Author: Chris Melia

Setting the scene

At the University of Central Lancashire there are many institutional challenges that we face. One of the core themes of our Learning and Teaching Strategy, is to ensure that we provide inspiring learning environments for our students.

Though we often focus on the physical environments in which students learn, the digital ones are equally as important. With modern learners spending an increasing amount of their time connected to such spaces, the concern has never been a more relevant one. It is also important to deliver a modern learning experience, enabling the development of digital skills which will support our students in their future employment.

Progression is critical to any university, with internal and external findings highlighting loneliness as a key reason why students leave their studies early. The real question, is around how we can support students in developing key relationships from the moment they begin their journey with us.

Digital skills

The Digital Experience Insights Survey (representing 30% of UK universities) was published by the Joint Information Systems Committee (Jisc) in September 2018 and highlights some particularly interesting observations.

Of the students who responded:

Only 41% believed their programme of study prepared them for the digital workplace

Only 40% felt they were provided with regular opportunities to update their digital skills

Only 26% enjoyed using the collaborative features of their Virtual Learning Environment

84% used smart phones to support their learning

These findings not only raise a question mark over suitability of the VLE in a collaborative learning context, but also highlight the importance of recognising learners needs with regard to how they engage with ‘digital’.

Microsoft Teams

In mid-2017, a pilot of Microsoft Teams began with academic colleagues across our Faculty of Health and Wellbeing – several of whom were looking for alternative ways of engaging and connecting with their students.

Below are two academic case studies (undergrad and postgrad), looking at how Microsoft Teams has enabled numerous learning opportunities for students, as well as addressing some of the initial concerns referenced in this post.

Andrew Sprake is a Lecturer in Sport and Physical Education at UCLan, who first came across Microsoft Teams when invited to join a learning community as a PhD student. Teams provided a platform to network, collaborate and connect with other students from right across the Faculty. Subsequently, he started to develop a teaching resource bank in Teams with his colleague Dr Jess Macbeth. An active member of the Faculty’s ‘DigiLearn’ community, Andy began to recognise the value of Teams, considering how he could harness its potential for use in the classroom.

Having launched several module discussion spaces through Teams, the immediate uptake from students was particularly impressive. It was clear that the platform provided a familiar interface for students, with numerous similarities to contemporary social media platforms.

It is common for many students to have other commitments outside of their university studies. The flexibility and mobility of Teams was crucial, allowing students to engage with their learning at a time and place that suited them. Importantly from a tutor’s perspective, student engagement with learning becomes much more visible.

When adopting new technologies for teaching, it is common to feel a little apprehensive around their potentially exclusive nature. Do all students have access to the technology required to successfully engage with the new digital learning environment?  From an inclusive perspective, students can access Teams on any device: mobile phones, tablets, laptops etc. In addition, all students have access to the University’s library and computer facilities.

 Often, the students who are posting on Teams may not normally have raised their hand in-class – perhaps from the fear of being ‘wrong’. Facilitating discussion in this manner has allowed students the opportunity to both reflect on their thoughts and contribute in their own time. Interestingly, there have been several student-initiated Teams spaces set up specifically for group work. Students are now facilitating their own learning environments without being prompted by their tutor. They are in essence, taking control of their own learning. The platform has also proved useful for formative and peer assessment, where students can provide comments on each other’s work in an ‘informal’ environment. One example of students taking this learning a step further, was during a live assessed debate where participants accessed a specific Teams space, through which they could ask live questions. The chair person and panel members then strategically responded to the questions posted at the times they felt most appropriate.

 Nick Bohannon is a Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at UCLan. This scenario features a very diverse group of postgraduate students on an MSc Mental Health Nursing programme. Having previously used the University’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) tools to connect with his students, Nick was keen to find a more effective alternative that met the individual learning needs of his students. Already using some of the other applications available in the Office 365 suite, he decided to start looking at Microsoft Teams – a platform centred around communication and collaboration.

In using Teams, the idea was to develop a safe and private space for students that was not exposed in a public arena. The environment encourages them to develop their own professional online presence – something particularly important for nurses. This learner community needed to be self-sustaining and not heavily dependent on lecturer input.

Student engagement with this space has again proved impressive, particularly in relation to the development of a learning community. The majority of interactions have been student-to-student and not led by the academic team. Early on, students were presented with an alternative way of making connections. Following their first official ‘meet-up’ on the University campus, they were able to remain connected and continue developing relationships – both with their peers and their tutor. Drawing away from potentially ‘static’ learning environments, Teams has broken down the barriers of the ‘traditional’ classroom.

As many students spend a considerable amount of time travelling into university, why not use this time as a learning opportunity?

In January 2019, we were invited to present at Bett Show in London. A recording from the session, entitled: “How can we enable and empower student voice?” can be found below. The video takes a more in-depth look at the topics discussed in this post, also highlighting metrics around the direct student impact of introducing Microsoft Teams into learning and teaching at UCLan.

At the University of Central Lancashire, Microsoft Teams is set to become a core component of the student learning experience. We are particularly impressed by Microsoft’s responsiveness to the needs of modern learners and look forward to sharing further impact over the coming academic year.


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