Authors: Andrew Sprake, Lecturer & Jess Macbeth, Senior Lecturer in the School of Sport & Health Sciences at UCLan 

Challenge

This blog reflects on two specific examples of how Microsoft Teams helped to address three common challenges in higher education:

  1. Developing learner autonomy
  2. Facilitating effective group collaboration
  3. Developing students’ digital skills in preparation for the workplace

It is widely accepted that for students to attain the independence necessary for success in the workplace, they must be provided with opportunities to act autonomously whilst at University (Henri, Morrell & Scott, 2018) but Lan (2018) warns that effective and autonomous learning is not simply guaranteed through the introduction of digital technologies. In terms of successful group work, Panadero et al (2015, p.243) stress that this relies on members regulating their learning at the group/social level by activating and making use of strategies “to plan, monitor, and evaluate what both the individuals and the group are doing and how the work being done by the group is progressing”. Whilst Henderson et al (2017, p.1576) recognise the various ways that digital technologies can help undergraduate students, they stress that these are rarely “the creative, collaborative, participatory and hyper-connected practices that tend to be foregrounded in discussions of digital education and learning technology” (Henderson et al, 2017, p.1576). These specific examples reveal how two groups of students used Teams to engage in effective collaboration and evolve from consumers, to autonomous creators, of learning and assessment content.

Solution

At the start of the 2018-19 academic year we introduced the use of Microsoft Teams within the socio-cultural modules of the BA(Hons) Sport & PE degree programme at UCLan. The first assessment of the Level 6 Sport and Politics module requires students to work in self-selected groups and prepare for a live assessed debate on a relevant topic, and using a debate format, of their choice. By affording students the choice of what debate topic to pursue and which debate format to perform, the assignment is designed to encourage groups to work collaboratively and autonomously. Whilst Teams is used in various workshop activities within the module, the extent to which two groups of students embraced it for their group work was unexpected, unsolicited and autonomous. The timeline below illustrates how these students, in different ways, utilised Teams effectively in preparation for (Group A) and during (Group B) their live assessed debates. 

Once they had self-selected groups members and confirmed their topic and debate format, Group A created their own separate Team to facilitate their preparation. In the opening post, the purpose of the Team was outlined by one of the students:  

We can use this to discuss our presentation. If anyone makes any changes to the presentation, we can put it on here, so everyone has an up-to-date copy. Andy is also in this group so he can see/help/advise as well”.  

During the next two weeks of preparation for their debate, Group A engaged in a total of 32 interactions between themselves and 13 interactions with the Module Leader. These interactions included discussion posts, file sharing and editing and seeking formative feedback from the Module Leader. This technology-based creation by Group A reflects what Lan (2018, p. 860) describes as an “autonomous learning process during which learners are actively engaged in investigating matters, solving problems, reflecting ideas and producing contents”. It also provides an example of the “creative, collaborative, participatory and hyper-connected practices” that Henderson et al (2017, p.1576) consider to be rare. For instance, students in Group A utilised the flexibility of Teams throughout their group work as their online discussions ranged from early in the mornings (e.g. 7am) to late in the evenings (e.g. 10.30pm), meaning that students engaged with their studies in a flexible manner at times convenient to them.  

Group B utilised Teams in a different way. On the day of their live assessed debate, Group B announced their intention to facilitate a live and interactive dialogue with the audience, using Teams, and that they were happy to respond to questions as the debate progressed. Lan (2018, p. 859) suggests that autonomous learners are “usually proactive and are willing to take risks during the learning process”. The students in Group B were clearly proactive and willing totake risks and the invitation for live audience interaction also demonstrated a high degree of confidence in both the subject matter and their digital skills. There were 8 interactions between the students themselves, with an additional 3 interactions including a staff member, and the students managed this process with authority and confidence. As a result of their autonomous, innovative and even courageous endeavour, the students became the creators of their own learning and assessment experiences and in doing so they reaped the rewards.

Impact 

The impact of these examples can be explained in two ways. Firstly, the students’ learning experiences were significantly enhanced as a result of these autonomous approaches and, secondly, they have had a positive impact on the associated staff.   

Following the debate, one student from Group B outlined the value of Teams in this process:  

Microsoft Teams is an excellent communication tool, especially for those doing group work assignments as it can be difficult to fit a time in to meet up due to group members having busy schedules. Teams was an active way of building resources and information for the whole group to have access to. I would say that Teams was a vital part of my group debate being as successful as it was, as we utilised it in order to build our topic area in order to present it successfully”.   

In a module evaluation, students were asked to comment specifically on whether Microsoft Teams was used/useful in their learning on the module. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and Teams was described as “easy to use”, that it “helped with planning the structure of the assignment, with staying in touch and allowed us to send and save work to proceed with the assignments” and that it “helped in terms of the debate as it allowed groups to communicate together and with other groups/the lecturer”. Incidentally, both Group A and Group B achieved First-Class grades for this assessment.  

Many students on our Sport and Physical Education course aspire to become teachers of PE, which presents a deeper rationale for the integration of technology-enhanced learning at undergraduate level. In their exploration of barriers and facilitators to using technology to facilitate learning in the subject of PE, Bodsworth & Goodyear (2017) identified teachers’ unwillingness and lack of competence to use technology as resisting factors. Undergraduate courses have a significant role to play here. This is especially pertinent given that, in his forward to the JISC Digital Experience Insights Survey (JISC, 2018, p.3), Sam Gyimah explains how “students continue to express concerns that their courses do not fully prepare them for a digital workplace”. The examples illustrated here are testament to the ongoing efforts at UCLan to upskill and prepare students for the contemporary workforce. However, these examples have not only impacted on the students, as staff too have felt the benefits.   

Perhaps an interesting reflection on these examples is that we initially introduced Teams for the students to consume as part of their learning. By embracing this technology and moulding it for their own purposes, the students began to learn by creation (Lan, 2018). Teams provided a platform on which students could shift from consumer to creator of learning and assessment contents, and they did so in an authentic and organic manner. As staff, this has left us with a dilemma. Do we share these examples of good practice with subsequent cohorts? Or do we not, in the hope that other groups might evolve autonomously from consumers to creators? It is a nice dilemma to have and whether such ownership of learning will be adopted by future cohorts remains to be seen. As for our teaching practice, we will certainly be offering Teams as a platform for subsequent cohorts and who knows what inspiring and autonomous creations they will come up with next? 

References 

Bodsworth, H. & Goodyear, V.A. (2017) Barriers and facilitators to using digital technologies in the Cooperative Learning model in physical education, Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 22:6, 563-579. 

Henderson, M., Selwyn, N. & Aston, R. (2017) What works and why? Student perceptions of ‘useful’ digital technology in university teaching and learning, Studies in Higher Education, 42:8, 1567-1579, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2015.1007946 

Henri, D. C., Morell, L. J. and Scott, G. W. (2018). Student perceptions of their autonomy at University, Higher Education75(3), 507-516.  

Lan, Y. J. (2018) Technology enhanced learner ownership and learner autonomy through creation, Educational Technology Research and Development, 66, 859-862.  

Newman, T., Beetham, H. & Knight, S. (2018) Digital experience insights survey 2018: findings from students in UK further and higher education. JISC, Bristol. 

Panadero, E., Kirschner, P.A., Jarvela, S., Malmberg, J. & Jarvenoja, H. (2015). How Individual Self-Regulation Affects Group Regulation and Performance: A Shared Regulation Intervention, Small Group Research, 46(4), 431-454.


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