supervision.Discord’s template also cultivates a positive and friendly relationship with users when they first join Discord. For instance, the platform provides trendy sayings like, “This is the very beginning of your legendary conversation with username1” in the messaging board when you join. Discord also helps lighten the mood under the discussion boards by letting you know people joined with nice and encouraging phrases. These welcoming templated features help to lessen the general tension that comes with communicating with people online who you have never even met before, positively impacting the communication and connections in our class.
My experience with Discord has been far different than my past experiences with other online classes where we only used Canvas as a communication platform for discussions—including those classes that had to move online in Spring 2020 because of the pandemic.
While Canvas is useful because many students at RU are already familiar with it, its technology is outdated compared to Discord and its design has several flaws. For instance, Canvas often uses small fonts that are difficult to read and the organization of the site is confusing. Even something as simple as responding to a discussion is cumbersome, involving too much scrolling, button selection, and moving in and out of windows. Folding in visual elements so standard and fluid in most forms of online communication (such as memes, pictures, emojis, etc.) is also time consuming. For instance, to post an image in a discussion board involves far too many steps to bore you with in this writing (but is detailed on this instruction page on the Canvas website).
Discord, on the other hand, has features that help to facilitate and encourage conversations. If your name is mentioned in a channel, a yellow highlighted box appears around the message to show you that you have been mentioned and encourage you to respond back. This allows an easy way to communicate back with anyone that is directly talking to you.
Discord also updates more quickly than Canvas. In my experience and those of many of my peers, Canvas message and grade notifications will appear on a desktop web browser, but will not show on the app for several hours. Discord, on the other hand, synchronously updates and sends notifications. A chime will appear on my phone and desktop with a notification of activity almost simultaneously.
Another advantage is that you can change the settings on Discord so you only receive notifications on your phone when your name is mentioned or if you have received a direct message. This feature can limit stress if you are not interested in getting all of the notifications from every person in the class. Since there are so many students discussing topics all throughout the day, it can get annoying if you receive every activity notification. If you want people to notice or remember a specific message, you can “pin” the message to show importance and priority. Once it is pinned, there is an icon for group members to click on that will display all the pinned messages.
Any instructors who create a server are able to monitor and watch the activity of the students. On Canvas, if the professor is not directly in the discussion boards, they have no idea that collaboration between students is being done. This can affect the teacher to student interaction. In my own experience in the Spring, one of my professors graded us on group participation. We all communicated in the Canvas messaging board, but since she was not included in these messages, we all ended up getting a zero for participation at first because she was unaware any collaboration was being done. If she was using Discord, she would have been aware of the discussions because she would have had full access to viewing them. Not only that, we could have avoided the hassle and stress of first receiving a zero for our participation.
Given my experience with Discord’s templated features, I’ve found the application encourages a positive relationship between the professor and the students and with students and other students. The interactions are casual, yet unique. (Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am speaking with a professor and other classmates.) The natural conversation that Discord encourages allows for the feeling that we are not just having discussions as an assignment or homework but as a way to share ideas with one another.
While course discussions can be benefited by Discord’s design, it is important for professors to weigh these benefits against some concerns that my classmates will go into further detail about below.
Limitations of Discord
We (Chandan and Alexis) had never used or heard of Discord prior to this course. Navigating a new platform can be stressful and confusing at times. This is especially the case when an app created for the gaming community becomes the foundation to build class discussion upon. For instance, he students have free range when it comes to adding messages to forums, but it made threads difficult to follow. This is in contrast to other education platforms, such as Canvas that utilize organized message boards and a more administrator-led way of communication.
The Discord app was transformed into a virtual classroom discussion space, but not without some immense effort from both Kristin and the students.
Regarding Class Discussions
One main issue we dealt with in our course was trying to keep up with the class discussions and notifications in channels. Unlike a forum where threads can be created by most users and placed in subforums, Discord doesn’t allow students to add new channels without giving them the permission to modify or delete others. Most instructors may be hesitant to provide all students such wide-spanning permissions since it opens up the opportunity for important course content to be modified or deleted.
Discord also varies from a forum since it doesn’t allow channel hierarchies or ‘sub-channels’: instead the server limit on channels is 500, and it only allows a single level of sorting through “channel categories.” This results in making information more difficult to sort through since discussion on varied topics is happening on the same channel, perhaps even at the same time.
Notification features have a similar problem to the channels in that there is no way to categorize what kind of notifications one receives (outside of selecting a direct-mentioned-only option, as Merissa describes). Notifications on Discord become more difficult to manage and potentially excessive as students can’t avoid them for subjects they aren’t interested in without missing something important. In a way it shifts the burden from the initiator of a topic to readers and responders: it is very easy to pick a channel and send a message, but there no options for walking through the steps of selecting a subforum, checking rules, checking for already existing similar threads, creating a title, and then posting. For a reader or responder they have to take notice of the topic by looking for or being notified of a message in the chain and then trace it back to its beginning, potentially with other topics mixed in between.
On the homepage there’s a plethora of channels listed on the left hand side. Once directed to the discussion thread of your choice it can be a challenge to scroll back and forward trying to keep up with the discussion. For instance, if a student is looking through messages and wants to respond to something that was said before the channel moved onto another topic, they are less likely to do so because it is disconnected from the original conversation on the channel timeline. A topic discussed even a few hours ago can disappear back into the timeline never to be seen again unless actively searched for. Of course this is just how real-time text communication systems, all the way back to IRC (Internet Relay Chat), work. The historically ingrained design assumption that a discussion will happen largely in real time or at least consecutively and the lack of consideration for these platforms being “repositories of knowledge” create inherent limitations.
Discord is able to get the job done in a way that is at no cost to the student, but this is not without issues occurring. The layout of the homepage, along with the tedious scrolling to stay up to date with the discussion forums made for a more complex process then preferred. All in all, as with any other communication apps there are flaws.
Regarding Privacy and Surveillance
As with any freeware, Discord, rather than your institution, has control over data and access. This poses problems since Discord generally disregards user privacy and exercises the right to ban users regardless of reason, as is common with social media and communications platforms not designed for enterprise use. However, just because we are accustomed to sacrificing privacy and control to largely unaccountable 3rd parties in our private lives doesn’t mean that it is correct to do in an educational setting—especially because it compels students to make the same sacrifice.
It’s generally quite rare for users to opt out of this data collection, but we suggest— especially if this application was to be used in the classroom—encouraging students to make some adjustments to the settings to minimize data collection: For instance, users have the option to disable “Use data to improve Discord,” “Use data to customize my Discord,” and “Allow Discord to track screen reader usage.” The first disables the storage and processing of what Discord describes as non-essential data, the second disables personalization, and the third disallows them from tracking screen reader usage. The latter is probably most innocuous considering that it can reveal disability status and there is a lack of clarity on precisely what information is collected. They claim to anonymize it (anonymizing data is difficult) without describing how, so we suggest disabling it as well. Discord is generally vague about the data they collect and use—only providing detailed descriptions through unofficial channels in some cases.
Discord also has the ability to look through message content (no end-to-end encryption) and employs moderators to do so. Of course this is intended to stop abusive and illegal content but it is always possible that the moderators are looking through messages without any reason to do so. Discord doesn’t inform users when moderators look at their messages and haven’t outlined any clear policy or internal auditing measures to prevent moderators from abusing their authority. It appears that at this point Discord is just trying to get a handle on abusive content and isn’t very concerned about how these policies impact privacy.
Moreover, It’s important to remember that just like other free messaging platforms without end-to-end encryption based in the US, law enforcement and intelligence agencies likely have easy access. So it is good to think before talking about things like immigration status, crimes any user or anyone known to a user has committed, or perhaps some politically sensitive issues (usually those described as extremist by law enforcement). Because there is no end-to-end encryption and Discord has demonstrated little reason to trust them with sensitive information, we would suggest not putting anything on there that would cause a real problem if it became public. For those sorts of uses a platform like Element (Matrix), Rocket Chat or Keybase is safer.
For a platform used in essential class communication, it is uncomfortably easy for students to be unable to provide the information necessary to start or continue using the service and be banned from it. There are many reports of accounts being banned due to, for example, false association with people posting gore on non-NSFW servers. The appeals process for such reports is very slow and seemingly unfair. It is possible that a student has previously been banned from Discord and would therefore be unable to participate. While it may seem that they could just create another account, platforms like Discord are becoming better and better at identifying previously banned users through diverse means and preventing them from creating new accounts.
Discord also often requires a unique mobile phone number for verification before an account can be used or if some flag has been tripped in their system after an account has already been created. This is privacy invasive and rather unnecessary, but more importantly some students don’t have mobile phones. In rarer instances Discord may also request pictures of users along with a photo ID, probably for age verification due to concerns about COPPA. That is of course more privacy invasive and likely to pose a problem. These problems don’t impact the vast majority of users but when dealing with tens to hundreds of students, they are likely to come up occasionally.
Discord’s Accessibility Problem(s)
This was my (Nidia) first-time using Discord, and I am still learning and getting used to it. At times it has been difficult to use because I am hearing impaired and that presents its own set of challenges when it comes to technologies. Additionally, I am generally nervous about learning a new program: I’ve never been one to have the newest Iphone or Galaxy and usually have to ask my sons for help with my phone, laptop, or smart tv (although I am comfortable with Canvas at this point).
When I first logged into Discord, it’s design overwhelmed me. The icons were confusing (and unlabeled), especially the audio controls.
During the first week I attempted to use Discord to visit Kristin’s online office hours but ran into technical issues: the audio on my computer would not work for me like it was supposed to, so I could see Kristin at the other end but she could not hear me. Since I am hearing impaired, it helps for me to see a person’s face via video so I can read their lips: this is one of the primary means I have to work through a conversation. After about an hour trying to fix the audio/video issue I had with Discord (and trying Zoom out as well), we ended up having to communicate using both our phones and the Discord video channel at the same time. Although it ended up working out, it wasted a lot of the time we could have spent talking about and completing the work of the class.
One feature Discord could add that would make it easier for audio-impaired users would be to offer live video captions in case audio problems like mine occur. While I understand that this is a lot easier said than done and could be expensive for Discord to implement, I believe the program could put in more effort to be more user friendly to people with disabilities.
If I could reimagine the program, it would offer some form of talk-to-text programming that would offer optional captions. If my phone has a talk-to-text option, it certainly seems like Discord could also look into this technology.
Other disabled users have been candid about the difficulties faced while using the Discord app.
On the Discord website, there is a feedback category for users to voice their concerns for difficulty seeing, reading, and accessibility. Here, there was a thread of upset users with disabilities such as ADHD, dyslexia, anxiety, problems with motor functions, severe migraines, etc. All the complaints on the thread (and in a related thread found on Reddit) were connected to a new update to Discord from February, 2020. The new design eliminated lines between messages and additional highlighting was created around text, and as user @Skye stated the app “feels cluttered and too colorful.”
Additionally a user who has visual impairments disliked Discord since about 80% of the buttons are not labeled, which makes navigating the application difficult.
Discord does have a reduced movement feature for users with disabilities, which you can enable or sync with your computer. Since Discord uses motion effects to create perception of depth, these effects can cause problems for users who are affected by excess motion and movement within apps. If you sync with the computer it automatically matches the same settings that you have on your computer settings. If you would like to enable reduced motion in Discord but keep your current computer settings the same, you can “enable motion” on. When this setting is enabled, Discord will reduce animation and movements within the app, regardless of your systems configuration.
I do want to mention that over the course of our eight weeks, I did finally get the hang of Discord and now feel more confident communicating with it. I also can see some of the positives of the application: the instructions to start an account were easy to follow and so was identifying the class server and its channels. Kristin’s decisions to set up the class so each writing group had its own channel helped me be able to follow along with the course better as well, and I appreciated having the ability to direct message my instructor during the day (as well as communicate through Canvas’ email).
Although I am glad that I had a chance to try Discord in a class, I still prefer Canvas and communicating for classes via Canvas or email.
In the future…
Thinking into the next semester with hybrid and online learning courses on the horizon, there’s a lot to consider about integrating freeware technologies into an educational setting.
When it comes down to it (Kristin speaking again), many of the most positive moments and experiences in our class (including the idea for this post) were due to Discord’s discussion allowances, especially when timing worked in favor of more synchronous group work and one-on-one chats. As a class tool then, it may be more favorable to support synchronous learning than was required in our summer class.
As this post argues though, we also need to take the privacy and accessibility concerns of freeware seriously. Of course, I also acknowledge that these issues aren’t unique to Discord or, more generally, to freeware: our university-sponsored or paid-for services, such as Turn-It-In and Zoom, also pose ethical concerns that we as educators have a responsibility to seriously weigh the consequences of.
In the end, there is no one-size-all fits answer to what technology will best serve a particular course and certainly not one that will help us navigate what education looks like in the time of a pandemic. And while I plan to use Discord next semester as well (albeit, organized differently and combined with Canvas discussion boards), I intend to continue to create space for students to provide feedback about how our course technology is working or not working for them.