For a number of years I’ve been using Slack with students on both the MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism, and the MA in Data Journalism at Birmingham City University. As a new academic year begins, here are some tips I’ve picked up over the years – whether you are a lecturer considering integrating Slack into your teaching, or a student considering using it in a journalism project.
First things first: why Slack?
Slack is a professional chat app used widely in the media industry to organise projects. It has a number of advantages over other options for communicating between colleagues, whether that’s chat apps such as WhatsApp, or traditional email. These include:
- The ability to take control over opting in or out of communications (rather than being endlessly ccd in on unimportant messages)
- The ability to have ‘office hours’ and customise notifications based on your priorities and availability (rather than getting notifications for all communications)
- A particularly powerful search functionality for finding documents or messages from previous communications
- The ability to set yourself reminders
- Automation of aspects of work, such as alerts
When it comes to teaching and learning there are two obvious selling points: firstly it empowers students to manage their own communication (with attendant benefits for mental health).
And secondly, it teaches them how to use an important industry tool.
How to get started with Slack
You can use Slack in the mobile app (on your phone’s App Store). Or you can use Slack online in a browser at YOURGROUPNAME.slack.com (once a group has been set up — see below) or download the Slack desktop app for Windows or Mac. There’s also a Chrome extension!
When you start using Slack you will be in one of two possible scenarios:
- A colleague or tutor has set up a Slack group for a project and invited you to join it
- You want to set up a group on Slack to organise a project
Groups are one of the things that differentiate Slack apart from other chat apps, but they also take a bit of getting used to.
On a chat app like WhatsApp, your communication is only divided into ‘chats’. Each chat consists of a group of people using that channel for everything.
On Slack, however, the group contains all the people (in an organisation, a course, or on a project) and the chats split up the different conversations that those people need to have. One story might only require the involvement of a few people — some different people might be interested in discussing a particular topic, and so on.
Either way, once you’ve signed up, you’ll need to be able to find your way around the Slack group.
Getting started: channels
Channels are how you organise conversations and projects on Slack.
Channels can be accessed on mobile by tapping on the group button in the upper right corner. If you are on desktop you can find them by just looking at the left hand side of the screen.
Each channel name begins with a hash symbol:
A channel can be for:
- A particular module/class on a course. For example
#med7370-multiplatform-journalismis a channel that I set up for any communication related to one of my modules (to, from, or between students)
- Organising social events. For example in previous years my students have created channels for a regular Friday pub wind-down, as well as one-off social events such as a student offering to cook food for everyone one night
- A particular project. For example one channel,
#domestic-violence, was created for an investigation that some students worked on with Bureau Local
- Sharing useful stuff. An obvious example of this is the
#linkschannel, created for people to share useful for interesting links to stories, tools or examples (without bogging down other channels). But I also have one for
#opportunitiesand another for
#eventsto name just two.
- A particular group of people. Once students graduate from the course I add them to the
You choose to join a channel if it interests you or is useful to you — and you can leave it when you’re no longer involved in whatever it relates to.
You can also control whether you are alerted when new messages are posted to a particular channel (see below), or just check the channel when you want to. (This is much better than getting constantly cc’d on emails.)
Slack is also a useful way for students to get to know each other before you start a course. To that end I created a channel called
#sayhello – students are invited to use that channel to post an introduction before they begin, and say hello to fellow students, so it’s easier to recognise each other and know a little about each other when they arrive.
Getting started: mentioning and talking to others
Slack was designed as an alternative to email so that you are not constantly getting copied in on emails you’re not interested in.
But if you want to draw someone’s attention to a message you can do so with the
@ symbol, just as in other platforms.
For example, a student might want to ask a question publicly like so:
“@paulbradshaw should I submit my work as a PDF or Word document?”
This is particularly useful to do for conversations or questions for one or more people where the answer might be useful for others.
If you don’t want a message to be seen by others you can also send messages directly (to one or more people).
Scroll down below the channels list to find the Direct Messages section. Tap the + sign next to this to find a member of the group (or more than one) and start a new non-public chat.
Replying and threads in Slack
When you reply to a post in a channel it’s best to not just post another message underneath it in the same channel – but instead to start a thread.
To do this tap on the message and use the reply option to start a thread (if one doesn’t exist it will say ‘Start a thread’; if a thread has been started it will say ‘Reply to thread’.
This means that replies will be connected to the original message, and also won’t bog down the channel as a whole.
If you want your reply to be included in the broader channel as well you can, however, tick a box which says ‘Also send to #channelname’.
Using Slack to manage information overload!
When you first sign up to a group you will be added to certain channels. Often these have names like
#random – this is up to the creator of the group.
Slack is particularly useful in reducing information anxiety when used effectively. Things you can do include:
- Only join channels that interest you. (And leave when they no longer interest you)
- Set what times to allow notifications: in other words, if you work on your studies 9-5 then only have notifications turned on for those hours. If you have a part time job turn notifications off accordingly. If people try to message you they will be told that you have notifications turned off at the moment.
- Set your status and availability so people know if you’re on vacation, working remotely, in ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode, and so on.
- Join and leave channels, and customise notifications for channels: channels are basically Slack’s version of ‘cc’ messages – a way to stay in the loop on a project or topic without messages clogging up the same space as more direct communication (which are brought to your attention using the @ symbol). Set your notifications according to whether you always want to know what’s being said in a channel, or instead just want to check yourself from time to time.
- Mute channels when they get too noisy: you can mute for a particular period of time if there’s a lively chat you don’t need to be involved in, and then return to it later.
- Use the ‘reminder’ functionality in Slack if you can’t, or don’t want to, respond to a message straight away. Tap and hold on a message and select ‘Remind Me’ to be reminded about it later. You can also create more specific reminders.
Case study: How I use Slack
Here are some of the ways that I use Slack to manage information overload and mental health:
- I have set it to be ‘on’ during working hours: 9-5. Outside of those times it is set to ‘Do Not Disturb’. This prevents me getting notifications when I am not working, and allows me to ‘switch off’, stay fresh mentally and fulfil my other responsibilities.
- I have joined the channels that I need to be in – but not the ones I don’t need (e.g. student social activity!)
- I include @ names in a message to draw specific people’s attention to it, e.g. if I think it will be of particular interest to them, or if I think they can help.
- I have turned on notifications for some channels, e.g. modules — but notifications are turned off for other channels like
#newsfeed(an automated feed of news alerts) because I don’t need to know instantly when something is posted there. Instead I can see that there are unread additions when I actively check Slack.
- When I am on annual leave I change my status to ‘Vacationing’ so that people know. If I’m at a conference or in a meeting I try to change the status accordingly, and so on.
- If I can’t respond to a message when I first read it, I press and hold on the message and choose ‘Remind me’ to set a reminder to respond at another time.
- I also use it more generally as a reminder tool: if I remember something while I’m on the move, I go to the @slackbot direct messages channel and type something like “Remind me on Monday about story idea X”. Starting with ‘remind me’ creates a reminder, and the timing that follows is recognised by Slack (if it doesn’t understand, it asks you). For example you can type ‘remind me in an hour’ or ‘remind me tomorrow’ followed by your reminder.
- I have connected Slack to other apps and tools to automate some updates using IFTTT. For example, the
#newsfeedchannel is updated every time a new FOI request update appears in Birmingham on WhatDoTheyKnow.com, and every time the council add a new event (in both cases the new items appear on an RSS feed).
How do you use Slack as a journalism student or teacher?
Those are just some of the ways that I use Slack with students – but I’d be interested in hearing your own experiences and ideas of using it as part of journalism teaching and learning. Please let me know in the comments or on Twitter @paulbradshaw