Academic Adventures in Microsoft Teams

Steve Bateman in action

[Disclaimer – these are my own words; any opinions or views expressed are mine and not those of Keele University].

Welcome.

Not only is this the first post of my spanking new blog, but I’ll also be reporting on the very first conference I’ve organised! Apologies in advance for the length of this post, I mean to offer some of my own, recent ruminations regarding Microsoft Teams too!

The event in question is Keele’s University’s 2019 Digital Festival which took place on October 30th 2019 at Keele Hall, Keele University. Before I touch on the event and the wider question of Microsoft Teams in Higher Education, we first need a bit of…

Background

I think it’s somewhat of an understatement to suggest that there has recently been a large amount of interest in Microsoft Teams. I’m not just talking about in education either, as of July 2019 Microsoft Teams had over 13 million active daily users – users in industry, retail, research as well in compulsory, further and higher education.

Teams has also been a burgeoning topic of discussion on informal, digital spaces such as Twitter, ALT and JiscMail with the odd brave academic-soul dipping their toes into the abyss and trialing Teams with small groups of colleagues and / or students.

The Keele University event on the 30th October, hosted by the Information & Digital Services (IDS) directorate and the Keele Institute for Innovation and Teaching Excellence (KIITE), in partnership with Jisc, was an opportunity to bring together around 100 academics, learning professionals / infrastructure leads, and to start a meaningful, sector-wide discussion and exploration of the challenges and opportunities presented by this already disruptive piece of technology. Note: I have covered the guest presentations only and have omitted the opening and closing talks for the sake of brevity.

The Presentations

We were very fortunate to have present to us a group of highly innovative and creative Microsoft Teams and Office 365 exponents from HE/FE: Santanu Vastant, University of East London; Karl Gimblett, Victoria Foley and Tom Lovelock, Keele University, Dr Emma Thirkell, Jane Fitzgerald and Dr Jess Macbeth, University of Central Lancashire, Nicky Bowen and John Billington Hugh Baird College and Stephen Bateman, Staffordshire University.

Keynote: Santanu Vasant – An analysis of Microsoft Teams at scale: experiences so far

The keynote of the day was delivered by Santanu Vasant and was titled: An Analysis of Microsoft Teams at Scale: Experiences so Far. Santanu took us on a journey which spanned the reasons why an institution may wish to deploy Teams to how Teams has been received from students and tutors, and ended with thoughts as to what UEL were going to do next with their Teams initiative.

Pedagogy First Slide
Santanu Vasant Keynote, Slide 3

I was greatly encouraged that Santanu opened his keynote with a handful of slides which contained messages emphasising the importance of learning design and pedagogy (see image above). These slides let the audience know that UEL’s Teams project was informed by the requirements of its learners and academics and wasn’t just a technical solution. Santanu and his colleagues have also made excellent use of short case-studies of academics talking about using Teams in their own practice (see below featuring Dan Duran).

One takeaway from the keynote was the amount of activity around the up-skilling of academics. A lot of effort has gone into ensuring that a multi-modal approach: face-to-face, self-paced video resources and opportunities to attend a Microsoft Boot Camp. Institutions often react to training requirements after a new system has been deployed (creating an immediate opportunity for academics to resist or disconnect with the the technology), it was great to see one which has put so much effort into digital skills well before the system goes live.

UEL Academic ‘Dan Duran’ Explaining how he uses MS Teams

Steve Bateman, Staffordshire University – Using Teams to Deliver Teaching and Learning: An Academic’s Perspective

Steve gave us an excellent insight into how he has used Teams (for the last three years) to deliver undergraduate sports science module, as well as broader thoughts on engagement (very popular word at the event). Steve described how, very early on in his role at Staffs, he began using the VLE in his teaching but that, of course, it was generally used to store files and that there wasn’t really much learning going on!

Steve made the point that students will very rarely be required to use a VLE beyond their time at university. It is worth noting that this point was made by various attendees throughout the day and is something I, myself also mentioned when I gave my own talk later.

I think the most notable part of this presentation was the actual description of how he was using Teams (I’ve also chatted to Steve over a coffee and was impressed by how he had developed his Teams practice over time to the point where everything, including class-based work, is structured within the Teams environment) and the impact reported by his colleagues and students. Steve uses OneNote Classroom (a default component of a ‘Classroom’ Team) to relay course structure, give students a place to generate notes, reflect, work on activities etc.

Inclusiveness was also addressed by Steve and he touched on students being able to easily join live lecture broadcasts (within the Teams environment) regardless of location which means that, if a learner is, for instance, bed-bound for whatever reason but still wishes to watch a live lecture and interact with his class they are able to do so using their smartphone, tablet, laptop etc. Also, Steve didn’t mention this, but I know that Staffs University are offering staff and students Microsoft Office User Specialist accreditation as well as access to Lynda.com to help engage the entire university body in the development of the University body with a variety of digital skills. This will no doubt have an interesting cascading effect on engagement with tools such as Teams, Sway, Forms, Stream etc, tools which lend themselves so easily to a variety of educational ues/

But is all of this working? Steve had a lot of figures but I think the slide below is one of my favourites – Student Perception reports that 93% of students reported the Teams environment was better than the VLE. Grades increase >20% compared to a comparative group. Staff reported a positive impact on efficiency while 98% of students report better communications with staff. Of course, this is just one academic school with one academic leading Teams usage but these figures, at the very least, should indicate that the platform is certainly proving popular with students and academics – at least in this use-case.

Steve Bateman Impact Slide.
Steve Bateman, Impact Figures from Teams Usage

Karl Gimblett, Victoria Foley and Tom Lovelock, Keele University – Case Study: Using Teams to Deliver a Postgraduate Medical Education Course

The Keele case-study, presented by myself, Victoria and Tom, described why and how we delivered a post-graduate online course using Teams.

The learners are all professional clinicians, working either as GPs or as A&E doctors. As such, our learners are time-poor which meant it was crucial we provided a carefully implemented platform that would allow them to maximise their time online engaging in meaningful interactions with their fellow students, tutors and resources.

We realised that Microsoft Teams, accompanied by our VLE (for summative-assessment purposes) could deliver a flexible and engaging online education experience for our learners. Critical requirements of the proposed course were: focus on discussion and collaboration; easy to engage with asynchronous and synchronous communication; ease-of-access; flexible to the pedagogic requirements of the tutors.

Looking to the first image below (I have removed student names and the module code), the General channel was used as a Landing Area where information such as the module handbook, Teams etiquette guide etc. were embedded. Underneath the General channel we created the Online Induction channel. Here, the course tutors answered questions and gave induction guidance for the two-week induction period. Learners were also encouraged to engage with training videos (which were also a tabbed resource in the Induction channel) – these consisted of generic Microsoft training videos as well as custom-produced videos designed for our learners.

The next channel is Technical Support. Since this was a new environment for both ourselves and our learners, we wanted to ensure we had resource to respond to any student or academic query, as quickly as possible, especially during the induction period when everyone was settling in.

The Unit # channels are where all the action happens! Each unit contains the subject materials required (in a responsive, digital format) as well as activities (to be completed in the learner’s own OneNote Classroom space). The conversation tab in the Unit channels is the hub of discourse and analysis of the student work around the activities and videos of clinical practice the tutor embedded.

The first module of the course is still live but, so far, the engagement from academics and students has been excellent. Very rarely on our University VLE, if ever, have any of us seen such high quality analysis and discourse, much of which has appeared unbidden by the tutor (see example below).

Another component of the course that was unexpectedly successful was the inclusion of a FlipGrid component in the Induction Channel (see second image below). In a nutshell, FlipGrid allows learners to post 1.5 minute, selfie-style videos. This is a perfect tool for personal introductions. Like many course designers, we wanted to enable our learners to feel connected to each other and to the academics. Almost all of our cohort has posted introductions of themselves, often in surgical settings!

We plan to investigate usage/engagement metrics after the module has run and invite some learners, and academics, to semi-structured interviews to explore their experiences of using this innovative approach to online learning.

An example of meaningful analysis and discourse
Induction engagement using FlipGrid

Dr Emma Thirkell, UCLanCase Study: Using OneNote Classroom to Create an Escape Room Assessment Activity

Dr Thirkell has developed an incredible assessment tool using the humble OneNote Classroom – an Escape Room! After a very useful overview of what both OneNote and OneNote Classroom are, Emma introduced us to the game-changing feature that allows the escape room – password-protected sections in OneNote Classroom.

So, each section becomes a locked room. In order for learners to escape their current room and unlock the next one they simply have to solve the puzzle in the room. Simple 😉

Emma is a senior lecturer in Human Resource Management and she has used the HRM Escape Room as a way of testing end of semester subject knowledge with postgraduate students.

What do Emma’s students think? They love it! They reported that they feel more like they are playing a game rather than completing an assessment, whilst feeling that they’re also engaging with the learning materials.

Gamification is still a popular topic and educators of all types are eagerly looking into ways of transforming what can sometimes be quite challenging and dry theory into engaging resources. I think Emma may have struck gamification-gold with her work.

Dr Emma Thirkell introducing OneNote Class Notebook

Of course, creating any new resources takes time but Emma informed the audience that, once they have an understanding of OneNote Classroom, it could take just two hours to make our very own Escape Rooms!

Dr Jessica Louise Macbeth & Jane Fitzgerald, UCLan Case Study: Preparing Modules for Teams Delivery

Our second presentation from UCLan told an interesting story about how experimentation with Microsoft Teams led to using the platform within their courses.

Jessica and Jane explained how they fully investigated the range of tools that would allow them to build interesting, pedagogically-informed activities and interactions into the spaces they’re expecting their students to use. Students used Mindmeister (a mind mapping Teams app) to collaboratively develop ‘revision maps’ as well as creating their own mind maps around research design. These apps not only helped student engagement, they also encouraged the student voice. The ‘Polly’ app (voting/polling/quizzing) was used for establishing student understanding of topics.

Student feedback has been very promising, the slide below shows some findings from a survey of students’ perceptions of Teams across 10 different courses  within the Faculty of Health and Well-being.

Jane and Jess discussing considerations
Key considerations when delivering a module using Teams
Student Feedback after using Teams, all very positive.
Examples of student feedback

Nicky Bowen & John Billington, Hugh Baird CollegeAn Institutional Migration to Microsoft Teams

Nicky Bowen and John Billington – Lessons Learnt

I think this presentation, for me certainly, was one of the most eagerly awaited. This is because Hugh Baird College have stopped using a VLE completely and have pushed everything into a Microsoft teams environment (gasp).

As someone who has always worked for institutions that have been almost surgically attached to their VLEs, the idea of a college ‘going it alone’ without one really fascinated me.

Nicky and John took us on a journey which began with the reasons why they decided to consider teams. The VLE they had, called Totara (basically Moodle) simply wasn’t doing what their academics wanted and so they invited the larger VLE vendors to Hugh Baird to demonstrate their systems. Although impressed by these systems, the price tag was just too high for their college. So, they decided to look at what the main digital infrastructure platforms (Google & Microsoft) could offer and they trialled their existing VLE versus Google Classroom versus Microsoft Teams with their students.

They assumed that Google Classroom, a more established digital learning space, to have been more popular than both the VLE and Microsoft Teams but they were surprised to find that almost all students and staff taking part in the trial preferred to use Microsoft Teams.

Partnering with Microsoft, they began engaging staff very early on in the project by organising groups of staff to attend Microsoft Innovative Educator (MIE) Boot-Camps, as well as engaging staff with other, more localised training interventions. Also, senior staff at Hugh Baird were on-board with the Teams transition which meant the technology could be mentioned/discussed at lots of meetings to lots of different types of staff.

Hugh Baird have also been able to connect the Teams to their Student Information System which means that, unlike institutions that are running Teams alongside their VLE, they now have a fully integrated solution. Teams has been running as Hugh Baird’s primary platform since September 2019 – I’m sure I won’t be the only one to be keeping a close watch on their continuing journey.

Finishing with the Lessons Learnt slide (above), gave us all some valuable tips, based on an enormous amount of hard work, as to how we can begin to think about framing our own deployments.

One of the takeaways from this talk was the sheer amount of detailed testing Nicky and John had instigated at Hugh Baird. From the trials through to a number of proof of concepts, a massive effort has ensured a successful and stable paradigm shift in their digital education provision.

All Together Now

Clearly, both my own experiences with Teams and the testimony from all of the presenters, one of Teams’ strengths is its enhanced functionality around collaboration and communication. These are also likely the first elements that learners and academics will be introduced to and become proficient at. Little initial effort (post some text) – high-stakes response (engagement).

Much of the positive feedback, discussion and activity responses (I haven’t had time to transcribe the activity yet) from the attendees at the focused on student/student and student/academic engagement with several mentions of potential drops in email use and students learning how to collaborate with each other. Also, from my own experiences with the course we have run this year, it is clear the Teams as a hub for communications and collaboration really does seem to be a no-brainer since the platform lends itself so easily to these activities.

Although Teams HE case studies are still relatively hard to come by for usage, those that do exist invariably praise, if nothing else, how transformational the communications & collaboration tools have been:

It made life much easier. It’s quicker to communicate with all team members and supervisors at the same time and as mentioned before being able to share and access changes immediately have been very helpful.

Rachel Smith, Plymouth University Student

And from Edinburgh…

Teams is helping bring more flexibility to me and my students for one-to-one’s and has extended to live class chat which is a great benefit to the student collective as well as individually. 

University Lecturer in Science & Engineering (University of Edinburgh)

Back to Basics

I’ve worked in higher education long enough to recognise that new technologies appear all the time, each promising to enhance the student experience, improve marks, transform practice etc. These technologies are often purchased on the strength of these promises but then… they are perceived to have failed and the quest for the next Holy Grail of learning technologies resumes.

Of course, it’s not always the technology that’s at fault… think of a learning technology from your own institution that may have not received the levels of engagement expected… personally, I can identify a number of reasons why a new learning technology may fail: culture, training, awareness, unstable implementation, no consultation, no buy-in from key stakeholders (e.g. IT Services, Executive Team, Students’ Union etc.). Do any of these reasons sound familiar to you?

But how can we avoid such pitfalls if we decide to trial/deploy Microsoft Teams in our own institutions?

I’ve always believed that to fully engage with a learning technology, academics have to be sure that it adds value and quality to their teaching, whilst at the same time not being overly burdened with the administration of their module inside the platform. So, for example, if I was tasked with trying to engage a lecturer in biology with Microsoft Teams I would build a demo Team, populate it with mock Biology discussions, Biology resources, Biology Quizzes, Sways etc. just to provide a contextualised space for their own subject area. Just a plain, generic Team template really wouldn’t do but something highly relevant, a proof of concept like this would probably provide the hook I’d need to get the academic thinking about their own course design, plans, pedagogy, ideas around enhanced engagement etc. and this could then lead to a broader, more meaningful discussion.

Describing how great we believe Teams (or any other technology) is, sending email descriptions etc. is all well and good but to demonstrate how useful and potentially transformative a technology is I’ve always found that working prototypes are very useful.

Where is this all heading?

It really is tempting to see the increased interest with Teams as the harbinger of doom for the VLE. Having been both a student and professional user of several VLEs, I have to admit to spending more time being frustrated with the VLE rather than feeling empowered by it.

Certainly, the Teams (and the wider Office 365) platform offers an incredible degree of flexibility when it comes to building digital learning environments but there is a danger also that if not enough thought and design informs Teams course design, from a range of stakeholders, the flexibility can turn result in chaos. I’ve experienced this myself and so, I’d advise everyone to think, think, think and then design, test, design, test etc. Just like all of our event speakers have done in fact! 🙂

Of course, one could just dump all of one’s PowerPoints into a Team for students to access but hey, we’re not really progressing then, are we?

I’m also finding the idea of the ‘Digital Ecosystem’ an increasingly useful mental-model to help me visualize how a core/hub with a dozen or so independent but interconnected components/tools/databases could change everything. Being able to add or remove, re-purpose these components ourselves to meet the ever-changing needs of our students, researchers, partners etc. is a power prospect indeed.

As I said at the event plenary session, Teams presents all educators with the opportunity to build their own digital learning environments, in fact, the opportunities available to us all at the moment are unparalleled I feel. But with these opportunities comes a lot of hard work… want something out of the box that (sort of) works okay? Perhaps a VLE is still for you. This isn’t bad, if the VLE still delivers everything we want it to then is there even a case to use Teams with your students?

To finish, I’d just like to leave you with the below video of Dr David Kellerman from UNSW Sydney, describing how he’s using Office 365/Teams… it’s an inspirational watch but we can be certain an enormous amount of resource has gone into realising this level of practice…

Thanks for reading.

Dr David Kellermann, UNSW Sydney

Sources

Edinburgh University IT Department (20??) ‘Teams’

Plymouth University (20??) Case study: Using Microsoft Teams for final year dissertation supervision

Vesant, S. (2019) An Analysis of Microsoft Teams at Scale: Experiences so Far. https://www.slideshare.net/santanuvasant/keele-digital-festival-microsoft-teams-for-learning-and-teaching-keynote

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