As college classes start up this fall, instructors are handing out syllabi and pointing students to official platforms for turning in assignments and participating in class discussions. Meanwhile students are setting up unofficial online channels of their own, where they can ask questions of classmates, gripe about the professor and sometimes share homework and test answers.

Students increasingly turn to private systems to create online groups around individual college classes. It’s a practice that has gone on for years, but teaching experts say it intensified during pandemic campus shut-downs, when students were looking for ways to connect. Platforms used for these groups include Discord, a discussion service popular with video gamers; GroupMe, a text-message platform; and Slack, the messaging system popular in many professional workplaces.

“We tell faculty to assume that there is a Discord for all of their courses,” says Aaron Zachmeier, associate director for instructional design and development at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Some professors welcome these channels as a way for students to blow off steam. But others worry that they can lead to violations of academic integrity. And some have taken the attitude of, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” actively setting up Discord servers or joining those created by their students.

In some ways it’s just an online version of informal networking that students have always done as they chat with classmates in physical classrooms before or after class. But because these online platforms are easy to hide from instructors and are available 24/7, they can be trickier for students and professors to navigate.

Building Community

Most college courses these days offer official online forums where students in a class can chat, often through learning management systems. But students can be reluctant to use these sanctioned channels, or to show up in person for office hours, says Megan McNamara, a continuing lecturer in sociology at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

She says she used a Discord server as a student recently, in an online course she took at the campus. “I loved it,” she says, noting that the students got to know each other by asking questions like what they planned to do next year. “What gave me my feeling of being in relationship with anyone else in the class was the conversations I had there.”

Often students use pseudonyms in the platforms, so that even if they do run into each other on campus, they might not realize it. But McNamara says she ended up getting together with another classmate she met on the Discord group face to face.

Zachmeier, the instructional design director, says that students often use student-organized discussion groups on Discord or other channels to ask each other logistical questions about the class and assignments that they are too embarrassed to ask the professor, or to get an answer more quickly than a professor might respond.

That’s what Joseph Ching, an affiliate scholar at James Madison University, has experienced. He says he has noticed that students typically organize channels in Discord and GroupMe only when they are frustrated by the level of assistance or timely feedback from instructors. When he was an undergraduate at Purdue University a couple of years ago during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he says that students flocked to GroupMe to talk about topics like “I need help on my homework,” or “how do I drop this class?”

McNamara adds that students report feeling more social anxiety these days than before the pandemic, and many seem more comfortable asking questions of classmates online than in person. “They could talk to each other, but that doesn’t mean they do,” she says. And these days, in the time before class sessions start, she sees students “pull out their phones to avoid talking to people.”

But even though these forums can build community, they might also be playing a role in reducing attendance in classes and contributing to a sense of student disengagement in physical lectures. When EdSurge visited Texas State University to explore that issue late last year, Zoe Channon, then a senior majoring in biology, said, “I almost wonder if technology is sort of encouraging people to not go to class, where then people are sort of checking in with other students and on GroupMe to find out, ‘What did they ask about this?’”

And these platforms have also been the sites of student bullying. McNamara and Zachmeier noted in an advice column on the use of Discord that students are expected to follow the college or university’s code of conduct “regardless of where those interactions take place.”

Concerns About Cheating

The biggest concern many professors have about these unofficial online platforms is whether students use them to cheat, both Zachmeier and McNamara acknowledge, by sharing answers on homework or exams.

While the loudest discussions about student cheating these days revolve around the use of new AI tools like ChatGPT, student Discord servers and other unofficial online forums can allow students to trade specific answers or work together in ways that might be even harder to catch.

A few incidents of student cheating on these online platforms have made headlines in recent years. In 2019, for instance, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at Austin sent an email to 70 students saying he would give them an F on an assignment and refer them to the dean’s office after he discovered they were on a GroupMe chat group where answers to an exam were shared.

That has prompted advice to pop up in at least one Reddit channel advising students to avoid joining GroupMe sections for their classes. As the anonymous user wrote: “If you are looking to cheat, then this is honestly the worst way to do it. With everything online there’s much better ways to get answers without leaving a huge trail and risking other people’s academic records, and to be honest [it’s] probably more work to cheat than it is to just do the classwork (and you might learn something).”

That rings true for Perry Evans, a senior at James Madison University. He said that there was a “big scare” among many of his classmates last year about using GroupMe, out of concern that the companies would share information from the chats with professors.

Though Evans uses Discord for video gaming, including discussing Pokemon Go, he says he does not use it or other unofficial platforms in his classes, where he feels he gets enough feedback and help from professors and teaching assistants if needed.

Meanwhile, concerns about student cheating have led some professors to try to get involved with student Discord servers for their classes, or set them up, so they can monitor them.

But that has led to pushback from students who say that defeats the purpose.

“Discord is for students, not professors,” wrote Tony Phan Vo, a student at California State University at Fullerton, in an article last fall in the student newspaper there. “Students should be in charge of their class Discord servers, not the professors,” he continued. “Collaboration becomes futile when there is pressure to follow cautious procedures, especially if the Discord doesn’t have a clear instruction by the professor.”

If a professor does become part of a student Discord server, McNamara, of UC Santa Cruz, advises setting clear expectations and sticking with them — especially around whether or how quickly you will respond to student questions.

“If you set yourself up to be responsive and you aren’t responsive, it’s worse than if you didn’t say you’d use it,” she says.

And she advises professors to resist the temptation to get involved with these informal channels at all. “The undergroundness of Discord is part of its appeal,” she notes. For students, she adds, “this is how you develop independence.”