Note: Adam provided the lived experience in this post (he is the “I”) and Sam helped with the assessment and working with the folks at Ed.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve experimented with a variety of communication tools, synchronous and asynchronous ones, to better connect with my students. Slack and Discord were two apps I tried to stimulate discussion and create a shared knowledge base, both of which have been discussed previously on this blog. I tried Discord for my summer research group in 2021, but had some issues with the video quality and thought it felt “clunkier” than Slack. I used Slack for a few terms for asynchronous Q&A as well as synchronous evening student (office) hours but grew frustrated this fall by the constant use of DMs by students (an issue that hadn’t arisen in the previous terms I used Slack). These frustrations (paired with a procrastination session) led me on the search for an alternative platform. That’s when I stumbled across Ed Discussion.
How I found Ed
Years ago, I used Piazza as my course Q&A platform, but when I heard about the privacy concerns, I abandoned it. For a while, I only used Moodle and email, but quickly adopted Slack once I saw how it could be used in the classroom. While I like Slack’s stand-alone app and I know that my students are comfortable with it since so many Carleton classes have adopted it post-March 2020, there are a few key pitfalls that I never quite got over:
- lack of mathematical typesetting
- lack of subchannels
- the difficulty for students to post anonymously
- lack of a clear way to endorse student answers (something I really liked about Piazza)
After a quick search for Piazza and Slack alternatives, I stumbled across Ed Discussion.
What’s different about Ed
- There are categories and subcategories that can be easily set up through a text entry box. I set up my first course on Ed in a minute or two once I decided on the categories and subcategories. I didn’t have to adjust permissions for each category like I do on Slack, which is a real timesaver.
- To make a post anonymous, students just need to check a box. I found students used this option a lot, unlike in Slack where they had to type /anonymous before a post. Further, you can decide whether a student’s name is only anonymous to other students, or if it is completely anonymous to everyone, including the instructor. (If the instructor can still see a student’s name, it’s important to tell them this!)
- Polls are easy to administer in Ed and you’re not limited in the number of responses or the number of polls per month.
- You can use LaTeX for mathematical typesetting.
- Similar to Slack and Discord, it’s easy to insert code chunks using markdown syntax; however, you can also create executable code chunks.
- You can annotate images that students include in posts, making it easy to “point something out.”
- You can endorse student answers within threads or questions themselves to help distinguish important points or quality discussions.
- The “megathread” creates a post where each comment becomes a question that can be marked as “resolved.” I used megathreads for Q&A sessions (both in- and out-of-class) for exam reviews, which made it easy to manage the queue of questions.
- Ed integrates easily with Moodle (and other LTIs), avoiding some of the signup headaches during the first week of class that I commonly had with Slack.
How I used Ed
This winter I used Ed in two courses: Introduction to Statistics and Introduction to Statistical Inference (i.e., math stats). In both courses, I posted all announcements on Ed and had students post general questions there (e.g., homework, concept, and exam-related questions). Two nights per week, I held synchronous student hours on Ed where I started a “megathread” and answered questions as they came in. I prefer these “live chats” to video hours in the evening so that I can grade or watch TV while I am waiting for students to ask questions. An additional perk is that the thread for that night was available after student hours were over, so students that didn’t ask a question (or hadn’t started the homework) could still benefit from the questions asked.
Based on the end-of-term surveys I administered, the student responses to Ed were mixed. My intro students overwhelmingly enjoyed Ed. They found Ed clear and easy to follow, they really liked the anonymous posting feature, and they would prefer other instructors to use Ed over Slack and Moodle. However, students found that Ed doesn’t seem to help build community the same way Slack does, which I think has to do with the fact that students can’t create private channels for group work or DM each other.
My stat inference students had mixed feelings about Ed. Students still found Ed to be clear and easy to use, and that it at least somewhat enhanced their learning experience, but the class was split between their preference for Ed vs. Slack. I had a reasonably large proportion of students who had taken previous statistics or computer science courses at Carleton where Slack seems to be the standard, which I think is related to this split. Essentially, it seems like once students are comfortable with Slack, they might prefer it (or feel indifferent), but students who are unfamiliar (or less experienced) with Slack prefer Ed.
Ed also tracks user engagement (e.g., how many posts, responses, anonymous posts, etc.) and I noticed that students from underrepresented groups and those who were hesitant to speak in class overwhelmingly used the anonymous posting feature. The anonymous feature led me to Ed in the first place and based on this, it seems to engage different subsets of students in a meaningful way. In addition, by using Ed and allowing students to post anonymously, you can increase the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), such as increasing the various forms of communication, fostering a collaborative learning environment, and minimizing threats in the classroom.
While I really enjoyed Ed as a discussion board for my courses, it’s not without its own pitfalls, such as:
- Cost. Ed doesn’t have a free tier, so your institution will need to foot the bill ($6 per student per course). We were able to get a term as a free trial period, but there’s no guarantee that this policy will continue.
- There’s no stand-alone app for Ed. In the survey we administered about Ed, some students expressed a preference for Slack because there is a stand-alone app.
- Students can’t DM each other. This might be a feature or a bug, but that depends on your perspective. In Slack students were able to collaborate on group work, but this isn’t currently possible on Ed unless they are OK with everyone being able to see their discussion.
- It’s one more platform. If you are already using a number of tools—an LTI, RStudio workbench, etc.—then adding an unfamiliar discussion platform increases cognitive load and some students forget to check it. Using your LTI as a launching board for all course resources can help, but some students are resistant to change if their other courses use Slack or Discord.
Overall, if your institution is willing to pay for Ed, then it seems like it’s a great choice for intro classes, and up to your preference for intermediate or advanced classes.