By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University
“MS® Teams” rolled out in 2017 as part of the Microsoft Office 365 suite of work tools, which is very commonly used in higher education (including Outlook email, the MS Office Suite of tools, Groups, and others). Initially, Teams was mostly about distributed collaboration on shared projects. However, of late, it has also been brought into play for teaching and learning, given the sudden shift to online learning in the initial COVID-19 period.
At K-State, some faculty were early adopters of MS Teams for teaching and learning, with use cases for a few courses, a design studio course, and some others. At a Faculty Senate meeting in May 2020, some faculty requested more information on how MS Teams could be used for teaching and learning.
- Could MS Teams replace a learning management system (LMS)?
- Was it sufficiently robust for various uses?
- What were the affordances and constraints for a teaching and learning application, beyond general work teaming?
- What advisement could ITS provide to the campus for the usage of MS Teams for teaching and learning? Could they provide some IT support?
The tasking to the team included their assessment of the pros and cons of taking this on, some “use cases” for MS Teams in teaching and learning, and some Knowledge Base articles that could be written about this for ServiceNow. [In terms of whether IT would take this on, it was clear early on that not supporting this would not be an option. However, there are ways to support a tool without over-promising and without excessive makework.]
A lean team from ITS spent a few weeks exploring the tool, talking to a faculty/admin who was using the tool in diverse ways, touching bases with some IT professionals supporting MS Teams (for general collaborative work) and developers who could wire up various connections between information technology systems, and consulting with an administrator.
MS Teams as a Tool
In line with the ever-growing complexity of socio-technical systems, MS Teams is a fairly complex tool. The are four basic flavors of a team, with different default settings which highlight particular functionalities. At base, though, a Team is comprised of the following elements:
- “Channels” including posts (from people and the system), files (folders and digital files, in SharePoint), and a notebook (pages)
- Any number of other tools and technologies may be added as Tabs to the navigation at the horizontal bar
- Down the left side is the global navigation for the individual user. Here, there is an activity feed (with any activity from any Team of which he or she is a member), a live chat feature, a navigation button to any Team of which they are a member, all assignments to which they are assigned, the O365 calendar, calls (a live web conferencing tool), files (digital storage with folder organization), shifts (a Team schedule, set by the “owner” of the team), and then access to various applications: various notebooks, OneNote, a task Planner, a video hosting site (Stream) and a location for recorded “calls” (web conferencing events), a Trello board, a wiki, and others.
- A “More apps” feature connects the user to various apps for education, project management, data visualizations, and still other purposes.
The Class template for a team includes various base resources: posts, files, class notebook, assignments, grades, and a wiki. The Assignments tab enables the creation of assignments and quizzes, including from other existing Teams.
Some Instructional Design Questions
Some instructional design (ID) questions that were asked prior to the research (to help focus the work). These included the following:
Learner Space Controls by the Instructor
- How much control does a teacher have to create a unique landing page?
- How much control is there for the look-and-feel?
- Is there a clear build sequence for contents for learning?
- Can users change the names of the various features in MS Teams to help make the learning clearer? Or are feature names “written in stone”?
- How easy is it to hide the extra features or the unwanted ones? (If learners want to activate particular features, do they have that ability whether or not they are the “instructor” or the host of the space?)
- How much work will be required to set up a Teams space for teaching and learning?
- How clear is a learning path, a learning trajectory? (This is for a fuller course or a fuller learning sequence.)
- Overall, how much administrative control is there in Teams?
- Is it possible to stand up and take down courses with efficiency?
- What sorts of learning contents may be hosted? (video, images, links, others?)
- What are the limits in terms of load or numbers of files?
- How easy is it to port contents off of MS Teams?
- How “good” of a learning experience can you provide?
- What sorts of reportage data is available in MS Teams? For example, can one see how much learning content is accessed on MS Teams? Can one capture and calculate grades?
- How easy is it to remove unwanted data? (pros and cons)
- How much data leakage is there for sensitive data and sensitive learning data) / MS Stream?
Learner Community Building
- How can learner interconnections be encouraged within the MS Teams space? Beyond the course?
- How well can group work be set up and enabled?
- How does this tool work with a mobile device?
Assessment and Grading
- How trustworthy is the grading information?
- What does MS Teams offer that is not available in Canvas LMS? Or other tools?
- What are the implications of these differences?
- How well does MS Teams play with other technologies?
- What integrations are possible?
- How easy is it to access MS Teams from anywhere?
- How easy is it to ensure the learning objects as accessible? (alt-text, transcription, etc.)
Some Technical Questions
- How will the migration of KSIS/Canvas roster and Canvas group roster work?
Strengths and Weaknesses for Teaching and Learning
Some light walk-throughs of the tool followed. Initially, one had to acquire not only a different sense of the graphical user interface (GUI) but also terminology. Then, some pros were observed:
- User validation through Microsoft
- Ability to create a persistent identity
- Easy communications (asynchronous and synchronous, text-streamed, audio-video streamed, and others)
- Archival of digital contents for file sharing
- Crowd-based collaboration around information and files
But in comparison to a built-up LMS, there were some shortcomings:
- Only a few tools to create a general look-and-feel for a course “setting” and culture and space
- Few tools for roster management and mass-scale onboarding / offboarding
- No easy tools to track learner actions
- Lightweight assignment / quiz / grading tools
- No easy way to enable anonymized learner postings (such as for peer reviews of others’ works)
- No easy way to recopy a Team space for learning
- No easy uploading of learning contents in a zipped folder (to deploy)
- No easy porting off of contents
As with every socio-technical tool, MS Teams has enablements and constraints, strengths and limits. (Figure 1)
Figure 1: MS Teams for Teaching and Learning (Some Technological Enablements)
From these initial observations, it was possible to arrive at some observations about some requirements for instructional designs.
Some Basic Relevant Instructional Design Practices
1. Learner orientation. To harness the MS Teams space for teaching and learning, it makes sense to orient those who arrive at the space, so that they understand how to use the space and what to do and where to go sequentially. This may mean that there is a README file…or Notebook…or a posting in the first Channel. (The labels for the various tools are not re-nameable…but it is possible to start new channels with new names down the left menu…or instantiate new tabs in the horizontal menu at the top…and to name these.) Others set up folders with contents that explain the use of the space and even set up folders for respective students to drop their work (and potentially to receive comments).
2. Empowered learning. It was also clear that the settings should allow learners a full range of capabilities in interacting with the system and with each other. They should be able to post messages, create videos, hold synchronous meetings, chat live, and so on. They should be able to co-edit work (albeit in non-destructive ways). They should be able to share files. They should be able to receive direct emails from the instructor and peers (through Outlook, for example).
3. Constructive sociality. It makes sense to enable constructive sociality, where learners can create a sense of their own telepresence and to engage each other constructively.
Some Conceptualized Use Cases
Then, finer points depend on the particular learning domain, the learning context, the way MS Teams is harnessed, and other factors. It was clear that this tool could not really serve as a fully functioning LMS in a higher education context given the needs for particular functionalities, various systems integrations, and perhaps some legal considerations—at least in our particular context. MS Teams could be used as a complementary tool, though, for formal and informal courses using other technologies as the main base for the teaching and learning, record-keeping, formal assessment, grade computations, and so on.
Where it would make sense to bring MS Teams into play in a stand-alone way were as follows.
Table 1: Some Types of Learning in Higher Education that “Fit” with MS Teams
Some Types of Learning
Formal and informal learning sequences without excessive complexity (and low time duration)
Formal and informal learning based on collaborative learner work around a defined project
Virtual learning community
The coalescing of individuals around a shared learning interest (with varying roles of the learners and fairly high interactivity and mutual support)
Creation, sharing, and critique of designs
This is not to say that others cannot harness MS Teams very effectively for formal learning at various levels from K12 through higher education. For this local context, however, it seemed that MS Teams was valuable for a less formal teaching and learning approach…and the technology would work optimally in a complementary relationship with an LMS.
How structured or freeform the various spaces are can vary, depending on needs. In many ways, how successful a learning experience is in MS Teams is not based on the technology but the learners and the instructor, the practiced conventions of the learning domain, the social engagements, the meaningfulness of the tasks, the motivations of the learners, the learning goals, the sense of community, and other human factors.
About the Author
Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to Aziah McNamara, Robert Howard, Hongfu Chen, Charles Appelseth, Scott Finkeldei, and others, for their support in the initial work that was the basis for this article.