Adjusting to University for the first time, often straight from secondary school is a challenge at the best of times, but for students starting in 2020 the experience must be truly surreal. Amara Atif co-coordinates Introduction to Information Systems a first-year undergraduate information technology subject with over 730 students enrolled. This semester the subject is using MS Teams to facilitate lectures, tutorials and group work in response to Covid19.

Scaffolding teams

MS Teams can be a powerful and effective tool but it also brings another layer of complexity, as students are required to quickly learn how to work and interact in order to participate online. Mindful of the potential impact upon students who may already feel overwhelmed, Amara has taken an approach where particular functions of Teams and modes of interaction are introduced gradually, effectively scaffolding the software itself.

Each week MS Teams features are introduced one at a time through tutorial activities, starting with simple chat based interaction then moving through to shared documents, group work channels and file management. In the first week of remote teaching, “netiquette” guidelines were developed in collaboration with her students to help guide their interactions online, for example asking students to ease off on the use of abbreviations so that the formal teaching spaces don’t disintegrate into chat room style interactions, effectively incomprehensible to anyone under the age of 25. These guidelines all evolving and students are sometimes reminded of them.

Keeping it clean

One of the strengths of MS Teams is the dynamic communication it enables, but this sword can cut the other way as channels become busy and critical information is buried. To combat this Amara keeps tutorial and lecture channels tightly organised, asking students to only respond by replying to weekly threads initiated by teaching staff. Important information is highlighted using the announcement function to assist students in retrieving key information.

Student participation

Tutorial staff support students to actively engage by asking them specific questions to invite their participation and then following up with them via discussion in the “Posts” section. For in-class group activities students are given their own private space in the “Chat” section of Teams to facilitate tutorial tasks and assessments. Teaching staff can determine if a group channel is largely inactive at a glance, and can check in with the group to encourage them and support them.

Rethinking the lecture online

Through the process of situating the subject online Amara has taken the approach of making lecture recordings and slide sets available to students a week ahead of each lecture class. The lecture time, conducted as a live video ‘meet now’ connection in MS Teams is then available for students to ask questions and discuss the lecture content. Teaching staff prepare questions to pose to students when the lecture space is quiet and this has assisted in building the students’ confidence to interact more independently.

Source of truth

While MS Teams is utilised for the subject as the main point of interaction, Amara has been careful to maintain the role of the subject’s LMS (Blackboard) as the source of truth for the subject; housing assessments, tutorial worksheets, Gradebook feedback and lecture recordings. Mindful that in future subjects, students may or may not use MS Teams Amara is keen to build a habit in students of relying upon the LMS site for key information to maintain consistency.

Its not (always) easy being Team(s)

While Amara has tackled the current circumstance head-on she is also the first to admit that she’d rather be in the classroom. Working online Amara has experienced a number of drawbacks in comparison to face to face. Perhaps the starkest is simply assessing which students are engaged and understanding content and which are not, naturally this is much easier when staff and students are in the same room together. Teaching staff have also experienced challenges when some students have left tutorial channels early, with no way to determine retrospectively how long each student attended for.  

Amara is already researching and preparing for spring semester in the hope of further improving student experiences.

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