Why I want to try Mattermost for classroom discussions

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
4 min read

I am preparing to teach another course in digital facilitation for Royal Roads, and this time around I want to try using Mattermost, an open source Slack-like application, as the main focal point for interactions.

I am going to do a direct replacement here for this first time around, replacing the Moodle discussion forums that would normally be used with Mattermost.

The OpenETC has an instance of Mattermost up and running and I’ll be documenting the technical processes I am going through setting up a course team in Mattermost on the OpenETC site as a contribution to the co-op. As a co-operative, the OpenETC relies on users of their services to help create documentation and use cases for their technologies as part of using the tech, so I want to contribute something back in the form of help documents and such that might be useful for other instructors in the future. I’ll post that over at the OpenETC site.

I have also been following Ian Linkletter and UBC’s use of Mattermost in a teaching & learning context.

I want to use Mattermost instead of the discussion boards in Moodle for a few reasons.

More Free Flowing Conversations

Conversations in Mattermost seem to flow more naturally than forum posts. I’ve noticed that posts in discussion forums tend to be more formal and rigid. For example, one of the things I have noticed that students often do in discussion forums is include full citations within their discussion posts. I mean, I get why that happens and I suppose that is a good academic habit to develop. But it also is distracting from the natural back and forth that a discussion is supposed to be.

I think there is something about the design of discussion forums that encourages students to write more formally than is necessary. Students tend to pour over, rewrite, and polish a discussion post like it is a final paper, and then post. I would much rather a free flowing conversation, and I think that a shift to a technology like Mattermost can help with that as I have noticed conversations in tools like Mattermost, Slack, RocketChat and Teams tend to be more free flowing and spontaneous – more like an actual discussion, which is what I am looking for.

Real time capabilities

In addition to being asynchronous, it is also a synchronous tool so students can have real time chats in it. Conversation is instantaneous and has the potential to be spontaneous. If I am in Mattermost, students can see that and we can strike up a convo in real time. The way the Moodle discussion boards are set up at my institution, posts don’t get posted to a discussion forum for 30 minutes, which is meant to give time for editing and reflective thoughts. But isn’t really a good spontaneous real time chat tool. And yeah, I know Moodle has a chat feature, but I have never seen it used.

Better support for emoticons, gifs and memes

While it may seem silly, I do think that these are legitimate tools of expression that can go a long way in helping learners build their social presence within an online class. And a little thumbs up from me on a post sends a signal that I have seen their post, and that I am there. Of course, the thumbs up doesn’t replace conversation, but it does have its place.

This is especially important in this course where I seem to disappear for four weeks when they take over being the facilitators. This is by design as I want them to be the ones establishing a teaching presence and not me. So having something like a simple thumbs up from me on a conversation post that a learner is facilitating can be a subtle, yet powerful reminder that I am still there and have a teaching presence within the course without having to be so obviously involved in the activities they have designed and are presenting to the other learners.

Also, I want students to be able to fully express themselves, and if that means posting an appropriate meme or an emoticon in response to a discussion that fits the context of the conversation, then I want to support that. Mattermost makes that simple process easier.

It is how conversation is happening these days

Tools like Mattermost is how conversation are happening on the web these days. Slack, RocketChat, Teams – whatever the tool, these tools blur the lines between synchronous and asynchronous communication in a way that discussion forums cannot. This is a Digital Facilitation course, and I want to make sure these learners are able to experience the multitudes of ways in which facilitation and conversation is occurring these days, and how a shift in technology can change the dynamics of a conversation. The tools we choose do influence the ways in which we communicate, and hopefully a switch to Mattermost from discussion forums will allow them to experience how.


Dugg Steary July 21, 2019

Great post. Thanks for the information Clint. I’ve been trying a few tools to build the community at the Justice Institute of British Columbia Paramedic Academy and nothing meets all the needs yet. Mattermost seems to have the potential. Look forward to trying it next term.

Clint Lalonde August 21, 2019

I’m not sure there is a tool to rule them all, but the groups I belong to in apps like Mattermost, Slack, RocketChat and Teams (all similar flavours of the new generation of chat tools imo) have more of a community feel to them than I have found in most discussion forum tools.

Florence A Daddey July 22, 2019

Thank you Clint for your post. This is very timely discussions. I’m also considering using Mattermost for group work this Fall semester. Looking forward to sharing our experiences at the JIBC Dugg.

Clint Lalonde August 21, 2019

Looking forward to hear about your explorations as well Florence

oeruguy August 7, 2019

Clint, I’ll be keen to see how your Mattermost initiative works out. I too find that different tools seem to engender different kinds of conversations, from forums to chats to blog comments. One thing that I also think contributes to the different modes of discussion is the varying expectations (usually in rubrics) that are applied to discussions in courses. Some are oriented towards a more formal academic genre. Others support the format of a debate, or are designed to have students experiment with early rough ideas and get peer feedback as part of a process of developing a research paper, for instance. I think it this aspect can be a subtle yet complicating factor in how students communicate in the provided tools.

Clint Lalonde August 21, 2019

Very good point, Irwin. The choice of technology can influence the type of interactions and nature of discussion, but not nearly as much as the design of the actual activity.

Dave Smulders September 22, 2019

Hi Clint,
I’m interested to see what happens. I made a half hearted attempt at using Mattermost in one of my classes last term and it didn’t take. I can identify a number of reasons but the primary one was I didn’t have a clear vision for how to integrate it, and so I wasn’t good at leading the change.
As the instructor, though, I prefer to have my communication activity in the online classroom. That is, I go to my course site to engage with my students. I don’t want a separate channel outside the course. Is that a natural disinclination or am I just not keeping up with trends?

Theme by Anders Norén