Author: Tony Broad – Senior Lecturer in Computer Aided Engineering

A few years ago I decided that I needed to work smarter, not harder.  Technology such as Microsoft Teams helped me with this, and to be honest, with minimum effort…. because I let the students create their own Teams.

A couple of years ago I was asked to deliver a new Engineering Design module.  At its core is a group-based design project for 1st year undergraduates, the design challenge is set each year by the Institution of Mechanical Engineering (IMechE).  Typically, we have cohorts of 150+ students so the question was how to effectively deliver the design challenge, monitor progress and give effective feedback.  My friendly Learning Technologist Colette suggested Microsoft Teams…. The rest is history.

So I would like to share with you my experience using Microsoft Teams over the past two years and how I got students creating their own teams. It has been a very positive experience for both the students and myself, plus it has significantly reduced my workload and I sleep well at night.

I create groups of five students, each student takes on a specific role within the team and I give them a group name that makes it easy for me to identify them (i.e. Monday Team A). Each group then creates their own Microsoft Team, adding each other’s emails and, most importantly, adding me as the Owner of the Team.  The result is over 30+ Teams created, I have all the Admin rights and I didn’t have to do anything; just briefly show them how to use Microsoft Teams.

students work posted to Teams with comments from Tony and the students

I instruct students to post any comments and questions relating to the design project in the General section and tell them specifically not to email me about the project unless it is for personal reasons, my email inbox is significantly reduced these days.  Students quickly discover what Microsoft Teams offers them and it takes little or no guidance for them to start using other aspects of their Teams space. 

Throughout the year students add content, files, photos, designs, tables, images etc. they have meetings outside of lecture time, they can place material orders and communicate with other Staff and Workshop Technicians.  I can easily keep a close eye on things as everything is in one place. 

students have uploaded content to teams.  there is feedback and discussion with students and Tony

Adding Technicians and other Staff means that communication goes beyond their immediate peer group and me. Their Teams environment becomes a dominant factor in the project and their design process. 

But it’s nothing special to the students, it’s just Teams, they quickly familiarise themselves with it and just use it. They are not afraid to explore it.  Students create their own channels for things like parts ordering or for specific elements of the project such as materials, manufacturing, or project management.

Monitoring of progress is relatively easy.  As students add content, their group name goes bold and I can quickly look through any new content. For feedback sometimes all that is needed from me is a simple thumbs-up, sometimes it is more specific comments or guidance.  It’s all feedback as far as students are concerned, and it’s quick, I like to end the day with a clean sheet where I’ve seen any new content, it really doesn’t take much time. I discovered that each Team has a unique ‘email address’ so if I want to post common content to appear on every Team’s page.  I can do it in one hit.

And there’s no more excuses, I used to hear “..my hard drive’s crashed”, “the dog ate my USB..”, “it must have got lost in my emails” “…someone else has got it so I can’t do anything”.  Teams can work on their phones, tablets, computers, either at university, at home or on the street.  All files are kept within Teams, in the cloud, and their assessed report and presentation can be worked on collaboratively, so you see clearly who has contributed what.  Any free-loading students quickly realise their contribution is being monitored, by their peers as well as me.

Folders and files in Teams containing students work

This all sounds rosy with no issues… it’s not perfect but that’s more down to human issues rather than the functionality of the software. Not all groups engage and need to be coerced into adding content, some groups don’t expand beyond the basic chat space and file sharing functions, but this is at least sufficient.  Some teams become dysfunctional and some choose to broadcast it publicly. Some students try to be the hero and do everything. These are issues that we often face in group working anyway, but even in these cases Teams makes it easier to deal with by monitoring groups closely after reconciliation.  I also tell students that their external examiner will have access to their teams page so there’s little or no nonsense or abuse.  Free-loading still happens but this is somewhat reduced by students anonymously Peer marking each other (via Microsoft Forms) so poor contributors are identified and can be penalised.  Sometimes losing a thread where I’d seen something was sometimes problematic but maybe that’s just old age or me not organising myself well enough.

So, I had 35 Teams last year and 32 teams this year (2019-20)  Covid-19 interrupted the final weeks of the manufacturing stage of their project, that said, all groups were able to complete their final reports and continue communicating and producing material for the report. Their Teams environment became somewhat of a lifeline and became even more active after Lockdown.  Reflecting on their Teams page gave them a great sense of how much they had achieved (or not) during the year.

Thanks to Colette and the TELT team in CCL for their continued support, and thanks to Tuesday Team B for allowing me to use screenshots of their Teams page.  They successfully designed, manufactured and tested a machine to accurately throw a squash ball to any point within a 2-6 metre range.  Thanks for reading, hope you found this useful. 


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