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Using Microsoft Teams to facilitate group work

Dr Almudena Sacristan-Reviriego, Institute of Clinical Trials & Methodology, shares how she set up online group work through Microsoft Teams.

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21 April 2020

After UCL officially suspended all face-to-face teaching due to the Coronavirus outbreak, Almudena Sacristan-Reviriego, Institute of Clinical Trials & Methodology, wanted to ensure she could deliver the remainder of her teaching for her cohorts. 

The most challenging element to translate remotely was the group activity. In this case study, she explains how she used Microsoft Teams to facilitate effective group-work. 

Emphasis on high-quality teaching 

The Institute Director of Education, Dr Angela Meade, encouraged teaching staff to carry on delivering high-quality teaching despite the challenging circumstances.

Getting started with Microsoft Teams 

UCL Digital Education team offered some training on Blackboard Collaborate, which has proven to be an effective  tool for group-based online activities and seminars.

I got inspiration from it and I decided to innovate and try a different distance learning facility this time. Microsoft Teams is a chat-based work space in Office 365 that makes it easy to have conversations, host meetings, share files and collaborate on documents, and get work done within your teams. All members of UCL have access to Microsoft Teams and it's another UCL-supported platform that I have been using extensively in the past so I was confident about its potential.

Microsoft Teams is very intuitive. I have been using it to facilitate communication among work colleagues, so it only took about half an hour to create a Team for every working group and another general group with all participant students.

You can also record meetings in MS Teams, which means students or colleagues who cannot make a particular time can catch-up later if needed. 

We did not require any further technical support but there is a wealth of guidance on the MS Teams support site

New to online teaching?

UCL  Arena Centre and Digital Education colleagues are providing remote support on moving to online delivery and alternative forms of assessment.

See their page on getting started with online seminars and group study or visit the Blackboard Collaborate Resource Centre.

To book a virtual drop-in, email the Teaching Continuity mailbox with your preferred time-slot for a Teams call between 10am- 4pm, Monday-Friday.

Digital Education are also hosting staff development sessions specifically on Moodle, Lecturecast, and Blackboard Collaborate – no booking required.

Delivering group work remotely

I decided to structure the session as follows: 

  1. Part 1: Students worked in groups (up to 5 students) through a previously set up Microsoft Team. I created one Team for each group. Students used a call or video-call function to communicate with each other. Lecturers answered questions via chat facility to every individual Microsoft Team. 
  2. Part 2: Groups presented their own work to the rest of the class. All students joined the same call through a general created Microsoft Team. Students orally presenting their work shared their screens so that every student could follow the presentations. Lecturers gave feedback in real-time and students asked questions and commented via chat. This session was recorded for further subject review.  

The total activity lasted three and a half hours. 

Small-group collaborative learning 

Small-group collaborative learning in which students have the opportunity for critical discussion with the tutor and other students is a key element of effective teaching in higher education.

The group work activity was designed before the outbreak and I was certainly committed to delivering an engaging and innovative online group work session despite the challenging times.

This approach turned out to be an excellent alternative and a very positive development. The interactive online session was definitely more authentic and relevant to the professional preparation of students. 

We had a very interactive online group work session which invited critical thinking as well as broad discussions. We immensely enjoyed working together in a live session. It was a great chance to present our proposed ideas in front of our peers and our lecturers, and simultaneously receive very helpful comments and feedback aiding to further learning. 

Zoya Zahid Chaudhry, Clinical Trials MSc Student. 

Connecting with students in different timezones 

Despite the fact that the students are in different countries and even continents, the quality of audio was quite satisfactory and clear.

There were no major problems with a cohort of 22 MSc students, two researchers and myself. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the interactive session delivered through Microsoft Teams. The collaborative element of the session really enhanced our learning experience as students. Taking ownership of our own learning and sharing ideas with others meant that we didn’t feel limited by the remote learning experience at all. 

Dona Devassy Clinical Trials MSc Student. 

Tip: You can check out the summary of student timezones for your programme, department or faculty.  

Flexible and adaptable students

What I learned from this experience is how flexible and adaptable students are and how much they are opened to try new learning experiences.

It was extremely rewarding to be delivering the teaching in such an enjoyable, participative and engaging atmosphere.

Online learning sessions can be challenging but they promote a greater sense of community and connection, which is particularly important under the current circumstances.

I felt like the technology available was used to its fullest to involve everyone in the class and the entire group work session was a great example of how technology can be used in distant learning.

Reka Novotta, Clinical Trials MSc Student.
“’I felt like the technology available was used to its fullest to involve everyone in the class and the entire group work session was a great example of how technology can be used in distant learning. ’I felt like the technology available was used to its fullest to involve everyone in the class and the entire group work session was a great example of how technology can be used in distant learning. 

Bolstering academic and pastoral support in Term 3 

We are planning to expand our use of Microsoft Teams in Term 3 across a variety of activity. Including: 

  1. MSc Dissertations - Sessions to prepare their final MSc project dissertations using a similar approach as above. 
  2. Research Supervision - Supervisors are now conducting supervision meetings to engage with their students. 
  3. Personal Tutoring - Tutors are keeping in touch with their tutees. In addition, the Institute of Education Team are hosting a ‘Virtual Coffee’ with our students every couple of weeks to provide pastoral care and a specific time for a Question and Answer session. The chat facility has proved to be very effective and powerful.

Almudena's top tips for using Microsoft Teams

  1. Allocate students into groups and create a specific Team for each group in Microsoft Teams. 
  2. Send materials and detailed instructions for the session to students beforehand via email or Moodle. 
  3. Make sure every student has correctly downloaded Microsoft Teams App on any device (phone, tablet or laptop) before the session takes place. 
  4. Encourage students to use the chat facility to ask questions and comment while a group is orally presenting their own piece of original work. 
  5. Record the whole session to make it available for students who will not be able to join the session at the scheduled time. 
  6. Consider that online group activities may require more time (last longer) than face-to-face group work. Estimate the amount of time that subgroups need to complete the activity.