Within just a few weeks Microsoft Teams has become established as one of top applications in education. Most institutions already have it available to all members, including staff and students. For teachers, it can be quite a challenge. It is a big, complex system. Starting to use it often has unexpected consequences. And yet quality support and training is still quite rare. Having used Teams for a couple of years in teaching (at Warwick University), I’ve introduced many other teachers, and their students, to using Teams. I’ve worked out what the issues are, and how best to introduce it so that people are able to adopt it quickly and safely. Here is an overview of the advice that I give to teacher.
What is Teams?
Teams is a collaboration platform, provided by Microsoft as part of the suite of tools that the university subscribes to. There is no cost to members of the university. It can be accessed using the same accounts as Outlook email, and is fully GDPR compliant and secure.
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.
Teams supports both ad hoc chat, and more structured collaboration in team spaces and their channels.
Chat allows you to immediately start a conversation with any members of the university (who are already on Teams), if they are available. Read on below to find out how to stop people from starting chats with you. In your messages, 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.
Team channel discussions are for more continuous team-working. You 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.
Team spaces and channels 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.
Teams is ideal for problem-based, case-based, and experiential learning, especially where we want students to use the kinds of tools and methods found in modern workplaces. It can also be used for SSLCs, special interest groups, societies, and less formal communities. There are no limitations on the number of teams we create or the ways in which we use it.
For comparisons with other systems (Moodle, Tabula, ePortfolios, Zoom, read on).
For more details about Teams and how to use it, see this article.
Before you start using it, we recommend reading this:
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.
However, being such an all encompassing and open system, with no sense of role-hierarchies and social protocol built in, we do need to be careful about making ourselves available through it. You probably don’t want to be running Teams on your computer all of the time with your access settings allowing anyone to contact you at any time. You will find it annoying if you have notifications from students (or indeed colleagues) popping-up on your screen every few minutes. The good news is, you can control this in four ways:
- Set your status to “do not disturb” and people will not be able to interrupt you;
- Configure the notifications system so that you only see pop-up messages for specific types of alert or specific people;
- Tell people that you can only be contacted in specific ways or at specific times (for example, having virtual office hours for students);
- Just close Teams, don’t leave it running when you aren’t using it. On the mobile versions you can’t quite do this, so you have to switch off notifications. Personally, I don’t have Teams on my phone, as it would be too obtrusive.
We recommend that students are told the following, as a matter of policy, when they are introduced to Teams:
Be conscious of interrupting other people inappropriately, especially members of staff. Don’t assume that it is OK to contact them even if their status is set to “available”. In some cases, staff will set virtual office hours for students, so stick to them. For support services, find out how they want you to contact them, and use that approach. Alternatively, if you are not already collaborating with someone in Teams, send them an email – don’t just start a chat or “meet now” with them out of the blue (that’s just rude).
With that in mind, we can then think about the different ways in which we can use Teams effectively. Rather than thinking about the features in the system, consider the three different modes of collaboration that it enables. You will want to do each of these at different times. And you will want students to take part in them with you, or independently. The modes are:
1. Scheduled synchronous collaboration – let’s meet up and work together
Synchronous means “at the same time”. Organise a meeting with selected people at a specified time using the Calendar in Teams (which syncs with Outlook). In Teams you can meet with videoconferencing, or just using text chat. You could plan to work on a shared document (for example a Word document shared in a Teams channel or through some other means). Or you could do a presentation or demo, sharing your screen so that other participants can see it. Your status will automatically be set to “busy” while you are in the meeting.
2. Asynchronous collaboration – I’m working on our stuff at my own pace
Asynchronous means “at different times”. You work together, but in your own time when you want to. Join in a discussion in a channel, with text-based posts. Read other people’s posts. Indicate that you have read them using emojis. Reply. And start your own discussion threads. Or make a contribution to a shared document. It’s good practice to report back to your collaborators on what you have been doing. When working like this, you might want to set your status to “busy” or even “do not disturb” (which blocks all chat and meeting requests). You can also switch off banner notifications (the messages that pop-up when someone mentions you or your team in a message).
3. Open synchronous collaboration – i’m free, call me!
Taking advantage of the always-on, always-connected nature of the internet, schedule time during which your status is set to “available”. Enable banner notifications. Keep your calendar clear, and enable banner notifications for chat and team messages that mention you. Tell your friends that you are going to be available at that time, and invite them to use the “meet now” feature if they want to do an impromptu video conference.
Next, let’s consider how we position Teams in relation to other systems.
How does Teams relate to Moodle?
Microsoft have been nudging Teams towards becoming a virtual learning environment (VLE), but it definitely isn’t there yet. You will find that when you create a new team space in Teams, you get an option to create a Class team. This is useful. It allows you to add users with teacher and student roles. It also creates a shared OneNote notebook, which includes a folder for creating notes together, a folder for teachers to create notes for the students, and individual notebooks for each student. Teachers can easily send copies of pages to every student notebook. They may then be treated as assignments, with feedback and marks provided, and pages locked when an assignment has finished. This is still quite a complicated system, doesn’t integrate with Tabula or SITS, and in my experience, is a bit unreliable.
It is best to treat Teams as complementary to the VLE. Whereas in Moodle we can create clear, simple, controlled information structures and activities, Teams is much more of an “emergent” conversation. It’s more suited to team work. With Moodle we can more easily control progression through a series of activities, controlling access to them, tracking completion, and reporting on results. Moodle is not, however, much use if you want your students to create resources together (such as Office documents). Teams is ideal for that. Personally, I use Teams as a flexible base for team work, including live synchronous working (e.g. in a videoconference and working on shared documents), and asynchronous working (where students work on shared documents and discussions in their own time).
Integrations with Moodle will appear in the near future (no timescale yet). But for now, it is possible to create a tab in a team, and have a Moodle page displayed in it.
How does it relate to Tabula and SITS?
Teams does not currently have an integration with Tabula for assessment or recording student attendance. It is not connected to SITS, so we cannot easily create team spaces with all of the students in a module added as members. Some teachers have created teams spaces and provided a join code to their students to ensure that they are all able to join in.
How does it relate to ePortfolios?
The OneNote integration described above can be used for students to create portfolios of work, with teachers able to easily access content and give feedback (as notes in the pages). We have used this approach for the Introduction to Design Thinking IATL module, in which we use it as a kind of open notebook system. We can even have tutorials with students using Teams videoconferencing in which we work with students together on their OneNote pages. However, we have found that exporting the pages for further use (e.g for careers) is not easy. It may be better for students to use a web based system if you think they will want to show their work to a wider public.
How does it relate to 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.