Using Discord for Teaching, Learning, and Community

In the scramble to get classes and work online this spring, there wasn’t a lot of time for careful evaluation of online collaboration tools. We had to move our curricula and other work online as quickly as possible, so we used the tools that were quick, easy, and familiar. Our campus Zoom license gave us an easy excuse to use it as a replacement for face-to-face classes, meetings, and social events.

As the semester winds down, we have more time to consider what tools and techniques we might employ for the fall semester. Uncertainty looms over what forms our teaching, learning, and other work will take, but now is the time to explore alternatives. All of us, myself included, have experienced “Zoom fatigue” and wondered what other options exist.

Discord is a free online chat application that was originally designed with gamers in mind, but the more questions we see from faculty who are looking for Zoom alternatives, the more promising Discord seems for a variety of purposes. This article will merely scratch the surface of Discord’s capabilities, but there’s much more to this easy-to-use tool. I’ll share some resources for installing and setting up Discord and then touch on a few possible applications.

To get started with Discord, I recommend following their guide to using Discord for your classroom. Discord gives you the ability to create as many free servers as you like, with each server hosting up to 500 voice, chat, or video channels. You can organize these channels under categories, and there’s a full permissions suite to control access to these channels.

You and your students can chat via video and voice, just like Zoom, and text chat channels give you realtime or asynchronous ways to share files, thoughts, announcements, syllabi, or whatever else you can think of. You can make custom channels for breakout rooms or group work. You can share your screen, stream video to your students at high resolution, and give your class a place to connect whenever and from wherever. Your servers are always open, and only you and people you give access to can join. As the server administrator, you have full control over all your channels and server membership, so in the unlikely event someone joins your server uninvited, you’ll be able to remove them quickly and securely.

Using Discord is the best way to see the possibilities it offers, so if you’d like to know more, please contact your ACS liaison and we’ll arrange a demonstration for you.


Remote Learning at a Residential College

by Steve Taylor

Since shortly after the web was developed, colleges and universities have used it for conducting distance education programs. Leaders in the practice included public institutions, whose mission included serving a wide geographical area of non-traditional students; large universities, who were challenged to provide alternatives to courses taught in huge lecture halls; and professional schools and trade schools, whose focus was on procedural skills. The emergence of MOOCs in 2012 brought more attention to the practice. It has not been obvious, however, how distance learning technologies could benefit small, private, residential, liberal arts colleges like Vassar. Many have doubted— reasonably so—  that an online course could offer a better learning experience than a face-to-face course with a small student/faculty ratio. At Vassar this summer, we identified a use for distance learning technologies that borders on the ironic: a residential college connecting with its students when they’re not in residence; an institution known for small class sizes interacting with a student cohort of 700. We used Moodle to enhance our summer common reading program for incoming students.

Vassar College has administered a common reading program for first-year students every summer since 2006. The Dean of Freshmen’s office mails a copy of the chosen book (this year’s was Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoire, Fun Home), along with other orientation materials, to each admitted student’s home address. The students are instructed to read the book, but there have been no other requirements. For the summer of 2014, Dean Susan Zlotnick wanted to enhance the common reading experience with some online interaction, using Moodle. Over the course of several weeks, ACS produced three short videos, each with a different faculty member speaking about an aspect of the book, and inviting students to respond to one of several discussion prompts. Student participation was high, for an activity that had no penalty for non-participation. 427 of the 670 students (64%) posted responses, most of them substantial in length.

The goals of the common reading program are to give incoming students a preview of what classes at Vassar might be like, and to give them an opportunity to have a common intellectual experience with each other before courses begin. By all accounts, that was successful. This experience raises an interesting question: what other aspects of Vassar life might be enhanced by having an online space for shared information and social interaction?


Voice-Over Slideshows

powerpointNarrated recordings of slides can be useful for providing supplementary information to students, or to help prepare for upcoming class activities.  They can serve as a component of a flipped, or partially-flipped, classroom, or simply provide complementary material for a traditionally-structured classroom.  Microsoft PowerPoint and Macintosh’s Keynote are two of the most popular software options for producing slideshows.  In Keynote, narration of a slideshow results in a single audio file, whereas a PowerPoint slideshow narration produces individual audio clips for each slide.  The single audio file model of Keynote introduces some difficulties when one wants to insert a slide, or rearrange slides, after the full presentation has been recorded.  While one can generate individual audio clips in an external program, such as QuickTime Player, and drag them into Keynote, it is not a simple process and, in the end, PowerPoint wins out for the flexibility and simplicity offered by its model of an individual audio clip for each slide.


Using your computer’s built-in microphone or a USB microphone, you can create your own narrated slideshow.  The following instructions are specific to a Mac, however the procedure is very similar when using a PC.  After connecting the mic, if necessary, be sure to select the appropriate audio input/output source in system preferences.  Open your PowerPoint file and select the first slide.  Click the tab labeled  Slide Show.  Then, under Presenter Tools, select Record Slide Show.  After selecting Record Slide Show, the audio recording screen opens and recording starts immediately.  You can pause ( ll ), restart ( ↺ ) & continue ( ▷ ) as needed.  Click on the forward arrow at the bottom of the current slide (or use arrow keys) to advance.  Press the esc button or Exit Show at top-center to finish recording.  Select yes when asked if you want to save your slide timings (this includes audio).  As you can see, the procedure for creating a narrated slideshow in PowerPoint is quite simple.


Screenshot of audio recording in PowerPoint on a Mac.

Any subsequent editing is also straightforward.  For example, to re-record audio for a single slide, simply select the slide, then select Slide Show Record Slide Show. Make your recording for the individual slide and esc, or Exit Show, when finished.  You may also insert a new slide anywhere in the lineup and add audio to that single slide without causing the audio to fall out of sync on the original slides.  Another layer of multi-media that one may take advantage of is that of adding video/movie clips to slides.  It is not a difficult task and may be worth exploring as an additional enhancement to your presentation.

It is important to save your presentation as PowerPoint Presentation with the filename extension *.pptx.  The format designed to be compatible with earlier versions of PowerPoint (PowerPoint 97-2003 Presentation), which uses the extension *.ppt, has a number of features disabled.  As a result, students watching the slideshow on a Windows machine will not be able to take advantage of the “s” shortcut for pausing and restarting the presentation.  Finally, when you are ready to share your presentation with students by posting it on your Moodle site, for example, you may wish to save it as a PowerPoint Show (*.ppsx).  When students double-click on the file icon, it will automatically launch into the show mode, and they won’t be able to edit your slides.

If you have any questions or would like additional information, please contact Shelly Johnson, ACS liaison for the Sciences, at x7866 or


Flipping the Classroom

arrowsA hot topic in Higher Ed circles is known as “Flipping the Classroom.” The idea is to take the standard, traditional structure of student work in and out of the classroom and flip them— move the lecture out of the classroom and move the “homework” into the classroom. Typically, the lecture is moved out by making a recording of it available to students online.

The idea is for the mostly one-directional transmission of information to happen out of class, so that the in-class time can take maximum advantage of everyone being together.

Of course, this oversimplifies a lot of diverse practices. In reality, a lot of classes— especially humanities and social science classes at small colleges— already place the bulk of their “information transmission” (in the form of reading) outside of class and use class time for discussion. And “homework” may be an inadequate label for what happens in many flipped classrooms. Often, class time is used for what has been called “active learning,” which might include small-group problem-solving or project development.

The biggest benefit of flipping is that the most valuable time— the time when everyone in a course is together in one place— is used to its best advantage. If your class time— or even just a portion of it— is used for mostly non-interactive lecturing, why does everyone need to be together?


[Image from]

Another benefit of moving the lecture outside of class is that students can pause a recording, replay it, take careful notes, then continue it. This can be helpful for all students, but especially for those for whom English is not a first language or for students with learning disabilities.




The biggest challenge with flipping is probably the time and effort required by the instructor— both to produce the lecture recordings and to develop meaningful in-class activities. And some students react negatively to the flipped design— either because they prefer to be passive in the classroom or because they feel that their tuition payment entitles them to a “live performance.”

Interested in flipping, but not sure it’s right for you? You don’t have to flip everything. You can try just flipping two or three class sessions or just portions of a class. Your ACS liaison can help you with the recording.


Taxonomy of Learning Environments

by Steve Taylor
There’s been a great deal of talk in higher-education circles over the past year, about the perils and possibilities of online learning. Often that talk has been in the context of MOOCs or Coursera, but there are many variations of online learning and I often find that two people discussing the topic have fairly different things in mind. Here then is a taxonomy that we can use to get a little closer to understanding each other.

Classroom Learning (also called Face-to-Face Learning)
This type of course serves to anchor one end of the spectrum of remoteness in learning environments. It refers to the traditional environment, in which matriculated students and their instructor meet in real space, on a frequent basis— usually two or three times per week. Readings and homework assignments exist on paper.

Enhanced Classroom Learning
As in traditional classroom learning, matriculated students and their instructor meet in real space on a frequent basis, but some of their course materials— and more significantly their course activities— reside on the web. Students may be expected to contribute to online discussions or blogs, collaborate online with classmates on group projects, or take quizzes or exams online.

Blended Learning (or Hybrid) Courses
In this type of environment, matriculated students conduct a majority of their learning online, but meet face-to-face with their class a few times throughout the term of the course. This is essentially a distance-learning approach, with some added checks, giving instructors an opportunity to confirm that students are on track, and possibly to administer an exam in a proctored setting. Blended learning courses are often offered for adult learners in rural areas, who have to drive a long distance to campus.

Distance Learning
In a distance-learning environment, matriculated students take an entire course— or sometimes an entire degree program— online. Many universities offer distance-learning programs for students who would not be able to accommodate the schedule and location of traditional courses. Many public universities, with their commitment to educating the diverse populations of their states, have had distance learning programs for years, and many large, private universities have such programs as well.

Massive Online Open Course (MOOC)
MOOCs started to become prominent in late 2011 or early 2012. They exist entirely online and, unlike the other learning environments mentioned, they do not require learners to be matriculated in any particular institution. They are generally free of charge, but offer no credits. Because there is generally no instructor interaction involved, an individual MOOC may have thousands or even tens of thousands of students.

A number of universities have endorsed and supported their faculty members who wish to design MOOCs. Their motivations at this point seem to be a desire to “push their brand” into a larger population and, to some extent, a desire to provide a public service to that population.

Traditional, residential colleges like Vassar have been providing enhanced classroom learning experiences for many years, but most are just beginning to consider whether it makes sense for them to offer courses with reduced face-to-face time.


Faculty Student Panel on Online Learning

“Teaching with Technology in the Liberal Arts: Present & Future” – a panel discussion

Wednesday, October 24, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York.

A panel of Vassar faculty and students presented diverse perspectives on the use of technology in the curriculum, including online instruction, “flipped classroom” practices, distance learning systems, and their potential impact on our campus.

Moderator: Steve Taylor, Director, Academic Computing Services
Panelists: Ben Ho (Economics Department), Tom Ellman (Computer Science Department), Sarah Cheng ’13 (Committee on Academic Technologies) and Matt Harvey ’13 (VP for Academics, Vassar Student Association)



The 2011 Teaching with Technology Forum

by Steve Taylor

On April 7, Academic Computing Services (ACS) hosted its 9th annual Teaching with Technology Forum. The forum features a keynote address, given this year by Prof. Lisa Paravisini, on the topic “Teaching with Blogs: Going from the Source to Cyberspace.”

Twelve faculty members and two Computing & Information Services members presented posters and made themselves available to explain technology projects that they had undertaken over the past year. Here’s an overview of those presentations:

“Native Narratives in Archaeology: a Tumblr Blog”
Students in Sara Gonzalez’ class created blogs and made archaeology-based postings about Native North American culture. was used to collect the separate blogs into an organized whole.

“Blogging About Semiotics in WordPress”
Students in Saúl Mercado’s Semiotics course use a blog to apply theories to contemporary linguistic and multi-media objects. Their postings have explored intermedial art, fictional language, the evolution of language, the semiotics of gesture, the language of robots, as well as sports and advertising.

“Off the Wall: The Frances Lehman Loeb Center Blog”
Nicole Roylance, Coordinator of Public Education and Information at the Lehman Loeb Art Center, maintains a very active blog site about exhibits and events in the Center.

“Developing an Online Multimedia Database of the Vassar College Costume Collection”
Arden Kirkland has been developing online materials for exploring and learning about Vassar’s historic costume collection. She has begun using the new, web-based “Omeka” system to organize data, photos, 3D representations, etc. , as well as a blog in which student participants share their experiences with the collection.

“The Queer of Color Glossary Project”
Hiram Perez’ course “Queer of Color Critique,” explores issues of race and sexuality. He and Sean Wehle (2013) created the Queer of Color Glossary, a blog site intended “to house a growing discussion of queer of color terms, theories, practices, activism, and art.”

“High Performance Computing for the Sciences”
Marc Smith and Jodi Schwarz co-taught a bioinformatics course, which included both Computer Science and Biology majors. The two groups learned to work together to develop software for analyzing biological data.

“VAST Stories in WordPress”
Erin McCloskey’s students work with local middle school students via the Vassar After-School Program. She created a blog site, both to share the children’s work with friends and family and to develop the Vassar students’ ability to write for a broad audience.

“Viva and Bacteris: Blogging About the Small Stuff”
David Esteban maintains two blogs— one about viruses and one about bacteria— and he expects students in all of his classes to write entries as guest bloggers. They choose a recent study from the primary literature and write a brief description. The target audience is the general public, so the students— including freshmen— must describe the work in an accessible and interesting way.

“Memory Across Generations: an Oral History Project About Holocaust Memory”
Students in Silke von der Emde,’s course, “Memory Across Generations,” collected oral history materials concerning the Holocaust. They conducted face-to-face interviews with two Vassar alumni/ae in NYC using digital recording devices, Skype interviews with more remote alumnae/i, and one in-class videoconference with Marvin Chomsky in Austria. They used a blog to collect all of the information and results.

“Vassar Campus Sound Map”
Students in Tom Porcello’s Media Studies course on Sound explored the use of immersive audio representations of spaces, called soundscapes. Nick Inzucchi (2011) created a 3D, interactive, virtual environment, using 15 simultaneous sound recordings from a campus space.

“Learning in’s Online Training Library”
Chad Fust, of CIS, provided information about, the broad set of online training materials on technology subjects, now available to college constituents.

“Blogging the Chester Cycle”
Dorothy Kim and her students performed a play from the 16th-century Chester Cycle, in Toronto. They used a blog site to document their rehearsals and preparations and to provide related material to the community.

“The Faculty Lounge Network: Online Campus Tools for the Vassar Community”
Students in Tobias Armborst’s Architectural Design course were tasked with addressing the spatial aspect of the issue of encouraging a feeling of community among the faculty. John McCartin (2011) and William Mann (2012) responded by organizing a directory of available faculty lounge spaces on campus an facilitating a way for faculty members to reserve and cater those spaces. They created an attractive brochure and The Lounge Explorer, an interactive website with which faculty members could explore the available spaces.

“eBook readers: iPad 2 vs. Kindle”
John Collier, of CIS, demonstrated and compared the most recent models of iPad and Kindle, with particular regard to their use as e-readers.


10 Tips to get the most out of your class blog

by Baynard Bailey

Last week was jam-packed as I provided workshops for seven different Vassar classes, introducing multimedia technologies for different projects. Five of those classes’ projects were using WordPress. It made me think— Some of these class blogs will flourish and some will wither and die. Why? What makes the difference? Here are some old-school tips to get the most out of your class’s WordPress site.

Faculty Investment:

1. Discuss expectations

When beginning to use WordPress, have a discussion with your students outlining your learning goals for the site. Provide clear guidelines and timelines for posting content. Discuss how you will grade their WordPress-published work. If the site is going to be public, have a talk about appropriate content and confidentiality. WordPress knowledge unfolds over time, so you may  want to let them know that it is a work in progress and that you look forward to their input on how to best incorporate the site into the work of the class.

2. Contribute content

Make your own contributions to the site in terms of page or post content. Modeling is an extremely influential teaching tool and I fear too often neglected, especially when it comes to technology.

3. Grade

It’s blunt, but effective. Assign an appropriate percentage of the class grade to reflect writing published on the WordPress site. Keep in mind that writing can be in the form of page content, posts and comments.

Promoting High-Quality Dynamic Online Discussion (AKA Scripting Spontaneity)

4. Vary “posting” with “commenting”

If every student is posting critical responses to the weekly reading assignments, who is left to read the blog? Mix it up a little bit. For larger classes, half can post one week, and then read and provide comments the next. You could try having one student being responsible for an excellent post, and then the entire class reads and responds.

5. Write your prompts carefully

A little extra time spent on crafting a great prompt can make for more meaningful responses, or varied responses. No one wants to read thirty responses all saying the same thing.

6. Participate

Project a presence into to your class’s blog by making comments to posts. Paraphrase and/or cite the best ideas in the classroom itself. Some faculty like to make printouts ahead of class and cite them during discussion. I think this is a fantastic technique. Students will get the message very quickly that their intellectual work published to WordPress is valuable.

7. Share with the world

Students will generally write better content when they are writing for a broader audience (campus, friends, family, the world etc.). Set your privacy settings to provide access to everyone and to be “Google-able”. (Hint: Be sure to discuss this with the students.) Invite participation from beyond the campus through guest posts or comments. (Turn commenting on). Recognize student efforts that result in community interaction.


Site Design

8. Consult with your ACS liaison

WordPress is customizable and extensible. Make sure it is working the way you want it to by contacting your ACS liaison. We can help you make your instructional technology dreams come true.

9. Recruit a student to administer your site

Ask your class if there’s someone with experience running their own blog. Chances are, there is. If you have a good relationship with that student, recruit them to help you administer the site. ACS is happy to provide training for students and research assistants.

10. Make your site user-friendly

Can on- and off-campus users find the content that is being published to your site? Imagine you’ve never been to the site. Does it make sense? Be sure to include widgets that make your site easy to use. Add a button so users can follow your blog with email subscriptions or an RSS reader. Include a link to the dashboard so blog contributers can log in easily. Add the Search widget to make your site search-able. Spend some time working on menus and structure so your site is easy to navigate.


Student Writing for a Global Audience

by Steve Taylor

It may be humbling for instructors to realize that they don’t necessarily inspire the highest quality of writing from their students. Of course, students are motivated by grades to submit good writing to their teachers, but many have found that the prospect of students having their papers read by their peers can be even more motivating. For years now, many instructors have had their students upload written assignments to a shared digital space and found that the expectation of that sharing significantly improved the quality of writing.

The ante is now raised, as some instructors require their classes to share their writing with the whole world, via a publicly accessible website, such as a blog. These students know that they not only have to assemble sentences well enough to avoid embarrassment among their classmates, but they have to get their information right or risk being called out by any number of experts in their topic.

Publishing to the world is more than just a challenge not to fail, though— it’s also an opportunity for students to put themselves out there as legitimate, albeit novice scholars. Instead of paying several years of dues in graduate school before daring to submit a bit of original work in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, they’re publishing now, and getting feedback as well.

At an ACS symposium this fall, Profs. Lisa Paravisini and Jenny Magnes spoke about these and other benefits of student blogging. “If you define your assignment topic well,” Lisa said, “having students publish their writings to a blog ups the ante, in terms of audience. The potential audience is the world.”

Lisa Paravisini-Gebert

One assignment she uses is to have students completely re-write a Wikipedia article. Their research must be thorough, accurate, ethical, and original. Sometimes earlier contributors to an article will immediately undo the submission; other times, it will remain and possibly generate some discussion among different contributors.

It’s even more interesting for a student to be able to publish original material, something that’s more feasible than most people realize. Students in Lisa’s environmental studies project photographed and interviewed people adjacent to the Casperkill Creek and blogged their work. What they shared was unique materials, of interest to a potentially wide audience.

Jenny Magnes

Jenny Magnes assigned her students to propose and execute a simulation project related to electricity or magnetics. They had to write a proposal, then a plan, create the simulation, and finally post their reports on the blog, along with their data files.

All of it was original work. Jenny browsed the web to make sure none of the proposed ideas were already posted somewhere. Each student had to make substantive, constructive comments on each others’ posts. But classmates weren’t the only ones responding.

One of her students did a project on induction (as in induction ovens), including one video that she made and one that she found on YouTube and several simulations, depicted with thoughtfully designed graphs.  One of the reader comments was from an upstate firm that does work similar to what she had simulated— the student was invited to visit the plant and speak with the engineers!

Lisa has also seen some surprising responses to blog posts. In her own blog about Caribbean Studies, she mentioned some of Sean Penn’s work and promptly received a comment from Mr. Penn’s assistant. One student posted a critical analysis of a book and heard back from the book’s author!

As Lisa says, online publishing brings a sense of responsibility to students’ research methods; they have to carefully consider issues of integrity, ethics of attribution, and originality. Because you never know who might be watching.