Advice on using Microsoft Teams

This is the advice that I give to people who are new to using Microsoft Teams. It’s not Warwick University’s official training or advice. It is what we @design_Warwick have used in teaching. If you are from a different organisation, the details will be very similar for you.

Bo Kelestyn and I @design_warwick @IATL_Warwick have been using Teams successfully in teaching for a couple of years now. We also use its OneNote integration to create an online studio space for our students, in which we can easily discuss and give feedback on their design studies.

We have observed close-up how easy it is to use for a huge range of activities, but also how new users can sometimes get confused by it. As Yoda never said, confusion leads to frustration, frustration leads to anger, anger leads to the Dark Side of the Force. So use this, and adapt it as needed, to make things easier for everyone…


Welcome to Warwick’s Microsoft Teams collaboration platform

Teams is not just a video conferencing tool, or a place for team discussions and collaborating on documents. It brings together pretty much all of the types of online and mobile collaboration that you might need, in one easily accessible place – to be accessed at your desk (Windows, Mac or Linux), or on the move (Android and Apple phones and tablets).

One-to-one chat, team discussions, editing Office documents together, planning with task lists, video conferencing, web-based phone calls – it’s all included, plus much more. You can also use it to have online meetings with people from outside of our organisation.

You will find that every member of Warwick has an account in the Teams system, which means that, if they are already using Teams, you can contact them. If they aren’t using Teams, you can easily invite them to join.

Watch Microsoft’s introduction here.

But Teams can also be a little confusing and overwhelming as you start to use it. Some key things to look out for are:

What are the limits on using Teams?

The limits are quite high!

Maximum number of people in a single team: 5000
Max in a “private” chat: 100
Max number of people in a meeting (audio and video conferencing): 250
There are no limits on the number simultaneous of meetings in our license.

Teams also has a live-streaming broadcast system called Teams Live (max 10,000 people). Warwick does not currently have a license for this. Zoom has encountered significant security issues.

What is the difference between Teams and Zoom?

Zoom is tool for running pop-up videoconferences that happen over a limited time span (e.g. a half hour webinar) and include anyone you want to invite. Teams is a comprehensive collaboration platform, which can be used for continuous collaboration over a long period (days, months, years even). Anyone may be invited to a Teams meeting. People from outside of the university can be added as guests to teams within Teams.

Teams also benefits from the security of the Microsoft user account system. All university members have a Microsoft account. Access is secured using advanced two-factor authentication methods.

Getting the software

You don’t have to pay for it. You might already have the app installed. You can install it on more than one device (e.g. laptop and phone). If you are a member of an organisation (like Warwick) that has a Microsoft license, you can use it for free. Get it from Microsoft here. Or you can simply visit

Signing-in to Teams

Sign in using your Warwick University Microsoft Office 365 account details – it is part of the Outlook and Office online system.

Your username will be like (with your IT username at the start). The password is the same as used for other Warwick IT systems. Then choose the option to use a work or school account. You will also need to sign in to the Warwick system (probably using 2 factor sign in). That should all be a familiar process – just remember to set the length of time you want your device to remember your sign in details.

The key elements of the interface

If you have unread messages in Chat or Teams you will see this indicated on these icons.

How to join a team

You can join existing teams (which might be public or private), create a new team, or chat directly with one or more members of the organisation. You might find that you have already been added to existing Teams, for work or learning.

If you are joining an existing team, it might be a “private” team, in which case the owner will have to approve your request. You might also have been given a code that allows you to self-enrol. It is also common practice to create a direct web link to a team or a channel (click on any channel name or team name to get the link).

First select this link in Teams:

Then use these options to join a team:

Creating new teams

If you are creating a new team, try not to create something that is similar to one that already exists. And try to use a name that identifies it clearly. There are a confusing set of options for creating a new team. We suggest that for most cases, even for teaching, just use the “Other” team type, and mark it as either public or private. In both cases you can then add people to the team.

If you use the Staff, Class or Professional Learning Community team types, they have additional content added (including a comprehensive OneNote notebook set up, which can be good for teaching). This can be really useful, but best to keep it simple to begin with. You can always add a shared OneNote if you like later.

Chat and Team channel discussions are different aspects of the system

Chat allows you to immediately start a conversation with any members of the university (who are already on Teams), if they are available. You can use text, audio, and video. You can share your screen, for example to show a presentation. You can also share files to collaborate on.

Watch Microsoft’s introduction to starting chats and video/audio meetings here.

Team channel discussions are for more continuous team-workingYou may find that you have already been added to one or more teams. You can also find teams to join, or set new teams up for you and your colleagues.

Teams can be set up as public or private. The team owner may add people to a team, or allow them to self-enrol. They then add “channels” (there is always a General channel) – separate sections of the team space for different purposes. Only members of the team can join these conversations. These channel-based discussions tend to be more asynchronous than chat, but can also happen live. The difference is simply organisational. You can use text, images, links, audio or video to communicate. But team channels also have a files section for sharing and collaborating on files (especially Office documents). You can add many different types of content and activity to channels, as a series of tabs.

Watch Microsoft’s video about using team channels here.

Creating new channels

Don’t go crazy adding channels to your team space. Use good descriptive names. And try to post into the right channel for the topic you are writing about. We tend to use the General channel for managing the team, and create other channels for announcements (can be set to allow only the team owner to post), social, and for working on specific tasks. You can also now create private channels, limited to a specified sub group of the team.

Important: when you create a new channel, tick the box to show it to all team members, so they know it exists (by default it is hidden). This can be changed later in the channel settings.

Individuals can also “pin” channels, so they appear at the top of their list. This can be useful if you want to keep track of an especially important channel.

Give your channel messages a title

You may find that you are working in several, or even many, channels. The flow of new messages can be quite fast. Or you may miss a day and come back to lots of missed conversations. If people give each new message a good, clear, distinct title, it makes it easier for others to follow the conversation. To do this, when writing a new message, click on the “A with a paintbrush” button just above the text entry box.

Search for messages

And when you do think you have missed a message, or forgotten where it was posted, use the search box at the top of the screen (on desktop), or the magnifying glass icon (on mobile).

Responding to messages with emojis is a really good thing to do

You can respond to a message in chat or a channel with text. But you can also respond with a thumbs-up, heart, smiley etc. On mobile versions of Teams smileys are accessed through three dots in the right-hand corner of a message. On others, you have to hover your mouse over that area. Responding with a thumbs-up or smiley is a really good way to show you have read and acknowledged a message – do this often to keep people feeling connected.

This image illustrates where to find the like option and other emojis. In this case one person has read and like the message.

Manage notifications and availability (avoid info overload, but keep up to date)

Notifications – once you get started with Teams, you will notice that you receive notifications (on whichever devices you are using). When someone wants to chat you will see a message pop-up on your screen. When someone mentions you in a discussion by typing @ and your name, you will see a message pop-up. If someone mentions a team or channel that you are in (@ followed by its name), you will get a notification. This can be good. But it can also be really annoying. So the first thing you should do is learn how to control your availability (which is also linked to your Outlook calendar’s scheduled meetings) and the notifications.

On the Windows, Mac and browser-based versions click on your icon in the top right hand corner of the screen (which will be your photo or your initials in reverse). On mobile versions, use the “hamburger” button for settings. Control your availability, and specify (in settings) how you want to receive notifications. Remember to change your settings if you want to be instantly alerted or show you are available. And please don’t use the notification system too much to alert whole teams about a new message. People will be able to easily see new messages when they browse through the channels.

If you haven’t specifically been mentioned (@) in a message, you will still see which channels have new messages in them, indicated with the channel name in bold.

Find out how to manage notifications here.

Managing all your many teams

You can reorganise the list of teams that you are a member of. Just drag and drop into the order that you want.

Pinning channels to access them faster

If there is a channel that is particularly important for you to find quickly, you can “pin” it to the top of your teams list.

Video conferencing in Teams

It’s great, and very reliable. You can schedule a meeting (using the Calendar in Teams) to happen in a channel. Or you can just start an ad hoc meeting in chat or a channel. You can get Teams to record a meeting, and it will save a copy into the channel. When you schedule a meeting, you can also invite people from outside of the organisation. Add them into the list of invited people using their email address. They can then access it in Google Chrome (not Safari) or their own Teams app.

When you first use the video conferencing tool, you will be asked to give permission for it to access your camera and mic. If you are using a Windows  computer, we recommend using a teleconferencing headset. Apple devices have excellent noise cancellation built in.

Screen sharing is possible, and very useful. You can even allow someone else to control your screen. However on Mac watch out for your security settings blocking screen sharing. To enable it, click in the Apple icon in the top left of your screen. Then select System Preferences, Security & Privacy, and then the Privacy tab. Unlock the lock to make changes. Find Screen Recording in the list, and then tick Teams.

Text messages and file sharing is automatically included in every teams meeting.

Use a computer and a phone/tablet at the same time to make it easier to manage. Every videoconference also has a simultaneous text chat discussion. Join the videoconference on your tablet/phone, and at the same time use your computer for text chat, file sharing etc.

Find out about conferencing in Teams here.

Run polls and surveys in channels and meetings

Use the Polly tool to run polls and surveys within the text chat channel that accompanies a live meeting. Look for the Parrot icon in the message editing tools.

Click on the parrot:

Then configure your poll using the form:

OneNote and Teams

OneNote is a really effective notebook application, also part of their Office 365 system. The versions for tablets and touch screen devices are especially useful, allowing drawing with a stylus. Teams has a really useful OneNote integration. You can add shared notebooks as tabs to a channel, and take notes together.

If you use the special team types for teaching, teaching staff and “communities of practice”, a notebook system is set up in which there are shared sections, and each individual has their own section. The teaching set up (Class Notebook) allows the teacher to send template pages to student notebooks, and look at notebook pages to add feedback. We use this in Introduction to Design Thinking to replicate the “open notebook” practice used in design studios.

The Class Notebook set up for our Introduction to Design Thinking module is shown below. We have created sections in the share Collaboration Space (editable by students), the Content Space (editable only by staff), and the individual student notebooks. We can use the Class Notebook tools (desktop and tablet app only) to distribute content and assessments to student notebooks. Channels in our teams space have corresponding notebook sections in the Collaboration Space.

Using the Vevox personal response system with Teams

For use by staff in teaching, Warwick has the Vevox PRS system. This can be used to enable responsive teaching and active learning in webinars. You can use the Vevox add-in in Powerpoint (and share the screen that you are showing your slides on), or for more sophisticated use (including surveys and Q&A sessions), use Vevox within your web browser. Here’s a demonstration of how to do it:


Deep linking into Teams

Using the desktop Teams app, or the browser based version, you can easily get a web link (url) to many of the items within Teams. That means you can send someone directly to that item. You can create links directly to a specific team, a channel, a message within a channel, a tab within a channel, a meeting scheduled in the calendar, a recording of a meeting, files, folders (in files) and much more.

Learn more about using Teams

The short training videos from Microsoft are excellent.

Advice for teaching online

Yesterday (18/3/2020), Bo Kelestyn and I (leaders of Warwick’s Design Thinking courses), participated in a Design Research Society Pedagogy SIG webinar on moving design teaching online. It was a great session, led by Derek Jones of the OU, with lots of expert advice being shared. Bo wrote up some notes, which I am sharing below. We will add to this links and further information as we work on it. Bo is also the Director of Student Experience for our Chemistry department, but says that this all applies well to the sciences. At Warwick we already use Teams (for webinars, video tutorials and team working), Vevox and OneNote in teaching design, and were already planning to move 1/3 of our contact time online for 2021. Warwick also has Moodle and the Echo360 video capture and streaming platform (which we will use for pre-recorded mini-lectures and student presentations). From a tech perspective, the key is to recognise where each of those tools fits together as a joined-up educational ecosystem. More notes on that will be added here as well.


Sessions need to be shorter. Replicating your existing teaching and face to face formats will not work. Aim for 10-15 minutes chunks with break for interactive activities. There is empirical evidence to back this up. This is why TED Talks are no longer than 17-18 minutes. There are plenty of apps and plug ins that work with Teams that can help you with interaction. The Vevox online polling and Q&A tool is one of them – here’s an intro including a demo of using it in a webinar.

In our face-to-face teaching, we break our 3 hour workshops up into a series of shorter activities. We lead into each activity carefully. Most importantly, we explain to the students the focus and aims of the activity, and the mindset they should try to switch into for it. Understanding the different mindsets is something we actively work on throughout the courses. We will replicate that online.

Reflect on whether your approach allows to build a learning community. Synchronisity is important. Working together helps to feel present, gives our community continuity and some structure to students’ schedule.

Peer to peer conversations and feedback. Consider giving students tasks around peer to peer feedback. Coach them on what good feedback looks like and how to give and receive feedback. This will help them gain some really important research and employability skills. Consider how to position yourself in that interaction.

Shorten group session and use some of the time for bookable short tutorial calls instead. You can easily scheduled these directly in Teams and they will also pop up in your calendar.

Consider learning journey in each session. Be empathetic and return to your session objectives and learning outcomes each week when preparing for the session. You might need to revise your teaching material and your approach. Digital learning requires more planning. You can be flexible and make it up as you go during lectures, especially if you are a seasoned teacher. This might be different when teaching digitally.

Use reflective activities. Give students tasks to reflect on digital activity itself. Do this together, individually, generate a discussion in Team after the session are all great ideas. Admit you might be making mistakes too and you are learning as well as they do. This helps to create a better community and students will also be more understanding and forgiving if things do go terribly wrong.

Tell students to feel comfortable with shorter attention spans. Some students may feel like they are not learning or doing ‘proper work’ when taken outside their usual teaching and learning environment. Reassure them it is OK to feel like that and transition takes time. You are all learning and getting used to this together. Ask for their feedback and keep the dialogue open. You can also help them transition by allowing to talk about this in the first session of Term 3 or by creating group rules and/or induction materials. This is important even for existing groups fo students.


During the webinar we discussed great articles by some of the SIG members, including:

Seven Ways to Move Your Design-based Class Online by Lesley-Ann Noel

Staying connected by Derek Jones

Both published on the Distance Design Education blog.

VR Festival 2020 report

Investigating the potential for VR in education, research, public engagement and well-being.

On the 5th and 6th of February, we ran an intensive series of events at Warwick University to collectively investigate the current reality of virtual reality. This led up to a weekend of performances of Felix and Paul’s Cirque du Soleil state-of-the-art “cinematic VR”, staged by Limina Immersive using their beautifully designed approach.

We had three aims in running this mini-festival:

  1. To stimulate interest in VR throughout the university;
  2. To kickstart the “Warwick VR Club” – a community of interested people running VR events using the equipment that we have available, and using the approaches we have learned about from Limina and others;
  3. To stimulate interdisciplinary research and innovation relating to VR, immersive experiences and performance.

The results were far beyond what we expected. This article describes the events and some of the experiences and discussions we had. We will follow it up with reviews of each of the VR experiences and headsets we used. We will also add articles with more detail on: VR at Monash; VR facilities that can be used for VR Club activities at Warwick (and more about the VR Club).

Limina VR Summit

On the Wednesday morning, around 60 people joined us for a 3-hour VR Summit with Limina Immersive, specialists in running VR experiences for the public. Internationally renowned VR experts Catherine Allen and Emma Hughes presented a forensic analysis of the rationale behind their approach. They described the ethical principles that guide their design values, and the choices that result. Limina have evolved a format in which performance “seats” are booked in advance, with around 15 seats per performance. From the outset of the performance, the audience are cared for with great attention. The auditorium is nicely lit to feel comfortable and relaxing. Facilitators provide guidance to ensure each audience member is ready for immersion, and continue to provide support during the event if needed. Only very high quality and suitably beautiful VR productions are selected. Based on audience research, they have focussed on arts, well-being, and nature. This attention to detail results in hugely popular and enjoyable events, usually fully booked and with highly positive reviews (see below for more details).

The VR Summit was attended by a diverse group of staff and students from Warwick, as well as Coventry University and Royal Holloway. Undergraduates from our interdisciplinary module, Introduction to Design Thinking (led by Bo Kelestyn and Robert O’Toole), attended as part of their course, and asked many good questions. We considered the potential value of the Limina approach for other applications, especially in education. It was agreed that it would be good for Warwick to be able to regularly run VT events in such a well designed and well organised manner, and that we need physical space and facilities to make this happen.

In the afternoon, we explored developments at Warwick and Monash University with Robert O’Toole, Graeme Knowles and Irwyn Shepherd (Monash). We also had time to try out education-related VR experiences (from WMG and Life Sciences) on a range of headsets.

Robert O’Toole introduced the session by reminding us of how in the last 30 years we have seen several waves of technological innovation: the personal computer, the internet, digital video, mobile ubiquitous computing (phones, tablets, wifi), and now virtual reality. In each case, the process of working out the implications of the new tools, and adopting them into effective practice, has been inefficient and unequal. As Douglas Adams wrote:

“Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

We can see innovators like Limina right now creating the new VR industry, creating new types of career. The important difference now is that they are approaching it with greater intelligence, with strong ethical convictions, and using “designerly” approaches. They are deliberately setting out to bring older generations into the new world of VR (and their stats show they are succeeding). And they are consciously designing the new world of VR that will become a “natural part of the way the world works” for future generations.

VR at Warwick and Monash

These considerations led into a brief introduction, by Graeme Knowles, to the work we are doing with WMG and Monash to explore how VR may be used in education (to begin with, engineering education). Our project is designing a framework and a “taxonomy” of VR and AR activities that fit with the needs of education today. Irwyn Shepherd (also a project member) then gave us a tour of the many VR and AR related initiatives he is leading at Monash University, where a VR centre has been set up and provisioned. Irwyn described how they are systematically exploring a broad range of new technologies (headsets and VR suits), using them in many projects that will see immediate use in the curriculum and research, and establishing services and frameworks – beginning with health, safety and student care. This was all really impressive, and shows what is possible with the right funding, institutional commitment, and a highly experienced expert (Irwyn) in charge.

The afternoon session was accompanied by opportunities to try VR experiences:

  • 9 Oculus Quest headsets running the superb SymBio VR experience designed by Corinne Hanlon (Life Sciences) and built by Leicester based MDB.
  • 15 Oculus Go headsets running Catherine Allen’s BBC historical production Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel.
  • Oculus Rift running a WMG-produced experience in which participants build a motor (thanks to Alex Attridge, and the apps designer Glynn Taylor).
  • HTC Vive running a WMG-produced experience in which participants take apart and reassemble a motorcycle, based on the CAD drawings for the real motorcycle, and presented in a super-realistic high definition format (thanks to Alex and the apps designer Gianluca).

All of the experiences on offer were really well received, although for many participants this was their first time using “serious” VR. The overwhelming mood of the participants was “wow” – they could not believe it would be so good! This is a common response. The shock of finding VR to actually be that good and that enjoyable takes some work to get over before a more considered dialogue may happen.

Here’s a video capture of one of Glynn’s electric motor app in use:

And a trailer for Easter Rising:

VR in Humanities Education, Research and Outreach

On Thursday afternoon, as part of the Institute for Advanced Studies Accolade Programme (for researchers), we explored the potential of VR in humanities education, research and outreach. Michael Scott introduced and led an exploration of ancient Athens in VR, with support from Paul Grigsby. Athens in VR is a commercial product, used in outreach activities with schools. In this session we tried something new: 30 people all in headsets, all exploring Athens at the same time. We initially had problems getting everyone into the VR space. Some of the Oculus Go headsets were becoming stuck in a black space and needed rebooting. Paul Grigsby, our most experienced user of VR in outreach events, helped us get over these hurdles.

Once everyone was in, and had made themselves familiar with the space, Michael led from the front by guiding the participants into the Parthenon. He described aspects of the building, but also critically evaluated the representation and its usefulness. We noted that the space does not contain other people. This made it less realistic and impaired our ability to judge scale. Michael noted that some walls had been removed to make the VR experience more spectacular. We debated whether the model was too perfect, and gave the participant too much of a Gods-eye view. This detracts from the ability to experience Athens as it really was, from the perspective of a real Athenian, but makes it easier to get an overview of the geography and architecture. Some participants didn’t like the way in which they had to move around Athens by “teleporting” from point-to-point. This is a way of getting around the Oculus Go’s limit to “3 degrees of freedom” – the viewer can only move their point of view 360 degrees on the same spot. Physical movement forwards and sideways is not matched by physical movement in the virtual world. This can feel frustrating. We agreed that it would be great to have a more realistic experience, from the point of view of an Athenian in the busy city, and perhaps play out a role. Perhaps one day this will be possible. It would use similar “gameplay” to the scuba diving game Ocean Drift. A menu of locations is presented, divided into zones of interest. The player selects a location and teleports to a selected zone, but is then able to freely move around that zone. The environment contains realistic features, including sea life that moves around and with which the player may interact. We followed-up these observations in a session with the Introduction to Design Thinking students on the following Wednesday (more about that below).

Michael leads us through Athens

At the start of the event, Catherine Allen briefly introduced her BBC production, Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel (she then had to head off back to Bristol). Catherine provided us with some context, but it was only once we had all experienced it ourselves that its powerful story and impactful design impressed us all – including Irish history expert Erin Geraghty, who led with her personal response to the experience. In Voice of a Rebel, the participant is taken back in time through the oral history of a man who was in the siege of the Dublin GPO during the Easter uprising of 1916. Erin described it as “amazing” – a great way to engage with these controversial historical events. Erin noted that the experience is very engaging and awe-inspiring (especially seeing the Irish flag flying over the GPO, a pivotal moment in history). But she asked if there should be more context provided. I replied that the app had been developed to be used within the context of the Easter Rising centenary events in 2016, and that by downloading it from the Oculus store in 2020 we have lost its original setting. The interactivity, or lack of, within the experience was another point of contention. The historians Sarah and Erin recognised the importance of the app being like a guided trip through one person’s memory – oral history, and hence always tied to that person’s view and actions. It was based on a real audio recording of someone who was in the siege. We noted that impressionistic, rather than photorealistic, graphics had been used, so as to retain the sense that it is memory rather than absolute truth that is being presented. Some other participants wondered if it might be more effective with game-play style interactivity, allowing the participant to direct the course of action. This would give them a greater sense of agency, and put them more closely into the dilemma presented in the story. But that would not have suited the original context for which the app was produced. The answer to this is: VR enables lots of different possible types of experience and agency. The important thing is to choose the right approach for the goals we want to achieve.

The discussions after the VR experiences were fascinating and could have carried on for some time. This indicated the potential of VR as a research tool and in education and outreach. Lots more things to explore!

Experiments with social, collaborative VR

Following on from the Wednesday and Thursday events, we decided to explore in more detail some of the questions raised. For their homework (following on from the Limina session that they attended), our Introduction to Design Thinking module students had been set the task of writing a creative and critical response to VR in the form of a design study. To help them with this, we needed to broaden their knowledge and experience further. As well as providing them with more opportunities to explore apps on the Oculus Go, we used one of Corinne’s Oculus Quest headsets to experiment with 6 degrees of freedom VR (room scale, where the participant moves in physical space, and the headset view is updated to match). We used the scuba diving app Ocean Drift to try this out, which worked well, with students quick to work out how to use its interface – especially the ability to use small propellers to move around the 3D ocean space.

We also tried out one of the most popular forms of collaborative social VR: 3D art with Tilt Brush, used by amazing artists like Rosie Summers to create virtual public art works. This proved to be quite amazing. I got the Quest headset connected to a large screen in the room (via a phone link), so that the students could all see the art work that we were creating. I then created a “guardian space” – a kind of virtual wall, if when wearing the headset the user goes near the wall, they see it as a barrier so that they don’t stray too far. The students sat around the edge of this virtual guardian space. I used Tilt Brush to draw and paint a 3D house inside the space, complete with painted walls, windows, a door, a fire place (with animated fire) and a chimney (with animated smoke). To me, inside the headset, this felt completely real – solid. I could show the students what it looked like using the connection to the main screen. I then invited a student in to take over. She created a realistic 3D palm tree next to the house. Although she had not used the interfaces before, the result was amazing. And the students sitting outside of VR were actually being drawn into the illusion of reality. Another student took over and added a television. We were relating to the VR space from outside and inside as if our artwork was real.

Using Tilt Brush together

This collaborative Tilt Brush approach is already being used by artists in public performances. It suggests that “holodeck” kinds of experiences and activities are becoming possible. So for example, we could collectively populate a space with elements from Ancient Greece, and interact in it (just as Michael Scott and Alexander Armstrong do in real life). Tilt Brush does not yet support multiple headsets, with people interacting with the artwork together. But it’s not far off, and Google are known to be working on it.

What next?

Lots of ideas have been generated over this week. We have equipment for people to try out, and hope that they will organise VR Club activities to do this. In May, for example, we will be repeating the Tilt Brush experiment on a much larger scale.

Lost in VR!

Designing, tame and wild

In Chapter 19 of Thinking, Fast and Slow, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman1 uses an argument that is useful to us in answering the question what is designing?

Kahneman’s aim is to show how people often misinterpret accounts of other people’s success. We may see a successful outcome of a long series of random events, and assume that the people associated with that success are more capable, or endowed with some special power, even when we don’t really have sufficient evidence to make that association. Kahneman argues that this demonstrates the halo effect in action – one of the most powerful cognitive biases. He gives the example of the Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Delving into the history of Google reveals that its success is founded more on a continuous series of lucky events, combined with persistence, not genius. Considering things statistically, they are one of many other start-ups from the early days of the web. But they are the one that, through almost random actions, survived and thrived. The others were less lucky. Page and Brin’s most important attributes were persistence and an almost irrational acceptance that they could easily fail at any time.

If we zoom out of the exceptional Google story, to see the bigger picture, things look less rosy. Google’s success is the tip of a massive, messy, wasteful iceberg of failure. That’s Capitalism. A massive pile of waste with a diamond on top distracting us from the real story. In the long term this is not sustainable. We need to get beyond the halo effect. Designing is, I argue, our only hope.

Kahneman uses a metaphor to amplify an important distinction. Google’s journey, he argues, was like white-water rafting: hurtling down an unknown river, steering reactively. Google was the raft that didn’t get wrecked. They get to the finish line, and we think: wow, those guys are special. Which they are. They survived randomness. But for Kahneman, there is a different kind of journey possible – one that balances risk with control, and gives due credit more rationally.

So, what does Kahneman’s argument tell us about designing and designers?

Designing is what we do to go beyond the halo effect. Designing doesn’t simply pick out what seems to have worked (through luck), it aims to understand why something is successful (or not), and use that knowledge to amplify and extend the likelihood of success. But is also adds another equally important ingredient: imagination. Not simply what do we know based on the past?, but also, what might be different in the future?

Designers design predictable reliable robust systems – products, services and practices that behave as expected within a wide range of situations. They imagine the possible situations in which those systems may be used, which may involve a high degree of unpredictable wildness, and design for those possible situations. Designing therefore requires a synthesis of imagination (concerning the future), knowledge, experience (basing the future on the past), and skill.

Following on with the white-water rafting example, we know in reality that sport isn’t simply a matter of luck. Great rafters prepare their systems, based on technologies and techniques, knowledge of how the river has behaved in the past, and imagined projections of how it might behave in the future. They are designers.

But designers may also go further than that. They widen out their designing to control more of the environment in which designed things operate. They design environments or platforms in which future events happen in more predictable, safe, ways. The danger is that this broader-scoped designing eliminates the randomness through which fresh value may be produced. Who would want to raft down a completely human designed river? At this point the interface between the tamed and the wild is the key – and whatever we think, designers must admit to the role of luck in getting that right and sustaining it over time. As Google becomes a fully fledged platform, rather than a simple search engine, understanding and designing the interface between what they could control and the completely uncontrollable world of the internet became key – at which point the halo begins to look rather wobbly, and success much less certain.


1Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel prize winning psychologist, celebrated for his work on cognitive biases – the unconscious patterns of thinking that bias the judgements people make when rapidly responding to events, rather than carefully and slowly engaging in rational thought.

Innovation spaces at Monash University

The Innovation Studio is a purpose designed building in which staff and students may work together to design and develop innovative products and services for the university.

It is used by eSolutions and the Education Innovation Group with student innovators. Ashley Keleher was the driving force behind setting up the studio. Pasquale Stella (Senior UX Designer & Innovation Studio Manager, Digital Transformation Group) now manages the studio.

They have a focus on developing excellent student services. This set of principles is at the heart of Monash approach. They are clearly displayed in many prominent locations, in physical space and online:

Student experience design principles
We have a student-centred approach that fits student need.
Our processes are simple, consistent, intuitive and efficient.
We proactively foster student communities, capability and success.
Our services are available anytime, anywhere, on any device.
We monitor and manage our services.

The studio itself is well designed as a base for innovation projects. There are a mix of formal and informal working areas, videoconferencing, lots of writable surfaces, equipment that can be used by projects in the studio, and areas that can be reconfigured for prototyping activities. The long high table is especially useful for storyboarding. A HTC Vive VR kit is permanently set up.

The Monash Generator is an initiative designed to support student enterprise projects. They have a programme of 3 day Generator events, ongoing support, and work areas available for projects to use. This includes Monash alumni as well as current students. We met Helena Fern, Program Manager at the Generator.

Monash Teaching and Learning Building

The Education Building is a new state-of-the-art, purpose-designed, building at the heart of the Monash Campus. It seems to be approximately three time bigger than the Oculus Building in surface area, and three stories tall. Most significantly, it is home to the Office of Learning and Teaching (including the Monash Academy, the teaching enhancement unit, and the Education Innovations Group who support learning tech), who share a floor of the building with the Faculty of Education. The OLT has excellent office space, and its own dedicated facilities, including a high-specification teaching space and a microstudio set up for easy, self-service, video production. They were also actively involved in the design of the learning spaces in the building, and used design thinking prototyping methods.

The building is furnished and equipped to a very high standard. This includes one more conventional large conference-style room (above), which is especially luxurious (note the lighting). But most of the rooms are more innovative. They all share a spaciousness – seating density is lower than British universities.

The teaching rooms in the building include a full range of sizes, from small meeting rooms to large lecture theatres. They are well equipped, and feature many writable surfaces – including tables that act as whiteboards. Tables and chairs are all equipped with wheels, which along with the spaciousness of the rooms, allows for easy reconfigurability. Décor is bright, modern and well-thought-out, with attention to detail (demonstrated in conversations with the Education Innovations team, they have a very designerly approach). The spaces were developed through an iterative open prototyping process, giving staff and students real opportunities to shape the evolving designs.

The lecture theatres are designed to support peer-to-peer collaborative active learning. Clustered seating, with shared tables (and power sockets), is the default. Chairs and tables all have wheels. Chairs include a small platform for storing bags underneath.

Writable table, and chair with integrated bag storage.

We also found that a mix of furniture styles is common, with softer seating appearing alongside more conventional furniture in medium sized teaching rooms.

The big lecture theatres feature presentation tables at the front – large writable surfaces with a roof-mounted visualiser. Drawings, texts and objects may be placed on the tables and the visualiser used to display them on the big screen. The visualiser may be moved around, zoomed in and out, as needed. The presentation table also has drawers with useful equipment, including iPads charged-up and ready to use.

In smaller rooms, areas of wall space are marked with subtle corner markers, showing where a visualiser may capture and project onto the big screen. Rooms are equipped with a Solstice-style wireless projection system called MirrorOp (however, I couldn’t get it to work, even with the assistance of an AV technician).

One of the larger lecture theatres is constructed as a “lecture in the round” approach, with the audience surrounding the lecturer, who has a writable presentation table from which to operate.

Lecture live capture is used by default – at Monash the emphasis seems to be on live streaming of lectures more than recording. They are moving to Panopto, away from Echo 360, as they are unhappy with the service and attitude of the Echo 360 company – they do not like the way Echo 360 have been trying to expand the platform towards being a VLE, locking-in academic content and student data.

Videoconferencing facilities seem to be available in most rooms, using the Zoom system, which has become part of the culture at Monash (we heard it casually referred to in several conversations, it is just normal to use it).

Exploring the Monash campuses

We visited the two main campuses, both in Melbourne. Clayton seems to be a bit smaller than Warwick, with less student accommodation apparent. The buildings are more closely placed, and generally taller than Warwick buildings. The buildings are designed to a high-tech aesthetic, and are clearly intended to make a statement.

The buildings are interconnected with a network of walkways, which are well signposted and given their own unique characteristics – such as Rainforest Walk. There are small gardens and many social spaces scattered around, along with a variety of cafes and restaurants.

Navigating Clayton is quite easy. Getting to the nearby Caulfield Campus took a while by bus, and then a return by taxi. The roads are busy, but not jammed in the morning. At Caulfied we visited the design school, which has a large multi-story building. On the ground floor there are maker-space styles workshops for students, with prototyping tools including laser cutters and 3D printers. Students are allowed to use these unsupervised and in their own time.

General observations about Monash

In October 2018 I visited Monash University in Melbourne, as part of a Warwick/Monash project investigating immersive technologies in engineering education (with Graeme Knowles of WMG and Irwyn Shepherd of Monash). Here’s some general observations made during the week of meetings and exploration.

There seems to be more of an emphasis on shared spaces and facilities. Department buildings were less obvious. We had a tour of the design school facilities, which are big and well developed, but from the outset they emphasised their openness and the fact that they collaborate across the university.

The university is clean, orderly and calm. Smoking is not allowed on campus. In the evenings there were no signs of anti social behaviour. The student culture is much less oriented towards alcohol. There are fewer bars, and drinking in public seems not to be at all present.

They build spaces around people, designed to fit with practices and services.

People identify with what they do more than what there position is within the organisation. That made it hard to understand the organisation. But it looks like they collaborate better. They are much more goal oriented, and seem to have a clearer sense of why they are innovating and what they collectively want to achieve.

Kris Ryan (Academic Director of Monash Education Innovation, but also a professor in Engineering) seems to be introducing a more systematic and data driven approach to educational innovation. Service oriented. Student oriented.

There is more of a focus on live face to face events (including videoconferencing), rather than online systems.

Design Thinking, and designerly communications and activities, seem to be embedded into the Monash way. At the start of the second session of the conference, the presenter announced that we would use a “design thinking approach”, and this just seemed entirely normal to the participants.

Using a Catchbox mic to change the dynamic in a lecture

I used the new Catchbox mic (borrowed from our AV team) last week, and it was great. It is a soft throwable mic in a cube. This is now available for loan to all Warwick Uni teachers. Support was provided by Jordan Smith, who also tweaked the volume settings a little during the session to get it perfect. You can find out more here:

I used it as part of a lecture, which was recorded using Echo360 lecture capture. That means that the student voices (but not faces) were included in the recording. Throwing the mic out to the students, and getting them to throw it to each other, did change the dynamic in the classroom, positively. It was fun. Although I did have to be careful not to knock over coffee cups.

You can hear it in action in the Echo 360 recording below. You can hear a small amount of feedback noise in the recording, this I learned is caused by holding the Catchbox too close to the lavalier radio mic – I think solved by avoiding pointing the two mics towards each other.