Using MS Teams as a platform for blended learning
The University of London School of Advanced Study (SAS) is looking into ways of adapting our postgraduate courses in response to Covid-19 restrictions. Our aim is to create a hybrid (blended) model of face-to-face and online that can be flexed in response to varying conditions.
A key element of the changes we are making is to use MS Teams for supporting learning and teaching. Teams is a Microsoft product, providing chat, virtual meetings, and shared file spaces, with obvious educational potential during a time when face-to-face teaching is prohibited.
Teams was hurriedly rolled out to staff over a 1-week period when lockdown began in March 2020. Not surprisingly this caused challenges around training and staff understanding of exactly what the product is and how it should be used. For instance, it took some effort to explain to staff that Teams meetings could be used with people outside the organisation whilst the ‘team’ groupings could not.
Using a SharePoint site, the IT department rapidly provided detailed and useful guidance on MS Teams, but the SAS digital team still needed to act as champions – answering questions from staff, and learning rapidly on-the-job how to use the new tool and trying to figure out what best practice might actually look like. In the end, we built a new SharePoint site advertised to staff as a ‘network/sharing’ space that could be used flexibly to share various nuggets of information quickly and without the usual requirement of careful marketing or planning. A virtual communications guidance page was set up that included links to IT’s guidance page and some additional FAQs on MS Teams, alongside similar guidance/links for other tools that we had available such as Zoom, Panopto, and Adobe Connect. We also answered questions in all-staff meetings and on an individual basis, sometimes guiding staff through the features using MS Teams itself. This was particularly challenging when helping staff to run virtual vivas via the app, requiring careful planning of the setup and access roles.
Whilst the roll-out of Teams has not been how anyone envisaged, it is proving surprisingly smooth, with many staff taking to it quickly.
The next stage, and one where we do have a bit more time to organise, is to roll Teams out to students. We are in the process of planning and implementing the use of Teams as an activity type for students and tutors, linked to courses in our Moodle VLE. The reason for prioritising this work is that Moodle is not well-placed to replicate the social aspect of learning online whilst Teams is. This is something of greater concern now that some or all students will not be taught face-to-face for at least part of the programme next year.
Initially, we looked into the MS Teams Moodle integration. However, our IT department told us that they had thus far been unable to get the integration to work satisfactorily. Unwilling to risk a complicated install and concerns within the team about making too large a change to how the VLE is accessed and used by students and staff without extensive testing and user experience (UX) assessment, it seems unwise to pursue this route at this time.
We realised that we need a mid-way integration – something that would give us access to the communication possibilities of MS Team whilst not altering the Moodle site. We have started to think of Teams as just another activity type that we could insert into the Moodle courses.
The idea for MS Teams is that tutors and students have a Teams space where they can chat, share files, and organise live sessions in a synchronous or asynchronous way. Access will be on a course by course (or module by module) basis with a block providing access at the course level, and options to insert links to meetings and chats in the weekly sections. Work has started to get buy-in from the academic staff, to provide training, and to identify the best methods for the setup. This work is still ongoing but we are hopeful that it will be ready for the next academic year.