Project Management and Collaboration with MS Teams
When Microsoft (MS) Teams was first breaking ground in the spheres of education, a few colleagues and I had the opportunity to pilot the platform in use with students in a classroom setting. At the time, my district and school were not ready for a platform like this to be used with students in a classroom setting. Our students did not have their own devices forcing educators to reserve laptop carts or computer labs to provide students access to computers. I spoke with professionals who used Teams in the workplace and they were ecstatic about its collaboration and communicative functionality. We tried utilizing the platform for online discussions and collaboration, but it wasn’t the best tool to do that at the time. It is also quite possible that I and other staff members were not trained enough to get the most out of it. I do recall the students’ feedback about MS Teams was that it was unreliable and disorganized, which makes sense given how new it was and how our building and students were not equipped with the technology to leverage the platform to its full capabilities.
Fast forward to present day, teaching and learning in my district looks a lot different. The pandemic forced an acceleration of investing in technology for staff and students. We are not a 1:1 student machine district, every educator is given a laptop, and we are obligated to almost exclusively use Microsoft products. MS Teams is the sole telecommunications platform that our district uses with staff and students, and although we have experienced significant issues and unreliability with the product at the cost of serving our students furthest from educational justice, MS Teams is here to stay for us. An emerging issue is the blurred line between using Teams more like a Learning Management System (LMS) when educators are being told that our existing LMS is not going away. With all that being said, MS Teams has come a long way since I first tested it in my classroom with students.
Our school district has made a commitment to continue to use the platform moving forward as we work to figure out how to bring teaching and learning back into the classroom safely. MS Teams is still evolving with constant updates in features and new apps. My department in our school district uses Teams in combination with Office 365 to plan, work and collaborate with each other. Additionally, Teams is also used by educators to host class meetings with students and foster peer to peer collaboration. MS Teams is still evolving with constant updates along with new features and apps. I haven’t necessarily had the time to explore all of these, so for this module I’d like to dig deeper into how to best leverage Teams for collaboration and project management.
How can specific features and apps in Microsoft Teams support the collaboration of resources and ideas between educators and students?
ISTE Educator Standard 4: Collaborator
Educators dedicate time to collaborate with both colleagues and students to improve practice, discover and share resources and ideas, and solve problems
If you have never used MS Teams in an educational setting before, then I recommend checking out the Microsoft Education web page and/or Common Sense Education’s review. I decided to organize this solution into two separate categories: features and apps. Features include characteristics that are inherent to MS Teams that don’t require an additional add-in, app, etc. I want to consider ways educators can collaborate using the existing functionality of MS Teams. On the other hand, apps have to be manually added by the user and can be added to different locations within the Teams platform. Apps can help educators stay informed, simplify workflow, and find new ways to work together. Finally, my solution is tailored to my current role and what features and apps are available in my school district. I wanted to investigate ways that Teams could better support project management and collaboration for my colleagues and I. Our district leadership has decided to not make available the full functionality of MS Teams for Education. Your version of Teams may be different from our experience.
One of the toughest challenges for new users, whether they be students or staff, is navigating new digital platforms, especially one as robust as MS Teams. A common critique of Microsoft tools is that novice users may find it busy and daunting to learn how to use them (Common Sense Education Review). With thoughtful planning, thorough training and onboarding resources, and practice, MS Teams can be a powerful collaboration tool. It is also critical for an institution to develop consistency in how they organize their online spaces and their workflow. To get started, I love these pre-generated templates from Bind Tuning (Griffin, 2021). They also work with existing Teams that you may have already created. Here is an description of what a K-12 template starts with:
Teams, Channels, Files, Tabs and Chats:
Teams are online hubs that can facilitate collaboration and sharing of information more efficiently. It is my belief that how your Teams are organized is critical for effective collaboration. Teams can be generated for classrooms and used with students, but it is also a helpful tool in supporting staff collaboration. Teams can be created for classrooms, PLCs, all staff, or clubs and other interests groups. Various channels can be created inside of a team, and this is a great way that the tool can facilitate focused collaboration around projects, activities, committees, and processes as needed (Microsoft Teams for Education). They also recommend best practice for channel creation should be based on the Team’s different needs like topic, discipline, or subject (Microsoft Teams for Education). Each channel can then house files that are specific to the intention of that Team. Instead of attaching files to email threads, collaborators can now access every document that they need within their Team and specific channels. Each channel also includes a General channel where OneNote Notebook are accessible within the Teams platform or you can add them as tabs in other channels as you wish(if you’re curious about how to leverage OneNote for collaboration, check this resource out as a starting point). Here are some ideas for using channels with staff and/or students:
- Private channels for small-group work
- Channels themed into units, topics, or projects
- Q&A or resources channels
- Channels for collaborative study spaces for students
- Channels organized around support topics: software, devices, trainings
- Social channels for networking or building community
(Miller & Clark, 2021)
Tabs are built-in pages that can be customized within each channel. Tabs support collaboration by allowing team members to access services and content in a dedicated space inside of a channel. This allows the team to work directly with tools and data, and have conversations with each other, all inside of the channel or chat (Microsoft Tabs page). For quick access to any Office 365 collaborative doc, web page, or app, tabs help streamline access to important documents instead of sharing them through email or hunting down files in large Sharepoint spaces.
Another valuable feature of the Teams platform is Teams Chats. They ways in which we communicate has evolved alongside the evolution of communication technology. Similar to current texting and messaging on mobile devices, Teams Chat provides a quick, less formal space to communicate and collaborate with individuals or in groups. A user can create a Chat from scratch and a chat is generated for all Teams meetings and channels. Chats are great for informal and quick communication for collaboration with students or colleagues. A strategy that works well for me is pinning the chats I frequently interact with the most. Chats don’t get deleted, so you may start to have your chats pile up and this can be challenging to manage and find the chat you’re looking for (there is a search feature that you can use to find buried chats as well). For example, I pin the chats of all of my 8 team members that I communicate and collaborate with on a daily basis. I also pin chats with educators that I am in frequent coaching practice with as well as the chats from channels that I am collaborating on projects in (Microsoft Teams).
The inherent features of the MS Teams platform offers a wide range of flexibility and customization. The challenge then becomes organizing those online collaborative spaces in a way that is organized and promotes an easy and efficient workflow. Here are just a few examples of how education staff can work together that transfers well to Teams:
- School Improvement Advisory Committees: effective school improvement programs and initiatives require staff access to rich data analytics and easy collaboration among diverse stakeholders that include administrators, faculty, and others across the district.
- Incident Response Plans: when an incident occurs, fast and accurate communication helps to ensure an effective response. Using TEams, incident response teams can easily draft and share timely and appropriate information with students, parents, the community, and coordinate additional resources.
- Social and Emotional Learning programs: SEL programs can promote academic success and positive behavior while reducing emotional distress and general misconduct. Channels in Teams can be organized, for example, around the five key SEL competencies: self=awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.
- Teacher evaluations: evaluating teacher performance is a time-consuming, but important regular activity. Using Teams, administrators can share professional development resources with all teachers in the General channel, and manage private communications (in Conversations) and content (for example, using OneNote Staff Notebooks) with individual teachers in separate channels.
Apps to Support Collaboration:
Users can also add apps to their Teams platform to further support collaboration and streamline workflow. Apps can be added to the app bar (located on the side of the Teams platform), to a tab within a channel, or as an option in a chat box. Not all of these apps are specifically designed for educational purposes, but they are still effective tools inside of the platform that you can add. These apps are organized into 4 categories:
- Productivity apps – increase productivity with workflow and process automation
- Project management apps – easily navigate complex projects using process automation apps and tools
- Industry-specific apps – address industry-specific needs with custom-built apps
- Business department apps – execute everyday responsibilities with job-specific apps
The apps that are designed for education are organized into 4 categories:
- Student engagement apps – make learning and teaching more fun and interactive, stay on course and track class progress easily, and boost student morale and teamwork
- Content aggregation apps – consolidate all learning resources in a single online library, and embed and share videos with others; this includes apps that set up LMS within a Channel
- Virtual classroom solutions – set up meetings for your online classroom directly
- Whiteboarding – brainstorm creative ideas together
Here is a slideshow that shows apps relevant to these categories.
My district only uses Teams as a telecommunications platform with students, so for this solution, I will not be covering apps that help educators track and collaborate with students. However, this slideshow does a great job of categorizing and explaining apps that do just that should your district or school use Teams more like a Learning Management System. It is possible that your IT Admin may have blocked apps from being used like my district has, so this may explain why I may not cover an app that may seem obvious in supporting collaboration.
Here are just a few education specific apps that I wish were available to my team and my district:
- Freehand by Invision: draw, plan, and collaborate with your team on an infinite whiteboard in real time
- Wakelet: save, organize, and present content. Great for resource gathering, newsletter sharing, and portfolio building.
- Stormboard: collaborative workspace to generate ideas, prioritize/vote, and organize. Includes templates to support more productive and effective collaboration of projects.
- Interested in apps that provide LMS kinds of services within Teams? Check out LMS365, go1, or Beedle. Note – Your existing LMS may also be integrated with MS Teams like Canvas, Blackboard, and Schoology to name a few.
(Microsoft 365 & Security for Partners)
Apps that are currently available to my colleagues and I:
- Insights in Teams – provides analytical data about your students progress in your class that can be shared with colleagues. This app requires that you have some features like assignments and assessments available in your classroom Teams.
- Viva Insights – A project management, productivity, and workplace analytics tool. You can schedule focused work time to be undisturbed, schedule coaching time with your manager, and reflect on your social and emotional health. The stay connected experience of the app helps you maintain relationships with people in your network, follow up on communication, and track meetings.
- Roadmap: Microsoft Project – an app designed for project management, this app allows managers and their teams to keep track of multiple projects at once. You can share and collaborate on your roadmap, update the status of projects and provide timelines.
- Project – Another Microsoft project management and workflow tool however, this is more comprehensive than the Roadmap app that focuses solely on timelines. This app does include a timeline feature, but it also allows for better management of tasks and personnel as well as different views to examine the progress of projects.
- Tasks by Planner and to Do (Tasks app) – The Tasks app in MS Teams combines your individual tasks from the To Do and Outlook with your team’s tasks from Planner. This is basically an individual and collaborative to do list that is ideal for project management. This is one of the more straightforward collaborative apps produced by Microsoft for Teams.
- Approvals – easily create, manage, and share approvals directly from a channel or in the Teams platform. My colleagues and I create staff and student facing projects frequently, and they must be approved by our supervisor before they can be published. Typically we do this through email, but I love to try and keep my Outlook inbox focused on formal communication with staff. Using this app would allow us to more effectively submit projects for approval within Teams and streamline our workflow.
- Employee Ideas – A Team’s app that allows managers to review, manage,and vote upon team’s ideas. Managers and employees can create categories for ideas around common themes. Employees can then submit ideas and attach images, notes, and files. These ideas can then be voted on. This particular app is advertised for manufacturing, retail, and hospitality, but I can see this app being applicable in any team collaborative setting. For educators, this could be a great app to pose problems of practice to generate ideas of solutions.
My research for this module was focused on digging deeper into a digital tool that is used by every staff member and student in my district. Specifically, I set out to learn more about different ways to organize and leverage this tool for collaboration. Since my district has limited the accessibility of some of the features of Teams for educational purposes, we do not have access to many of the education specific apps that support collaboration. This also made it difficult to consult sources of how teachers were using the MS Teams platform. The restrictions limit the ways educators in my district can facilitate collaboration with students and they are challenged with using other collaborative tools that are approved for use. However, many of the corporate and professional apps that are designed to increase productivity, collaboration, and workflow are available. I believe that many of these apps are still useful for collaborative work amongst colleagues, administrators, and managers. Furthermore, the inherent features of MS Teams including channels, tabs, file storage/sharing, and chats are features that are widely leveraged to support collaboration with students and staff. In reviewing survey data and anecdotal experiences of staff and students, it is critical that these features are organized and simplified in a way that is most easily accessible and understood by all stakeholders. Teams are thorough and flexible, but can be extremely overwhelming for some. We must keep this in mind and be intentional about the ways in which we organize and interact with one another to build competency and effective collaboration.
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