In the rapid shift to online teaching many subjects are using Microsoft Teams (MS Teams) as a collaborative learning environment. MS Teams emulates many components of popular social media platforms including instant chat and ‘liking’ to enable faster and less formal modes of interaction alongside a range of collaboration tools. As these types of software are widely used in the workplace, there is arguably an element of authentic learning in their use in an educational context.

In comparison to a Learning Management System (LMS) where activities and processes of collaboration are typically more delineated and formal, there is potential for students to have more agency while using MS Teams. However, some components of learning design such as assessment benefit from a more formal structure and greater integration with broader UTS administration systems. So how can MS Teams and an LMS interact? And how might MS Teams be structured to support online learning?

MS Teams terminology

Firstly, it’s important to familiarise yourself with the different terms used for features of MS Teams. This useful analogy was passed onto us via Facebook and is a handy way to differentiate these features. 

  • Think of a team as a house
  • Think of a channel as a room
  • Think of tabs as posters pinned on the walls of each room
  • Think of chat as private conversations by the coffee machine 
  • Think of the activity feed as the hallway 
  • Think of bots as smart home assistants 

It may take some time to familiarise yourself with these different functions, but this analogy is a good starting point.

Managing large cohorts with MS Teams

Simone Faulkner coordinates the subject Managing People and Organisations with a large cohort of students, and has taken the approach of setting up a separate Team for each tutorial group of up to 40 students. Within each tutorial Team channels are set up for assessment groups, which enables students to collaborate using shared documents, text chat and video. Tutors are able to move between these groups to give feedback and specific assistance. 

Channels are also utilised for each tutorial week, with students collaboratively editing a class notebook alongside text and video based interactions. Lecture recordings and materials are provided from previous iterations of the subject, enabling traditional lectures to be replaced by Zoom based webinars focused on student questions and active discussion with the lecturer. 

While Simone has previously worked with MS Teams, there were still some technical issues to work through – especially in cases where tutors were working with MS Teams for the first time. However, Simone has found the potential for collaboration, reduction in email traffic and increase in time to support tutors has made the shift worthwhile. Students in each tutorial Team were asked to collaboratively write a charter, which has helped to establish expectations and processes to assist the groups to run smoothly and effectively.

Enhancing collaboration with tutors

Jurgen Schulte also has prior experience with MS Teams and has adopted it to deliver Physical Modelling, a foundational physics subject for Engineering students taught in the Science faculty. Also working with a large cohort across 17 tutorials and 16 practicals, Jurgen has organised MS Teams around teaching staff, so that each tutor and demonstrator has their own dedicated channel for students to access. Jurgen has found that this approach has enabled him to have valuable insights to the experiences of the tutorial groups, enabling him to better adapt material and support students and tutors. Where a course coordinator cannot usually be present in all tutorials, MS Teams allows Jurgen to drop in to classes for short periods of time to gain a better understanding of what’s happening with each group. Jurgen also manages his large contingent of teaching staff in a dedicated Teams group to enable fluent sharing of information across the teaching team.

MS Teams, a companion for your LMS

Both Blackboard and Canvas are integrated into a range of UTS systems and designed to function as central repositories of information for students, while MS Teams offers a flexible environment that enables collaboration and student-led learning. Utilising the subject LMS site supports students to have a single location where they know critical information is housed, and a structure that is familiar across subjects. While MS Teams is widely used in the workplace, it is rare that the actual outcomes of that labour occur in MS Teams alone. MS Teams is an internal facing tool, so requiring students to build and submit assessment components outside of the Teams environment creates a clear delineation between internal production processes and finalised outcomes, ultimately strengthening the authenticity of the learning experience.

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