Using MS Teams to support group working

I have mentioned before that we are taking a more proactive approach to our use of Office365. rebeccaAs part of this work we are piloting some small scale O365 activities with staff and students.

One of our academics, Rebecca Marshall (a lecturer in Rural Land Management), has written about her experience using Microsoft teams for group work. We hope to build on Rebecca’s work to come up with some clear guidance and procedures to enable other staff to take a similar approach to group work.

Here is Rebecca’s story:


Group work grumbles

Reflecting on a piece of coursework that I set the Rural Land Management 3rd year students, the usual grumbles about working in groups get repeated year on year.  However as this module was entitled ”Professional Practice” and group work being a fact of working in industry as well as a module outcome, Group work needed to stay.  However I wanted to meet the challenge of making group work more palatable for the students.

This year, due to some complicated scheduling requirements in RELM, this coursework was going to fall over the Christmas holidays.  I could see that this was going to make group work even more unpopular.

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I had initially considered including a session on the use of Google docs, to encourage the students to use online collaboration tools. I’ve never particularly enjoyed using Google docs and I was not wedded to the idea.

I had heard about Slack from friends in project management and was aware that there were other remote working business collaboration tools available.  A timely article in the Sunday Times business section outlined the tools that were now available, including Slack; outlining additional benefits over Google docs.  These tools promised to make team management easier and as an additional benefit, experience of them could prove useful in graduate job interviews.

Trying out MS Teams

I am lucky to have an IT expert at home (a member of the University of Southampton’s iSolutions team) and ran through the suggested apps that the article listed.  He was using Microsoft Teams already. We have access to Office 365 at the RAU but are still in the early stages of roll out.  My husband and I set up a team between us and had a play with it.

Teams was launched in November 2016 and is a “Chat based workspace in Office 365”, allowing dispersed teams to work together and share information via a common space.  It included tools such as document collaboration, chat/messaging, video conferencing, meeting organising.

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After some initial playing and discussions with RAU IT services I realised that Teams would be the solution to my group work problem.  I could include a section on Teams within a session I usually ran in the computer room.

The other benefit of Teams, was if there was a falling out within a group, usually as a result of uneven involvement by members, I could be added as an administrator and see what each group member had contributed.

However in my naivety, I thought that if Teams was available on my computer it would also be available to the students, unfortunately it had been turned off for the students.  [Editor note – this was due to some changes to default licensing by Microsoft.] This took the wind out of my sails for the launch.  I had got the students hyped up by mentioning I had the solution to all their group work problems prior to the launch of the assignment and showing a video of Teams in the session. Teams was made available within 2 hours (thanks IT Services), but I had lost momentum for the students to adopt it at the launch.

Student feedback

Despite this start – 54% students did use Teams for the assignment (50 students surveyed).  The most used tool was chat/conversation (30), followed by sharing files (23), working on a single document at the same time/together (20 & 19)

The students rated the tool that allows you to work on a single document at the same time as the most useful.

93% of students that used it would recommend it to other students (and 43% of those who didn’t use it would still recommend it!)

Some student comments about what was most helpful within Teams:

  • “ Working on a single document at the same time, As there is less confusion with sending documents back and forth”
  • “means you don’t have to worry about who has the most up-to-date version”
  • “Allowed us to work over Christmas break with only 1 document rather than lots of individual documents”
  • “Allowed us to distinguish areas of improvement collectively”
  • “the chat/conversations had an easy interface”

The video conferencing tool was rated as the least useful tool but it was only used by 4 students (1 group) so its unpopularity was understandable, but a number of comments showed that the students were not aware of the tool.

Things to think about

There were some problems: Students found compatibility issues when some of the group were using Macs.  The word version that is in Teams is different to desktop version.  Another issue to address is that Teams works by creating a new email address for the group using RAUs email system e.g. Pete&Linda’sgroup@rau.ac.uk so there may be issues if group is named inappropriately.

The students discussed some alternatives to Teams: Closed Facebook Group, Google Docs, Emails, Face to face meetings (i.e. finishing before the holidays!)

RAU students carrying out group work. Picture by Mikal Ludlow Photography 2019 - Licenced to The Royal Agricultural University tel; 07855177205 20-3-19

RAU students carrying out group work. Picture by Mikal Ludlow Photography 2019 licenced to the RAU

Next steps

I’m using Teams for dissertation supervision, but not to its full capacity.  Just file sharing and the messaging.

For Teams to be used for all RAU group coursework I would recommend the following:

  • Run an hour long training session in a computer room for staff to use Teams (and make online session available)
  • Ensure students have access at time of launch
  • Have further guides/ online help recommendations available for those who need it, hosted in the IT section of Gateway (our VLE).
  • Emphasis on the single document real time collaboration when launching as this was identified as the main benefit by the students in my pilot.

Further work:

  • Investigate the issues with using Mac and how a mixed user group can function
  • Include as part of the new Study skills module in year 1 and more detailed use in year 2.

[For RAU staff]. If you are interested in using Teams I would recommend watching these 2 videos:

  1. an introductory guide on what Teams can do
  2. How to start using Teams

You can also have a play around with it and are welcome to add me as a user to your team.

I was overwhelmed with how helpful the students found Teams for this group coursework. It has turned me into an advocate for Teams to help solve student group work problems and am very pleased that it is going to be included in the new study skills modules.

Our IT team are in their infancy in looking at Office 365 usage within the RAU. There will be lots more on Teams in the near future.

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