Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Running a Lab using Discord

Graduate school is a challenging and sometimes isolating experience in the best of times; during COVID, I worry that it's particularly so. As a professor responsible for both my own students and the greater systems student community, I worried a lot about the impact that COVID was going to have on our students. 

From March to May, like half of the rest of the world, we adopted Zoom for group and project meetings, with each group having its own meeting. Unfortunately, since these were all on my account, that didn't help too much, because if I'm in a meeting with Project A, the Project B folks can't use the Zoom room for their project. This was definitely suboptimal.

We also used Slack, but I have something like ten different slack channels and I found that keeping up with it (and just remembering to look at it) was a challenge. 

At the end of April I was co-chairing a conference (Eurosys) and after consulting the coolest people I know (my kids), I decided to try using Discord to simulate a hallway track. We introduced it late and not a ton of folks used it, but the few who did convinced me that there was enormous potential, so shortly after, I switched the lab to Discord (since the other faculty member was on sabbatical, I felt like I could make the decision somewhat unilaterally).

We've been using it now for about three months, and I'm pretty happy with it. I did a survey after a month or two and also got (anonymous) student feedback. So I'll try to both report on why I like it and try to summarize the student's response.

How we set up the server: 
Since this was an experiment, I kept things relatively locked down. Faculty have admin powers and everyone else can participate fully, but not really administer the server. (It wasn't that I didn't trust people, I just wanted to run a bit of a more controlled experiment.) 

We created a schedule channel where we could keep track of weekly meetings.

We then created pairs of text and voice channels for each project group.

As we started to arrange group social events we created a text-base social-event channel and a voice-based Watercooler, which gets used for grad students to hold Office Hours for the undergrads (an initiative completely undertaken by the students).

Some conversation on the general channel resulted in our creating a channel on technology, law, and government regulation.

We created channels on which to have follow up discussion from our weekly reading and writing groups. But mostly, we tried to keep the number of channels down to a dull roar. (I'm guessing that when new faculty start and return from sabbatical, we might introduce some hierarchy around the projects, just to keep the list of channels more compact.)

My reactions

1. It's an integrated "place" where I can engage in both asynchronous text-based conversations and synchronous meetings/conversations. I think it would be nice if a voice channels could have text components, so we didn't have to pair two separate channels (i.e., I'd prefer something that looked more like Skype with its message channels). But the integration was important for me -- I could keep one "thing" open and watch that thing.

2. There is visibility into what the different projects are doing -- if I see that my Project A folks are meeting a lot, that could either be a great thing or it could be a sign that something is up -- it lets me ask.

3. There is also social visibility -- if you see people hanging out at the Watercooler, you can join in, just as you might do in real life (and if people want to have a private conversation, you can do that via direct messaging).

4. I really don't like the fact that in order to construct a group direct message conversation, I have to be friends with the people; it's not sufficient that we're just on the same server. This is a pain and is probably my #1 feature request.

5. I go back and forth about whether I like the fact that direct conversations are globally scoped -- that is, if I have a conversation with Arju, that conversation is not part of any particular server (organization), it's just a conversation with them. In contrast, on Slack, I can have a conversation with Arju as a TA for my course or as a member of my lab and those are entirely separate. Initially I preferred the Slack model, but I may be coming round.

6. A few folks seem to have more difficulty with video calls on Discord than they do on Zoom. I don't quite understand why -- I find that all seven thousand of the different communication platforms I use sometimes get confused about who owns my microphone and speakers and which one I'm using, but it doesn't seem to be Discord specific.

7. Changing between Discord channels is WAY better than moving among Zoom breakout rooms (I'm pondering use of Discord in class).

8. High order bit: to me, our lab server genuinely feels like a place and community to me. It feels like it does a moderately good job of creating an atmosphere for our lab. The combination of Discord and our overall lab culture has allowed 'visiting students' to feel welcome and part of the community and to develop a sense of our culture. This may be possible with other platforms as well, but it seems that Discord has worked particularly well for that.

General student feedback

Slightly over 70% of the students reported that Discord was either fabulous or good (split evenly).

17% were neutral

13% were negative (split evenly between "don't particularly like it" and "really don't like it").