During the pandemic, we have truly realised the importance of the community to the university experience. The community around modules or courses is paramount to a strong student experience, successful learning, and peer support.
For many, when challenged with taking learning from the realms of the physical to the virtual, that sense of community was lost and breakout rooms, Teams threads and forums and emails couldn’t fill the void. However, some of us were forced to try new technologies and platforms to see what parts of that community could be recreated. We found that, far from f being worse than pre-pandemic times, a closer and stronger communityemerged, , withstudents and staff chatting, sharing, supporting and bonding more than ever before. For us, in the Electronics and Computer Science department at the University of Southampton, the tool that allowed that to happen was Discord.
Discord (https://discord.com) is a discussion platform which allows both synchronous and asynchronous communication and builds on the advantages of similar platforms such as Teams, Slack, Blackboard, Facebook. It aims to provide an integrated experience and has rapidly grown to become the platform of choice for incoming university students.
Discord’s ability to create an entire community, split into categories, discussion channels and voice and video channels is well suited to the university environment.
While many institutions are using systems such as Teams, there are some big differences that can make Discord a more suitable choice:
- Social and informal: Whereas Teams and similar systems have a far more formal approach, Discord allows you to create a social space, not just a workspace. Discord takes a more informaland social approach, which is significantly more appealing for many students. Staff and students can converse a lot more freely in a more relaxed environment. General chat areas can bring everyone together, or there are also course chat areas to build up conversation within particular courses. Social events and similar can be run on Discord and we found these to be very effective in building a social community, not just an academic one.
- Engagement: When teaching started in 2021, we initially started using Teams and Blackboard, but found engagement to be incredibly low, with around 2-3 posts per week from classes of around 300 students. After Discord was established, there were 1,000s of messages per week coming in and a higher level of engagement than ever expected.
- Avatars and semi-anonymisation: Students can use avatars with their preferred nicknames, rather than being personally identifiable on official university systems, which for many lowers the barrier of entry into discussions. Students can be anonymous from each other but not from staff, still allowing for moderation and control but helping students relax and feel more comfortable. As students start engaging and get to know the others, they soon feel happier sharing their name and identity and forming closer relationships.
- Roles: Discord allows for the use of roles and permissions to be granted to those roles. You can have roles to separate people into courses or modules so they only see content relevant to them. You can “ping” or mention roles to send notifications to everyone on a module or to get the attention of all the course reps, for example. Demonstrators and Lecturers can appear in different colours. Staff and volunteers can easily be given additional permissions and control over the server. These roles can be managed manually, but we integrated them with the university systems so students and staff automatically received roles based on their status and modules they were involved in.
- Development possibilities: Discord has an open API, allowing you to create “bots” or additional features that can be used in teaching – for example educational games, quizzes, polls, competitions, FAQs and other similar features. There are many bots out there available already, or those with some development skills can add additional features and custom tailor requirements to your needs, giving a lot of flexibility to go beyond anything possible on traditional systems.
- Chatting not threading: In Teams and many other VLE systems, you create threads and others can reply. This adds a formalisation to the process and tries to place everything into topics and has the expectation of longer multi-paragraph messages. Discord presents channels more akin to chat rooms, leading to faster, easier discussion – nobody has to start a thread, there is no formal thread structure and anyone can join in on the chat or start discussing something new.
- Platform of the future: A few years ago, few people outside of the gaming realm had heard of Discord. This year, we’re seeing Discord as the fastest growing platform for new students starting at university. Discord has released “Student Hubs” which has quickly seen students moving their clubs and societies to Discord from other platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook . Discord offers a lot more flexibility, control, structure while Facebook’s retreat from supporting groups has rendered it less popular. Discord is the platform that our prospective students and new starters are choosing to use by choice.
- What the students are using: The students were using Discord already; they were already online, had it on their phone and computer, and they’d see notifications or activity on the Discord server, rather than having to log into Teams or a separate service. This led to far more engagement compared to what we had seen with the alternative institutional solutions which require students to constantly check or log in.
- Shared Power and responsibility: Students can be given some power and responsibility and Discord has very fine-grained access controls and permissions. You can allow students to create their own channels and manage their own experience and even trust them to help create module areas or social spaces tailored to their needs and wishes; nevertheless, administrators and staff still have ultimate control.
- Synchronous and asynchronous: Discord is synchronous and asynchronous at the same time, allowing for real time chat and communication, voice and video and screen sharing, but also replying to conversations hours or days later, all in the same place. Discord supports replying to messages, threads for long discussions or tangents off the main discussion themes, as well as being able to have a sensible categorisation and channel structure which works well.
For our pilot, we used Discord for the second semester of first year computer science at the University of Southampton for around 350 students. Our usage included the following
- General discussion and social spaces
- General per-module chat and questions
- Announcements and important information and resources sharing
- Dedicated help channels for lectures and coursework
- Live sessions run on Discord with students participating
- Anonymous questions that could be asked via a Bot. Students could ask a question to the Bot and the Bot would share the question with all active lecturers and demonstrators, to which anyone could respond.
- Tutorial groups and smaller groups with their own private spaces on Discord
- A representatives’ area to allow for a quick link between course reps and staff
- A helpdesk service with paid postgraduate students who could offer 1:1 support
- A virtual office space for tutees and project students to meet with their tutors and supervisors
- Social events and talks
The results were close to 75,000 messages since the start of the semester from over 360 active users (around 95% of the students from the pilot year) and close to 180 active users per day. We received incredibly positive feedback from both students and staff and the modules making use of Discord were nominated and won top-level university awards. The impact on staff workload was also significant, with a massive reduction in emails and support requirements as peer-to-peer support truly took off.
To be successful, the technology alone was insufficient – Discord is not a solution in and of itself. Firstly, Discord was successful in our usage as this is what the students were already using and wanting to use. However, forcing it on a majority that are not using it would elicit the same issues as common institutional systems.
Significant work was required to build a social aspect to the community with games, in-jokes and general chat and to help students who had never met build friendships. Up-front effort from staff was needed to kickstart and maintain the community and trust was needed to help the students embrace it as their community – not just something staff run. However, after the initial effort, it didn’t take long until the community became self-sustaining, with a growth in peer support, informal discussions and a true community vibe.
When everything came together , the benefits of the platform were clear: new friendships formed, students helped students, staff and students worked together to build better courses, feedback passed in both directions, and a truly active community of peers emerged.
Find out more
Discord is available for all major platforms and mobile devices, as well as being usable directly in the web browser. Discord can be found at https://discord.com/
Discord servers are free to create and maintain and are hosted in the cloud, requiring no special infrastructure or setup.
A specific guide on Discord in the Classroom can be found at https://blog.discord.com/ how-to-use-discord-for-your-classroom-8587bf78e6c4
If you’d be interested in finding out more or discussing further, please feel free to get in contact with myself and I’d be more than happy to talk through what we have achieved and how we achieved it.
J. F. Cacho, “Using Discord to Improve Student Communication, Engagement, and Performance,” UNLV Best Teach. Pract. Expo, Jan. 2020.
M. Vladoiu and Z. Constantinescu, “Learning during COVID-19 pandemic: Online education community, based on discord,” in Proceedings – RoEduNet IEEE International Conference, 2020, vol. 2020-December.
G. Konstantinou and J. Epps, “Facilitating online casual interactions and creating a community of learning in a first-year electrical engineering course,” in Proceedings of 2017 IEEE International Conference on Teaching, Assessment and Learning for Engineering, TALE 2017, 2017, vol. 2018-Janua, pp. 128–133.
Oli Bills is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Southampton.