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Teams – an ever-changing feast for collaborative learning

Isobel Gowers

Category: Anglia Learning & Teaching

29 April 2021

I can remember first seeing Teams early in 2019 and recognising the potential as a collaborative learning space. At that time ARU had just started on a journey to update its use of Microsoft products. The project, called ‘Better Working Together’ had collaboration at its centre. For someone who was enthusiastic to use apps such as Teams, OneNote and Forms in teaching, as well as simple co-creation of Word documents and PowerPoint presentations, progress seemed slow as the project cautiously took it first steps forward.

Fast forward to March 2020 and the move to teaching online forced a rapid acceleration in the pace of change. We were at a disadvantage that students and staff at ARU were still on different tenancies – which in layman’s terms means that Microsoft saw students and staff at ARU as two different organisations. Up to this time ARU had been using several different tools for delivering online teaching. Adobe Connect had been popular but was being phased out, Zoom had just been tested and training using Zoom meetings had begun (we had already seen the reluctance to change, where seasoned users of Adobe Connect had not wanted to use Zoom) and then the decision was taken that actually Microsoft Teams would be our platform of choice to deliver online synchronous teaching.

I was lucky I had used all three platforms and although I could see benefits of each (and differences between all of them) I could also see at their core they all did the same thing. If I had a choice, I would take elements I liked out of all of them and make one new solution but I am not an app developer so that was not going to happen. So, at this moment I was ready to take the Teams road and all that entailed.

One of the main features that sold me on the use of Teams goes right back to the start of this post – the opportunities for collaboration and co-creation. Being able to study remotely whilst writing or creating a presentation, whilst discussing it either over the microphone or via chat discussions provided great opportunities for active learning. At the time there were no breakout rooms in Teams but I soon worked out how to do that using channel meetings and we were up and running.

Even if I didn’t require co-creation in a session there were some great ways I could get my students to interact. Using Forms within Teams to do a quick poll in the chat or doing what I call ‘Ready, Steady, Send’ but I have also heard described as a ‘Chat Waterfall’. This is where you encourage students to think about something, and ideally write either a few words or a sentence in the chat. During this thinking and typing time they do not press send. Once you give the signal to send there is a simultaneous release of responses creating the waterfall-like effect in the chat. The important thing then is to give the students time to read the comments. I have found it a great way to start a wider discussion.

One of the good things, which is also a challenge, is the rate of change that has occurred in Teams. Again, this is probably driven by the pandemic and the increased use of Teams by Microsoft’s many education customers. Microsoft introduced breakout rooms in late 2020 and these continue to develop with some useful changes (such as having multiple meeting organisers able to manage rooms) stated to be on the way. But for this post I was going to use the example of doing quick polls using Forms in the chat. When this was first available you couldn’t have anonymous answers and the answers always appeared in the chat as they posted. This meant that it wasn’t useful for checking understanding as students who were unsure could just wait for others to start answering before making their selection. All that has changed now.

As a default it will show the results live, but you can now untick the box ‘Share results automatically after voting’ meaning that everyone can answer before they see what others have chosen. When checking for understanding it can be useful to see who has made what response but, if polling on more personal issues, you can now also make polls anonymous. Microsoft have introduced even more changes. Firstly, in meetings set up in Canvas or Outlook you can prepare your polls in advance (hopefully this is coming in Channel meetings too but not there yet). To do this you need to add the Forms app to the chat, then you can set up your polls and quizzes and launch in the chat when you are ready. There is some guidance on how to this in the Forms pages of Canvas.

So, what does all this mean for our learning and teaching?

We need to recognise that platforms like Teams are going to continue to evolve and we will not always have control (or warning) of when these functions will appear. This means we must remain open minded and prepared for Teams to look a little different for both us and our students. I just try and go with the flow, am honest with students and find they are positive to this approach. It is useful to try and be aware of some of the changes that are happening – sign up to the Anglia and Learning Teaching Monthly Newsletter (email [email protected] to sign up) and take a look at the CPD page to see what is on offer). Overall, I have found the changes to Teams have made it a better learning environment and I look forward to seeing what is coming next!


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