How our high school replaced IRC with Mattermost

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IRC has long been Penn Manor School District's high school sweetheart.

My IT team was fond of our internal IRC server, but the tool never resonated with students and teachers. With modern social apps now commonplace, IRC simply doesn't appeal to non-technical crowds accustomed to easy, feature-rich tools. So, we've experimented with chat alternatives over the years, but an affordable school-friendly platform has been elusive. Slack was certainly a promising suitor. However, at scale, it was cost prohibitive for our school district. Plus, my team values open source solutions on district servers over Software-as-a-Service platforms storing our student data in someone else's walled garden.

From IRC to Mattermost

Recently we began flirting with Mattermost, a terrific open source Slack-like messaging platform written in GoLang and React. After a brief courtship, we bid adieu to IRC and tied the knot with Mattermost.

If you know Slack, Mattermost will feel like you scored the assigned seat beside your best friend. The web interface UX is familiar—instant messaging, group chat, and notifications are all centralized in one searchable system. Conversation history persists inside the discussion channel, which meant when one returns from a trip to the principals office, a quick scroll back through the conversation stream uncovers missed conversations. Features like direct messaging, emoji characters, drag-and-drop pictures, and shared files make it easy for educators and students to start using Mattermost without first passing a calculus exam. Like Slack, Mattermost is organized around self-contained teams. For example, the Penn Manor IT Mattermost team is separate from the team space for district administrators, who are never subjected to our riveting discussions about code or software installs.

Every Mattermost team starts with a general discussion channel called #Town Square, and teams can add as many channels as needed. We created channels to compartmentalize our IT discussions: #Helpdesk, #Puppet, #BugHunt, and a few others. Using Mattermost's highly extensible web hooks, our system engineer wrote a notifier to pipe new teacher support ticket events notifications into our #HelpDesk channel.

Plus, Mattermost runs on premise at Penn Manor School District, and is configured for private district staff and student use only. It's reassuring to know that our conversations are safely housed on our network.

Mattermost for high school students

The Mattermost project was named because the developers wanted to emphasize the importance of communication. And the design provokes a conceptual shift in classroom communications. Unlike email, Mattermost is a convenient virtual meeting room and a central dashboard for our district technology operations. When everyone connects in a transparent conversation stream, collaboration naturally happens in the open. I was incredibly fond of our internal IRC system, but I really love the Mattermost platform. It costs nothing more than a little server space and occasional software update attention. But even better, it serves as the communication hub for our Student Technology Help Desk, and helps our students collaborate during times when they are not together in the same physical space during a given class block.

Penn Manor High School's student technology help desk is organized into teams. In addition to day-to-day peer support tasks, students on each team are encouraged to collaborate on a shared project. For example, the student hardware team is currently building a little self-propelled robot to greet visitors at the door, and the media team is charged with producing a weekly student help desk podcast on topics in open source. Each of the 14 student help desk apprentices self-selects a team of her choice. The teams are rarely all scheduled together in the same class block at the same time. The hardware group—the largest team—includes students scattered across all four school class blocks. Before Mattermost, the apprentices relied on Facebook or text messaging, which wasn't efficient, or ideal for student/staff communication. Now, technology students and my team collaborate in our own school-sponsored virtual workspace. 

Perhaps the most frustrating school constraint is the change of class bell. It is inevitable that just when the student apprentices have their class robot partially deconstructed, or the communicaions team is deeply engaged in a planning session, the infernal class bell wails. Engagement and flow is lost, as is the creative work as everyone scampers off to another class. With Mattermost, the student team conversations keep on going through-out the school day, and sometimes extend into the evening or weekend. Student technology apprentices can stay connected and engaged even though they are not all in the same physical class block at the same time. Help desk apprentices often contribute ideas and thoughts while in other classes or even from home. 

Mattermost is fun to use. But importantly, it offers the help desk students a sense of what it is like to collaborate as part of a distributed team working toward a collective goal. The skills learned will better prepare them for future careers where effective remote communication is crucial for team problem solving. 

Thanks for the memories IRC—we'll tell stories about you at the next high school class reunion.

For more open source chat options read 4 open source alternatives to Slack for team chat.

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Charlie is the CIO for Penn Manor School District in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and the author of The Open Schoolhouse.

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