Editor’s Note: PALS is excited to share this guest post on teaching with Discord from Mark Bresnan. In this post, Mark walks us through the ins and outs of getting started with Discord, while also addressing both the benefits and potential concerns with the popular online service.
Last spring, when my institution announced they were shifting to online courses, there were only two things I knew for certain: I hated Zoom, and I did not want to miss out on interacting with my students. I was most concerned about my American Literature of the 2010s seminar precisely because the first half of the class had been such a joy to teach. I was skeptical that meetings over blurry webcams would recapture that spirit.
Indeed, our initial attempts at class meetings with conferencing software were annoying and unfulfilling for all of the reasons you are probably familiar with—significant audio lag and distortion, frozen cameras, poor chat functionality, and many other minor inconveniences. Above all, the classes didn’t feel like they did earlier in the semester, and even though I knew it would be impossible to completely reproduce the experience of an in-person seminar, I wanted to try something else. So I decided to listen to the multiple students who suggested Discord and promised to help me figure out how to use it. The results weren’t perfect, but the last six weeks of the semester were engaging and stimulating, and the course felt like a community in a way that it didn’t when I was wrestling with Zoom and MS Teams.
This post outlines my experience with Discord as framed by the questions I asked the students who helped convince me to adopt the platform:
- What is Discord?
- What makes Discord better than Zoom or other conferencing software?
- How do I get started?
- How can I use Discord more effectively and avoid common tech issues?
- Is Discord evil?
I have a lot more to learn, and my Discord class sessions do not take full advantage of everything the platform has to offer. But my initial experience has me intrigued, and I am convinced that Discord provides an effective platform for everything from class meeting to virtual office hours.
1. What is Discord?
The easiest way to conceptualize Discord is in relationship to the other platforms you might use to teach remotely. Discord sits in the middle of a spectrum with Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other conferencing software on one end and learning management systems like Blackboard and Canvas on the other. As we’re all painfully aware by now, Zoom and other conferencing software are meant to facilitate a series of sessions—discrete units of time during which all of the participants are connected by video and voice. Blackboard and Canvas, as we know, are primarily places to host and organize content.
Discord, on the other hand, provides the real-time engagement of conferencing software with the (semi)permanence of CMS systems. This spring, my 21st-century literature course met on Discord every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10:00am. However, when the sessions ended, the environment did not disappear, and the text and images we shared remained for the following session. This allowed me to log into Discord on Tuesday, for instance, to post links and images relevant to the following day’s discussion. Now, in early August, I can scroll back to our class session of April 27 to see what we discussed.
Your class will take place on a Discord server, which is a misleading piece of terminology. (Discord’s overreliance on jargon is one of the main barriers to entry, and something their management team is trying to address.) Think of the server as a private Facebook group: students log onto Discord and then click a link you send in order to join your class server. You can see the name of our class server (“American Prose”) in the upper left-hand corner of the image above. Only those you send the link can join; your server is not visible to the wider Discord community unless you want it to be (and you almost certainly don’t.)
If you’re teaching multiple sections of the same course, you almost certainly want to make a separate server for each section. Servers are reasonably easy to set up, and keeping your sections separate will allow you to take better advantage of some of the features that make Discord particularly well-suited to discussion-oriented courses. And in that vein…
2. What makes Discord and Zoom better than other conferencing software?
Zoom and Microsoft Teams prioritize video. A Canvas discussion board prioritizes text. Neither focus reflects the way I teach or the main priorities in my courses: speaking, listening, and short moments of writing in response to discussion. Looking at my face is really not an important part of the classroom experience. Instead, I want students to focus on listening, speaking, writing, and gathering evidence to post in response to our discussion. I see this when I look back at our main text channel.
The thing to remember here is that the text channel is just one part of the experience—there is also a voice channel that everyone should be logged into as well, and there is the option to add video either both for yourself and up to 24 others. But the way that Discord prioritizes both text and voice instead of placing the text box off to the side reminds students that they can participate in multiple ways—writing when they feel comfortable writing, talking when they feel comfortable talking, etc. Students who never spoke up on the voice channel wrote long and complex comments on the text channel; some did both; some spoke quite a bit and wrote very little. What felt consistent regardless of form, though, was the engagement students developed with the content, with each other, and with me. This benefit echoes digital pedagogy theorist Sean Michael Morris’s insistence that “Technology is Not Pedagogy” and that effective use of digital platforms “relies more in the relationships between teachers and students than it does the delivery of instruction.”
In all of my courses, there are stretches of the class session in which it appears that “nothing” happens— when I want students to stop and think, or look for textual evidence, or write—and I find those moments intensely awkward on a video conferencing platform. Discord makes these moments more comfortable. There is always something for students to see and think about, and because the platform is made to feel like a part of the internet, there are ways for students to participate in low-stakes ways—posting a link, an image, or a GIF, or just giving a previous comment a thumbs up. The way Discord works as an extension of student’s internet discourse can have a useful pedagogical effect—but sometimes it’s just fun and makes the whole enterprise seem like less of a chore.
Of course, when we are having a discussion, I want to hear my students and I want them to hear me. If Discord has a killer feature that really elevates it above Zoom, MS Teams, etc., it is audio fidelity. Discord just sounds better, especially when multiple people are speaking in rapid sequence. Individual students occasionally lost audio, and one student’s voice got so garbled a few times that his classmates affectionately dubbed him “Darth Sidious.” But logging out and logging back in almost always addressed these problems, and since we used the text channel just as much as the audio channel, they did not derail the class in the way a frozen video stream would have.
3. How do I get started?
There are two very valuable resources at your disposal. First, Discord provides very helpful tutorials and FAQs that are quite clear, especially for basic things like setting up a server or setting up an account. Second, your students will know a lot more about Discord than you will, and some of them will likely volunteer to help you get things set up. Having said that, you need to start by downloading the Discord app, starting a (free) account, and setting up a class server. Beyond that, a few tips:
- Pay attention to the roles and permissions you assign when you set up the server. These are the options that control who can invite new members to the server, who can set up new channels (more on that below), who can delete material in the text channel, etc. You can get very deep in the weeds here, but in general, a simple approach is to make sure that you grant yourself administrator powers and that you give your students more restricted roles.
- The main elements of a server’s interface are text and voice channels. Your server will start with a “general” version of each, and this is where our main discussions took place. (You and your students will have to click both the text channel and the voice channel in order to participate in a text and voice discussion simultaneously.) However, you can add additional channels, and it’s useful to do so for small groups. I built text and voice channels for three small groups, and occasionally divided students up during discussion, at which point they just needed to click on the appropriate text and voice channel. (You can see an example of group #2 discussing in the image below). You can also create permanent small groups that have the same students every time and even prohibit students from outside that group from entering those channels; however, this is something you would need to set up through the roles and permissions element of your server.
- As I have noted a few times, Discord uses both voice and text—but for obvious reasons, I can only share the text elements of our class discussions on the post. A lot happened on the voice channel that can’t be recaptured here. However, it helps to keep a textual record of contributions over the voice channel—in case a student has a hearing impairment, or their audio drops, or you want a point of reference for students who missed class. Put some thought into how you want to do this—if you want to jot down quick summaries of students contributions yourself, if you’d like to ask students to summarize their own oral comments in text form, or if you want to give students the opportunities to serve as “scribes” for the day. In the image above, you can see that Mike, an outstanding graduate student TA, is paraphrasing student’s oral contributions even as some students contribute through text only. As you can see, he isn’t getting every single word down, but the broad strokes of the discussion are captured and preserved in the text channel.
4. How can I use Discord more effectively and avoid common tech issues?
First, the basics. You can run Discord from any device that has internet access, and it has both an application you can download and a web interface you can log into. For best performance, though, you will want to download the app onto a laptop or desktop computer and plug in headphones with an integrated microphone. This does not need to be fancy—I used my iPhone headphones and mic and never had any issues. One drawback—when you’re logged into the app, logging out is very counterintuitive, and if you leave yourself logged in and on a voice channel then whoever sticks around can hear everything going on in your house until you properly log out.
You will certainly have students who attend a Discord class session one day and then cannot join again for the next session. This is because when they’re trying to log out of Discord, they instead choose to leave your server, and they’ll need to be re-invited again.
Students can change their existing usernames into an alias for your server by right-clicking on them, which might be very useful if they are regular Discord users and their username is either inappropriate for the classroom environment or if it discloses something about themselves they would like to keep private (aka a student with the username queermangafan might not want to be out to the rest of the class).
There are a lot of great features that help improve audio functionality—there is a “push-to-talk” feature and it is easy to mute yourself and to mute any students whose dogs start barking or whose parents walk in and want to ask them how their day is going. It’s worth inviting a friend or colleague to your server when you’re not in session in order to get comfortable with those features.
5. Is Discord evil?
This is a difficult question to answer without sounding naïve. Like most social networks, Discord has had significant problems with the alt-right. They do seem serious about combating those voices, but as your students will tell you, homophobia, sexism, and racism still lurk in various servers. Fortunately, neither your nor your students need to explore any part of the network you don’t want to—there is no newsfeed or algorithm that makes suggestions in Discord. You join the servers you want to join and click on them when you want to see the content within. I taught my course this spring and then joined one other server that streamed music while I worked. I’m never confronted with any other server suggestions or ads.
Perhaps a more useful question than “Is Discord evil” is “Who is paying for your experience?” Discord is a “freemium” service, which means that the basic setup is free but paid subscriptions are available to give users individual perks (custom emojis, etc.) or to boost server performance. Some of my students were “Nitro” subscribers which meant they could do silly but fun things like make my face into an emoji, but non-subscribers (myself included) don’t miss out on the basic functionality that we used in every session (and we all got to use the cool custom emojis the subscribers made).
Server boosts are a different world and can get expensive, starting at $10/month for the first level of service. They provide higher quality audio and video. We used an “unboosted” server in spring 2020 and did not notice any severe issues—the main limiting factor on performance seemed students’ home internet connections. I am concerned (as I am with Zoom, MS Teams, and every other platform that instructors might turn to) that the provider itself will get overwhelmed and crash, or that the audio or video on the basic level might suffer degraded functionality as Discord grows in popularity. But if you’re running separate servers for each section you teach, and you want to boost all of them, the costs could grow fairly quickly. That said, I want to hear from whoever the first person is to successfully receive department reimbursement for a Discord server boost!
The key point, though, is that Discord makes money by the users who buy services from the platform—not from selling user data, not from ads, and not from onerous contracts with educational institutions.
I think a lot about my teaching, but a lot of the pleasure I get from it is not necessarily intellectual. Instead, it’s about feel—the feeling of walking into a classroom and not knowing exactly what will happen or how the class will develop. That spontaneity is more difficult to achieve online, but in my experience Discord made for a much more relaxed and engaging environment that the alternatives, and my teaching felt better integrated with the practices and values I’ve developed over fifteen years of working with college students. My hope is that it does the same this fall, whatever form the semester takes.
Dr. Mark Bresnan in Instructor of English at Colorado State University where he teaches composition and literature. His research focuses on contemporary American literature; you can read his most recent article on Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City in the first part of Literature Interpretation Theory’s recent special issue on archives and literature. He is happy to talk more about teaching with Discord on Twitter @mark_bresnan.