What is Microsoft Teams and is it a useful instructional tool for group collaboration and instruction?

Microsoft Teams is an application available to Western Instructors as part of the Office 365 suite.

As the name of the application indicates, Teams was created to support group communication and collaboration. Within a class or group, students and instructors may need to communicate and collaborate in many ways: Direct messaging or email, sharing and responding to information, and co-editing documents are just a few that come to mind. Individuals working collaboratively may be using multiple platforms (e.g., email, Google docs, Excel, Facebook, Twitter) and generate many messages, documents, and information points. Teams was built to bring many forms of communication together and allow collaborators to access their work from a single application.

Each Team can have several “Channels.” Channels are typically used to focus conversation and collaboration around a specific topic or task. For example, a Team made for music history course might have Channels devoted to Baroque, Classical, and Romantic Eras, while a Team built to support group work might have Channels for Literature Review and Presentation.

Whether it is the “General” (i.e., “main”) Team page or one of the Team Channels, Teams functions around three main capabilities.

1. Chat-Based Conversations

The chat-based “Conversations” functionality (complete with emojis and gifs) allows users to ask questions and share important information, ideas, and feedback as well as embed media— much like on a Facebook wall. Individuals can @mention the entire Team or just individuals; however, all information in any Teams conversation is visible to the entire Team

Teams has the added functionality of being able to embed other apps into the Conversations feed, such as a relevant Twitter feed, YouTube videos, or updates on a specific news topic.  The result is a single, searchable “homepage,” where everyone associated with team can chat, share, and see updates on what’s happening across the group and the materials associated with the class or project.

2. Integration with Other Office 365 Tools

Teams allows users to access most of the Office 365 tools right from within Teams. Any Office 365 document associated with the team, such as a Word or Excel Online documents, is stored in a single SharePoint folder that is generated automatically when the Team is first set up. The result is a single access point for all Office 365 documents associate with the Team. Accessing documents through SharePoint allows users to simultaneously edit documents. Users can also work offline and their work will be updated in SharePoint once they are back online.

3. Tabs

Within each Team and Channel, important documents, links, or applications can be placed under a “Tab” for easy access.

In addition, most Tab items also support chat-based conversations on the tab page. These conversations along with any changes to materials within a Tab, such as an embedded Word Online document, are also linked to the related General or Channel Conversations page so that users can easily see changes that are made across that area of the Team.

A few other useful features of Teams are:

- A search bar that allows users to find content or past conversations

- The ability to set up a class Notebook using OneNote

- Members without Western credentials can also be added to a Team

- Some functionality to create quizzes and outline/assign workflow

So, how useful is Teams as a tool to facilitate group work and/or class communication and engagement?

As will all tools for technology-enhanced instruction, Teams comes with its own benefits and challenges, and you should make a decision to use it based on your own teaching context and goals. Our own experimentation with Teams has highlighted the following:

Benefits

  • Accessible to all Western credential holders and invited Team members
  • Functions across all platforms and devices
  • Locates all communications and collaborative media in a central hub
  • Chat-based social media affordances align with current student communication preferences
  • Allows for synchronous and asynchronous group work across a variety of applications
  • Supports beginning-to-end project development
  • Promotes transparency in the group work process (for students AND instructors)
  • Well-suited for well-defined, smaller group projects and distinct topics or areas of focus

Challenges

  • Somewhat steep learning curve if moving beyond chat-based features, particularly if users are unfamiliar with SharePoint, OneNote, and OneDrive
  • All Office 365 Tools don't always use the same terminology (e.g., Files vs. Documents) or work together intuitively
  • Difficulty limiting membership to specific Channels
  • Everyone has access to all information, except in the individual section of the Class Notebook
  • Works best with smaller groups (but can still be used with large classes with careful planning)
  • Document tracking can be challenging

Want to know more? You can view the Sway presentation from our October 2018 Lunch ‘N Learn Session on Teams.

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