The Emergency Campaign: Discord, D&D, and Distance Learning

A character sheet and game elements represent integrating gamification into online courses

This article is featured in the resource guide, Effective Online Teaching Strategies.

Dr_Tom 🎲 Dungeon Master (DM): Not every DM plays the villain. That’s not my style. I prefer to hover the party, telling the story, urging the student-adventurers onward. One of them rolls investigation and links a relevant article. Another rolls perception and notices a pitfall—an overlooked problem in the discussion. A third rolls a critical success, making a brilliant connection. And then an adventurer hands me a fax machine.

“Wait. What’s with the fax machine?”

“Facts,” says the adventurer. “You know, a fax machine emoji. It means ‘facts.'”

“That is delightful,” I say, examining the device. With my background in English (mage/bard multiclass), I have a fondness for puns. “Anachronistic, much?”

The adventurer shrugs, picking up his sword. “It makes me laugh every time 📠.”

I conjure a gif as a meme, “The More You Know,” and head off to watch the adventurers roll initiative against the next batch of discussion questions.

Mixed metaphors? Confusion and chaos? Absolutely. This campaign is called Online Teaching in the Time of Corona.

Our Adventure

Dr_Tom: In March, higher education halted midsemester and plotted an uncharted course into online instruction. Zoom boomed. Online learning management systems seized, crashed, and were revived. For an untenured lecturer, that meant translating class discussions to Discord, a chat program favored by gamers. Emojis, memes, YouTube links to 80s songs—metacommentary abounded, bringing humor and connection to an era of social distancing.

This is the story of a Dungeon Master (DM): an instructor, a Non-Player Character (NPC): an embedded librarian, and a NPC/adventurer: a student writing preceptor, and how the three of us ran half a semester of writing courses through Discord during COVID-19. We relied on gaming metaphors, the tools and simplicity provided by Discord, and—yes—the fax emoji. Our goal is to present Discord as an alternative to Zoom, and to show how a little Dungeons and Dragons can go a long way.

A Caveat

Gamification is one thing and games-based learning is another. Gamification hinges on metaphor, where educators transpose a gamerly vocabulary onto what they are already doing, resulting in ordinary teaching decorated with achievements and badges. Games-based learning, on the other hand, requires designing significant portions of a course as a game from the ground up: the most successful example of this would be Barnard University’s Reacting to the Past modules.

Our route was nowhere near as well planned as Reacting to the Past. We had to adapt quickly (roll initiative!) to see our students through an emergency. So, when we speak of Dungeons and Dragons as a pedagogical metaphor in this article, we’re referring to our previous experience as gamers, and how we used this experience to chart a way forward.

Lady_Librarian (📚Librarian NPC): I was the oracle for this project (in case of emergency, @thelibrarian). I was their fairy god-librarian—have a question, summon an answer.

Because I was written in at the beginning of the campaign, it was easy to stay integrated and accessible. Discord as a campaign platform enabled easy summoning, through tagging or direct message. Direct messages also gave the adventurers a place to ask for guidance on quests they didn’t want to share widely. They needed sources, but they didn’t want other adventurers to know that their quest focused on the Right to Die movement.

Noble_Preceptor_Luke 🏹 (Writing Preceptor NPC): As the adventurers’ noble preceptor, I acted as a sort of traveling merchant. I set out alongside the players during the campaign and gave them advice, magic scrolls, and weapons to help them overcome their challenges. I was always a direct message away for assistance. Contacting me was easy—all they had to do was click on my name at the sidebar and they could message me with any questions, or even directly send me their papers.

However, I was also on my own quest. I may be a merchant, but I had an adventure of my own to complete, and because of that, I was less available as we approached the final boss—that is, finals week.

Dr_Tom: Prior to our online shift, I was already grading class discussion using a five-point rubric. Before each class, I would create a new column in the Canvas gradebook. As the discussion unfolded, I adjusted students’ grades in real time. A zero denoted an absence; a one denoted that the student was present, but did not participate. Each time a student spoke on-topic and referred to our readings for the day, they earned a point. Online, this meant toggling between Discord and Canvas, maintaining synchronous feedback.

There were two exceptions to the five-point scale: the roles of synopsis (our Barbarians, trimming things down) and note-taker (our Paladins, preserving the discussion). At the beginning of each class, I asked students to volunteer for each role. The note-taker generated an outline of the class discussion and posted these notes to a designated page on Canvas. This student earned a three for volunteering, which would change to a five once the student posted the notes. The synopsis-giver consulted the previous notes to provide a two or three sentence fortune cookie version of the class. I devised this strategy to facilitate the “retrieval practice” outlined in James M Lang’s Small Teaching (2016). This pedagogy translated easily to Discord. When the emergency transition happened, adventurers were already familiar and comfortable with taking up these valuable roles. Practicing these patterns from day one and repeating the patterns after the shift turned social distancing into connection.

Experience Points: What We Learned

Features of Discord:

  • Links can be copied and previewed, unlike the links in Zoom chat
  • Because we had a text-based discussion, we didn’t have to worry about talking over or interrupting one another
  • The ability to ‘Pin’ posts for a channel made it easy for adventurers to find important documents
  • Adventurers can upload documents (.doc/.pdf/etc.) directly into chat
  • Discord’s search function allows adventurers to review previous discussions
  • The ‘@’ function allowed the DM to ‘page’ people (or groups!) as needed:
    • @Lady_librarian: How do we add headings to a Google doc?
    • @Noble_Preceptor_Luke: We’re ready for you! Walk us through this assignment.
    • @int101_004: Your paper is due tonight at midnight on Canvas!
    • @everyone: I’ve posted your final grades

Humor and Tone

  • Have a goof-off channel: This makes it so that DM and adventurers can create a unique class culture through side channels for memes related to readings, inside jokes, and trademark emojis for classes (goat🐐,watermelon 🍉), while keeping the official discussion channel focused.
  • The emoji feature was a two-fold blessing. It acted as an engagement tool for the adventurers and a ‘flash’ assessment tool for the DM and NPCs. “Give me an emoji that represents your level of understanding.”

Embedded Educational Assistance

  • Our university has programs in place for embedding librarians and student writing preceptors into courses. Does yours? If not, now would be a good time to propose such a program.

Our Loot, or Adaptations for Future Encounters

What we would improve:

  • Start the Discord server with different channels and roles for each class to preserve discussion privacy.
  • Discord would be a great tool for tracking group work. If a student comes back and says a group member did not contribute, the claim is easy to assess.
  • Text based chat gave equal voice to both introverts and extroverts and takes up less broadband than video.
  • Recording participation can be an intensive process for the DM, but this allows more time for self-directed student discussion.
  • Have your standard dialogue for class, any links you’ll share, and assignment texts in a prepared document. You can then copy and paste them into Discord, allowing more time to monitor participation.
  • Discord is used in collaboration with the content management system (CMS)—they’re symbiotic. Especially since the students are already comfortable with our CMS. The CMS is a more secure channel for FERPA-related communications. You can also issue due date reminders and guidelines through both platforms. There’s no such thing as too many reminders.
  • For attendance/participation purposes, adventurers’ actual names should be reflected in their screen names. For the DM and NPCs, a professional photo focused on your face should be used for your avatar to encourage connection and recognition.
  • Pay attention to status-settings. For adventurers, turning on an active status helps with accurate attendance records; for the DM and NPCs, Lady_Librarian would like to encourage you to set a reminder to turn your status to away or invisible, so that students don’t think you’re available 24/7. (Late night questions come in more than you think they would.)

The Campaign De-brief

These tools and advice are not a guideline for outstanding online instruction. Rather, we’re talking about how to temporarily take an in-person, discussion-based course virtual in a hurry. Keep it simple. Be flexible. The thing we found most important is to be gracious with yourself—this was, and is, an emergency.

Kristen Bailey is a humanities research services librarian at Mercer University.

Thomas Bullington is a lecturer of liberal arts at Mercer University.

Luke MacIver is an undergraduate English major at Mercer University