The Surprising Didactic Side of Discord

In 2014, Derek Muller, better known as Youtube creator Veritasium, released a video titled “This Will Revolutionize Education”. In this video, he didn’t reveal some fancy technology that would revolutionize education. Instead, he explained how, despite the invention of revolutionary technology like motion pictures, the radio, the television and computers, technology has failed again and again to replace teachers. I’m not bold enough to make the same claim that education is being revolutionized, but learning barriers are being broken in a way like never before by a single application.

The application that I’m talking about is the popular communication app used by video gamers, Discord. If you haven’t heard of it, Discord is a free desktop/web app that came out in 2015 that serves as a chatroom, messaging platform, and voice chat service. Think Slack or Skype, but optimized for — and integrated with — gaming.

The average Discord user joins a server of people that enjoy playing the same game as them, and then chats or talks to other people in text and voice channels. Another way that Discord is being used is as an easy way to talk to friends while gaming together. The point is that Discord, with its chatting, in-game overlays, screen sharing, and streamer features has always been geared towards gaming.

A screenshot of the Archero (mobile game) server, with text and voice channels seen on the left.

So how is this related to learning? Well, as Discord grew in popularity for allowing gaming communities to easily connect, more and more non-gaming communities decided to make Discord servers. You can’t blame them: Discord facilitates server customization, chatting functionality, roles/moderation, and incorporates the baseline aesthetics and intuitiveness that we’ve come to expect from modern software. Communities that wanted to modernize their communication could easily make a server for free, given that there was enough interest. Nowadays, you can find servers that specialize in knitting, yoyoing, and other hobbies that aren’t at all related to video games.

With the shift of people moving from traditional forums, Internet Relay Chat, and Reddit to Discord, something new was born: the ability to talk to people that are knowledgeable in a subject — be it Python, game development, or even knitting — in real-time. Where you might have had to wait for your professor’s office hours to ask about a math problem before, you could now ask the same question to a bunch of math enthusiasts in the Mathematics server. I can’t stress how amazing and unique this is: never before could you find help for a technical skill so easily. To give a few examples, altruistic users on Discord have helped me with the following problems in the last year:

  1. The Mathematics server helped me understand the Frobenius method
  2. The Unity server helped me fix collisions in a video game I was trying to make
  3. The C++ server helped me with CMake files
  4. The Solidworks server helped me with some easy CAD questions
  5. The AWS server helped me deploy an application
  6. The Bikes server pointed me to some resources for a school project

These are somewhat engineering-focused, but that’s just a reflection of my interests. I’m sure that if your passion is popular enough, there’s a Discord server for it.

An important remark to make at this point is that you’re not guaranteed to get help. Nobody is in the server solely to help wandering beginners. In the worst cases, the people in a Discord will tell you to Google your issue. They’re right — you should always Google first. The problem arises when nobody has a similar enough question on the internet and you’re forced to ask for help.

Typically, you would turn to the aforementioned forums, Reddit, and IRC to get help from other people. The struggle with getting help from forums and Reddit, at least for me, has always been response time. Even if I don’t have a deadline to fulfill, being blocked for a few hours while waiting for a response drains my motivation to keep working on a project. Despite being a real-time chat, IRC is a clunky mess of networking and nodes to a teenager like me and lacks the plug-and-play accessibility that Discord offers. When I am up against a learning barrier, Discord is the place to go for on-demand helpful experts that know the answers or at least some resources that might help.

Learning is dynamic, a push and pull, and there isn’t a static website that can fill in the role of a teacher providing targeted feedback and assistance. I can’t say that Discord is going to replace school teachers: teachers, as Veritasium described, “ …make every student feel like they are important, to make them feel accountable for doing the work of learning”. Strangers on the internet can not and will not replace teachers. Nonetheless, strangers on the internet are now empowered by Discord to give live technical help like never before, and I think that it’s an idea worth sharing. To me, this metamorphosis from a gaming application to a universal resource is one of the best examples of the internet being a positive factor in our society, and a culmination of all the technology that came before it.

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