Teamin’ up


This blog post is brought to you in-between too much stuff to do with online learning but as an absolute PLEA to Microsoft Education with their wonderful but exasperating Teams product to do some more heavy lifting to get Teams for Education into a shape and form that will get us through the next few months of online learning.

Why Teams is great – especially during online learning

Ok, I’ll do a sandwich – Teams has been wonderful for just existing. For making meetings quick and easy. For their integrated class/teacher/student notebooks (albeit they crash way too often and can refuse to sync properly). For their great way of setting up assignments making it quick and easy to have an overview, to mark and give feedback, for the rubrics.  (Although you can’t see assignment dates on the calendar – please vote for this!) They’re doing a really really good job of a lot of what we need.

And now for the BUT.

The big but. And I understand how it happened. It happened like a lot of things to do with education happen, including a lot of LMS (Learning management systems). They do something for the big people, in corporations or in universities, and schools are crying out for a functioning and functional LMS that’s mobile and cloud based and so something gets adapted and pushed down to secondary school or even primary. Ditto the other way, things are made for primary school where you have one classroom with kids and a few specialist teachers / classes and someone tries to push it up to secondary.

So, we’ve been doing online learning for nearly 8 weeks now (I think, I’m losing track, and last week was a week “off”). And we’re really needing to change gear. We can no longer stay in first gear as if we’re climbing a steep mountain while on the flat-endless prairies. So it’s time to take stock and adapt practices for the longer term.

What is not working that in education we actually really really need to work? And pretty fast? (And all the mistakes I made along the way as bonus crash-viewing – hopefully this will help someone else just starting on this path) .

7 tips for video conferencing

Child protection needs to be a priority

Teams was really new this year and has been adding great features along the way. So for a long while, it was an experimental sandpit for us where we were letting our early adopter teachers play around in, create as many teams as they wanted with no real oversight. It was great, we learnt a bunch and all was fine, because we were still having physical classes and mainly using it for assignments. Then Covid-19 hit and we went full stream online. We went from a handful of teams/teachers with regular feedback to over 300 teams and all teachers overnight. Despite having naming conventions (to easily find / sort teams) and requesting that EdTech and senior leadership were co-owners of all teams, that didn’t necessarily happen. Humans in panic and all. We set up protocols for online meetings. We requested teachers to record and save meetings.

  • People forget to record (meetings can’t be set to automatically record).
  • People forgot to put meetings on the public calendar(s) (we have one per grade)
  • Students start meetings before the meeting time/teacher is present.
  • Teams only keeps a meeting recording for 20 days.
  • Meetings in private channels can’t be recorded

These are things that were “nice” to have automated / sorted out before we went online but now are really important if we want to safe-guard students and protect teachers from (potential) unjustified accusations.

Here are the links to Microsoft teams UserVoice to request these things are implemented – please add your voice and vote:

Schools have children in them – they do stupid things!

We have a number of teams for professional purposes, and even we have problems with basic organisation – such as putting things in the right channel, starting conversations in the right channel etc. We were so glad when Teams started the option of private channels, but then so disappointed when they didn’t have the full functionality of open channels. Open channels are fine. But not for 10-11 year olds. They need to be corralled into private channels so they don’t mess things up for themselves and others.

Teams has an endlessly flat non-hierarchical structure

Yes ideally and eventually we’re going to kill grade levels and age-based learning and all of that. But it hasn’t happened yet. And it’s not going to happen in the next few months of online learning. And yes fortunately and for the better of all we’re moving from thinking about students and classes as “my” student/class/subject.

The very basic question we all grapple with in creating teams is how to structure it. Because there isn’t really a structure in teams.

Here is something I posted to the Tech Community educator group early on in December 2019 about the sheer math of the matter and some responses:

Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 6.53.50 PMScreen Shot 2020-03-24 at 6.54.25 PMScreen Shot 2020-03-24 at 6.55.41 PM

I still don’t really have the optimal answer to that, particularly given the restrictions of private channels (maximum of 30 per team, no meeting scheduling and no meeting recording).

The thing is it’s better to think this all out in advance and to have a plan rather than to start and then have to reconfigure things afterwards because

  • you can’t change a private channel into a public channel after creating it as private
  • you can’t change a team into a channel – private or public or vice-versa
  • you can’t move a channel into another team
  • you can’t rename a team or change a teams name (well you may “think” you can and do it,  but you have potential real problems in the back-end in Sharepoint)
  • you can’t sort teams or put them into folders or pin them – you can drag them around – easy enough if you have a couple of teams not so if you have 300 of them, you can filter them – but that only works if you’ve named them all properly and consistently.

There is no dashboard / entry point

When you enter teams it is a full on experience. There is no dashboard with your calendar / assignments / meetings about to happen. You can scroll and scroll and still miss things – sometimes I have a meeting to attend and I even know in which team and it’s started but I still can’t find it quickly!

The analytics are very rudimentary

I’m the first to admit I’m a little bit of a data nerd – ok a lot. I have seen a lot of responses in the twitter-sphere along the lines of “no one is going to tell my child what to do during school closure” or “I don’t care if they learn or not as long as they’re happy” – but that’s not my demographic. Our families are paying a lot of money for their children’s education and learning and they have high expectations of us and their children.

[Personally I’d also say an engaged, purposefully busy and cared for child (not just by the parents but by the educator too) is a happier child than one left to endless repeats of anxiety creating bad-news on social media or TV. ].

So we spend a lot of time and energy making sure we’re mentoring students, monitoring their engagement and that they’re not falling too far behind their peers. Moodle, our usual LMS (but the clunky old stead) has great analytics. I can see exactly who’s been online and when, for how long and what they’ve been engaged in – but for many reasons our students and teachers like the intuitive feel of Teams more.

Teams has basic analytics for the week and month BUT I can’t click on anything! I can see the number of active / inactive users but I can’t click further and see WHO is inactive – so here’s one class for example – 9 kids’ haven’t re-engaged in the first 3 days after spring break. Who are they? Without looking through comments and assignments in detail I don’t know. I look at 28 days and see it’s just 1 person – who is that?

But that’s just one teacher for one subject – say I’m a mentor for 11 students and I need to report weekly on all my students and see who’s falling behind and whether it’s just one subject or all of them. No can do.

Lack of portfolios

Using portfolios as evidence of learning is really important as we progress in our understanding of education as a process of learning rather than students needing to jump through some curriculum and examination hoops at certain points in time in their lives (really relevant now as IB, GCSE and A level exams were cancelled this year). The structure of teams is that the Team in Sharepoint “owns” the work students have done as assignments. There is no easy and quick way to gather all the evidence of learning from the assignments and “give” it back to students to add to their portfolios as they move through the system or from one school / teacher / grade to another.

This may seem minor but it’s a major philosophical shift that need to happen in education. Learning is not something that happens to students from teachers, but something that students own and are accountable for. Especially now. Especially in concept-based education like the MYP.

There are many ways of showing mastery and the current set-up still puts the teacher in the control panel.

I’m way over my time and word limit now, so to end my sandwich:

What else works really well

Add on apps and integration with things like Zoom. A fabulous user-base in China with the inimitable James Rong – check out his blog – we have a joke here that if we ask a question to Microsoft, they ask James and then come back to us with his answer. Our other “joke” is that he posts an answer on his blog to a question we didn’t even know we had until we see the answer!

If you’re rockin’ teams and have some suggestions on best practice, please don’t give them on twitter or facebook where they’ll disappear, but add them as a comment here so that as a community we can all learn together. 


I don’t know who created the image on my blog header but it’s amazing – it was passed onto me in a chat as a meme, if it’s yours please let me know so I can credit you.


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