Sunday 12 November 2017

Teams v Classroom - when worlds collide - Part 4

This is the final part of a multi-part post that examines the new Microsoft Teams for Education with reference to Google Classroom. This post focuses on mobile and provides an overall summary.

Part 4: Teams for Education on mobile devices.
Like Classroom, MS Teams has a set of mobile apps that provide a native experience on both Android and iOS.

Mobile is an important element of the overall strategy as Classroom is often used as a bridging technology across iOS and Windows devices. For those schools firmly embedded with Microsoft this  can act as an initial introduction to Google which this is a situation Microsoft is keen to avoid.
This highlights another key difference between the platforms.  Although Classroom is closely integrated with GMail - it’s also loosely coupled, which is a very clever trick.  This means that Classroom can be deployed using Office365/Exchange as the mail engine. The only core requirement is Google Drive and Classroom itself.
Teams for Education doesn’t have a specialist app, it just Teams along with Sharepoint, OneNote and OneDrive. On mobile it's a bit of a cooperative effort.

The Teams app only runs on  iOS10 which means there's no support for either the iPad2 or the iPad3.

This isn’t an problem in the corporate world but schools with class sets of the Gen3 models will need to plan for an upgrade.

Testing with the Android version lists the Teams and the corresponding channels in a functional, clean looking interface.

A Teacher gets the ability to create, delete and edit channels.  Students can be added and removed from the Team and muted from the chat.

From the students viewpoint they can list the Teams and contribute to the conversation thread in each channel. However there’s no visibility of the assignment calendar or any way to interact with the document store, in this respect the app acts mainly a messaging client.

Loading the SharePoint app displays the documents but there's still no Assignment calendar and as you might expect the Notebooks are only available using the OneNote app (below).

Falling back to the web interface is not option as both iOS and Android devices return an unsupported message when navigating to the Teams URL.

I suppose the conclusion is that it’s all there (except the calendar) but you just have to look for it.

Microsoft Teams: The End of Year Report Card.

Microsoft Teams for Education wouldn’t exist without the challenge of Classroom and it’s clear that first release is closely modeled on its main competitor.

This is both a good and a bad thing. Google has taken three years, a ton of feedback and dozens of minor iterations to slowly evolve Classroom into the platform we see today.  In contrast Microsoft has been forced to hit the ground running, trying to deliver a product which is  a marriage of a number of different technologies.

In this respect Classroom is similar. It’s build on top of Google Drive, Calendar, and Gmail but it doesn’t feel like that, it works and operates like a stand alone product. Teams on the other hand still looks and feels like a ‘mash-up’. The joins between OneDrive and Sharepoint are clearly visible and are glued together by elements such as the Calendar Assignments view which doesn't seem to live anywhere.

Teams also shows its business pedigree by including a number of features and configuration settings that are likely to ‘exploited’ by students.  I’m not sure what Meetings and Calls is supposed to add to a classroom environment ?

On the whole it just feels a bit disjointed, files are stored in multiple locations (Sharepoint sites and OneDrive), scheduling is  only visible in Teams, the workflow around assignments is a bit strange, the mobile strategy is still evolving and some key management functions are missing.

I can see Teams working with older year groups who have the patience to understand how all the elements fit together but for younger pupils, it’s just not that easy to use.  In the workplace you can get away with this level of complexity but in education simplicity wins every time.

In its defense you have to remember that is a early release and looking back to Classroom version one which was a bare bones product when it was first launched, it’s not a bad attempt.

There’s no doubt that Microsoft are playing catch-up but is also a game they have played many times before and emerged successful.

So how committed are Microsoft to producing an integrated platform to take on Classroom?  You'll know this time next year.

Update: 17th November 2017:

This time next year - or maybe earlier.

Microsoft has just announced a raft of updates and planned improvements to Teams for Education.

It looks like the Team mobile client will be getting an update to allow it to access assignments and the Assignments calendar is getting an agenda view with a search function, which is a big plus.

A future update will allow teacher to distribute assignments to multiple Classes as well as adding grading support for OneNote and a range of other features. 

Check out the Microsoft post for the full list.

Wednesday 8 November 2017

Teams v Classroom - when worlds collide - Part 3

This is the third part of a multi-part post that looks at Microsoft Teams with reference to Google Classroom. This post examines the role of Assignments.

Part 3: Assignments.
Assignments is a tool for teachers to create distribute, track and review student work that duplicates the a similar capability in Google Classroom.  In both platforms the basic workflow is the same and follows the paper trail common in most schools.

The teacher has the ability to set a task against a turn-in date which can be linked to resource such as a worksheet or a document template. Documents are automatically duplicated into each student's workspace and can be edited collaboratively using features such as commenting and chat.

Students have a turn-in option that returns the work to the teacher who can monitor the status in a dashboard view. The assignment can be marked and returned to the student with the platform controlling the process throughout.

The first thing that strikes you about Assignments is that up until now Teams have largely been organised through Channels but Assignments only work at the General level. There doesn’t appear to be anyway to link them to a channel/stream or classify them in the way that Labels work in Google Classroom.

So to create an Assignment you select the Assignment tab on the General channel and select “New Assignment”.

After naming the the Assignment, teachers can set a turn-in date, allocate a grading scale and attach resources. Reference materials are a common document set shared with all members of the team. Each Assignment can be allocated a set of MS Office documents that act as templates or worksheets which are duplicated for each student account. Only MS Office documents are accepted, copied from local storage or OneDrive, but not custom cloud storage at this point.

The Assignment can be saved as a draft but currently lacks the schedule option found in Classroom. Also in this early release there doesn’t appear to be any way to copy or reuse an assignment or issue the same assignment across multiple teams.

There’s also no way of supporting differentiated learning in Teams - other than a creating another Team. When an assignment is set it goes to all members of the team without the ability to limit the distribution to a subset of students.

Once set the task appears on the Teams calendar view (below) which acts as dashboard for all the assignments in the Team. This arrangement has a few interesting features.

Each assignment must have a turn-in date because without a date there’s no way to pin it to the calendar view.  Even if the task is open ended it must have a date and simply giving it a date well into the future requires the students to scroll forward in order to find it as there's no agenda style view. I suspect the short term solution is to set a recent time and date and then set “Late hand-in allowed”.

Because the Assignment dashboard is a calendar, the view of upcoming work for students shows every task pinned to the day before submission.

If a teacher sets work for Wednesday 8th November it’s visible in the student calendar on Tuesday 7th November. Unless the student gets into the habit of scrolling forward through the five day view to get some idea of upcoming deadlines he/she could be in for some surprises and possibly a few late nights.

The second point is that unlike Classroom, the Team assignment calendar does not currently update personal calendars.

You can gain a view of assignments across multiple teams from the Assignment icon on main menu, which works the same way for both student and teacher but this information can only be accessed from the Teams interface.

Opening up an Assignment from the calendar view displays a dialog which allows a Teacher to delete or amend any of the properties; including the title, turn-in date and the attachment set.

The Review button displays a dashboard that lists the status each student Assignment and a links to the working document set (below). Anybody familiar with Google Classroom will be completely at home with this style of presentation..

Like Classroom the document icon provides a link which allows the assignment to be edited collaboratively by both student and teacher. Using this on a student Chromebook with Office webapps works very well, with features such a in-document commenting and chat, creating an experience very close to Classroom.

However it’s important to realise that all this work takes place within the Teams sharepoint site - these files do not reside the students OneDrive. To work on the assignment requires Teams or Sharepoint Online which isn’t a problem but may need explaining to students (and staff).

Each student has a calendar view of the assignment that gives then access to all the resources needed to complete the task including a templated Office document (Word/Excel/Powerpoint) which can be worked on collaboratively up until the point of submission.

An assignment is Turned-in using the custom button on the main assignment dialog (above).  The teacher sees this action in the dashboard view as completed work with a time/date stamp.

Google Classroom handles this activity by changing permissions on the document. The student gets read only access and the teachers maintains edit rights.  While the assessment is in the teachers electronic ‘in tray’ the student cannot update the document.

Microsoft approaches the same problem by duplicating the document, giving both students and teacher update access to two completely separate documents. Interestingly the student maintains the right to turn-in the document multiple times up until the submission date. Every time the student hits Turn-In another version of the document is created in the Teams Sharepoint site. The teacher will always see the latest document in the dashboard but any comments or updates made to the earlier version by the teacher will be lost to view.
You can see the workflow in action by opening up the Team as a Sharepoint site. The assignments files are stored under the Site Content menu option and the the Student Work subsite.
From here you see two further sub-sites. The first is for working files where each student has a separate subsite containing a  sub-site for each assignment. These are the working documents for the assignment.
The second is for Submitted Files, with the same structure except each student assignment has a new sub-site called “Version n” which is created with a copy of the source document every time the student hits the Turn-In button. The teacher will always work on the most up to date version - until a new one is created.
Unfortunately with two versions of the same file it’s a little too easy for the workflow to get out of step. There’s very little point in a teacher commenting or amending the student file prior to the turn-in date as the student can ‘overwrite’ the feedback at any point by simply by hitting the ‘turn-in’ button and creating a new version for the teacher to assess. All the amendments in the first submission are lost to the student because they were made in the teacher's copy of the file which the student only get’s to see when it’s returned.

The action to return the work to the student is initiated from the Post button at the Teachers review dialog.

Any student assignment that has been graded is automatically selected which allows the work to be marked and returned in batches which is a useful feature. The teacher is also given the option to provide feedback in a separate input field.

The student sees the grade, the feedback and the updated status in the personal assignment view along with a link to the assessed document. The file version that’s returned to the student is the teacher mark-up in read-only mode. The teacher edits are visible as well as the feedback dialog but the comments are lost. From this point the editable version is not selectable from the student Teams interface. It just disappears from view.

Returning to the calendar view and selecting the document only returns the read-only Teacher version. There doesn't appear to be any way for the student to continue to work on the active document or re-submit for marking. Once the assignment is returned, it’s closed off.

The student can gain access to the editable version but only by dropping into the sharepoint site and navigating to

      <Team Name>  / Working Files / <student > / <assignment >/<document>

It seems odd that student work is editable after it’s been submitted but read-only once it’s been returned. Surely it should be the other way round?

Lastly, from a practical viewpoint there are some functional omissions from this release that I expect to see in future updates.

 - Teachers must to be able to export the grade marks or feedback into a spreadsheet for analysis or import back into an MIS/SIS database. This is popular feature in Google's Classroom offering and need to be addressed without involving a Powershell script.

 - There needs to be some way to manage the lifecycle of a Team. As you create more and more Teams they simply stack up on the console. Other than deleting the Team there is no way to hide or archive a Team. Deleting a Team only removes the Office 365 group. The Sharepoint site remains, as does all the data files and user accounts so this could be used as an option in the short term.

 - As mentioned earlier you cannot issue an assignment to a sub-set of your Team which makes differentiated learning an issue.

If I was to Turn-in Teams I think the assessment workflow element deserves a score of 60% with the feedback being “could do better”.

In the last post we’ll take a look at the cross platform mobile support and give a summary.


Saturday 4 November 2017

Teams v Classroom - when worlds collide - Part 2

This is the second part of a multi-part post that looks at the new Microsoft Teams for Education with reference to Google Classroom and shows how they can be used in combination.

Part 2: Using Teams.

Both Google Classroom and MS Teams can be accessed through a web interface ( and In addition Teams has a locally installed windows application which looks and acts very much like the web version which is a nice integration.

Logging into Teams for the first time displays a similar interface for both the student and the teacher. Google has opted for a ‘chunky’ tile style portal which allows user to easily move in and out each classroom while the Microsoft interface displays each Team as a ‘mini-tile' within an integrated dashboard.

Any Microsoft account granted Team access from the Office365 admin portal can create a Team. However an account with the Office 365 A1 for faculty licence is presented with an additional set of templates (below) that customises the Team for classroom use while a student just gets a standard dialog.

Not surprisingly the basic unit of organization is the Team which can contain both teacher and student accounts.

The meatball icon after the Team name gives you access to all the core management features including the ability to add members and update some Team settings.

As you might expect only Teachers get access to the management options.

The Add Members option gives you a dialog with a Settings tab.

As the Team is already templated for class use you can leave the majority of the settings unchanged with the possible exception of “Only owners can post messages” which mimics the “Only teachers can post or Comment” in Classroom.

The Theme section gives you access to a fixed set of icons that you can use to replace the standard tile graphic. These are not customisable at the moment.

One advantage of changing the tile graphic is that is shows up in the details dialog in the Office365 group management dashboard which could be useful in identifying the item as a Team rather than a standard group.

Adding students to a Team is a simple as picking an account or an existing group from a list.

Note: It has to be an Office365 team or a Distribution Group, a security group does not work in this context. 
The process ‘seeds’ the new Team using the accounts in the  group. Adding or removing members from the original Office 365 group does not affect Team membership. There isn't yet an equivalent of the “Class Code” option that’s available with Google Classroom however for larger implementation you might expect Teams to be linked directly into the school SIS/MIS system for ease of management. Like Classroom there are third party tools that will do this and a free utility provided by Microsoft.

When you create a Team this automatically creates a General channel. Channels allow you to keep conversations and workflows focused to specific subject area within the Team . You can dedicate channels to specific topics within the class using the Add Channel menu item.

Each channel can host a conversation,  a file section and a notebook.

The conversation section represents a chat area dedicated to the specific channel and has some interesting properties including an email address which can be accessed from the meatball menu to the right of the channel description. This allows you to post from an external email account right into the stream. This option to display the email address of the stream is also available to the student which is a little surprising since it opens the the door to the possibly of anonymous postings.

You can turn this feature off (it’s on by default) from the Office36 Console from Settings - Services and add-ins - Microsoft Teams - Email integration. Any inbound email to the channel address will now be bounced but like everything in the console it’s is a tenant level policy only.

Other than the external address the conversation is restricted to the members of the Team in the same way that the chat function in Classroom operates. The conversation can incorporate attachments from other cloud storage accounts including Google Drive and Dropbox which is definitely a nice feature.

Also the ability to add giphy, smilies, emojis and stickers certainly adds to the fun factor but may not be appropriate in all circumstances. You can control these functions from the console (for the whole organisation) or at the Team level by accessing the options from the Manage Team - Settings dialog.

Outside of the Conversation settings for each Team there is a general Chat facility that allows a student to set up a private message group which can contain any other user within the organisation. It can be accessed through the Chat icon in the left hand menu bar.

If this sound like something you’d like to avoid within your school, a control for this can be found in Settings - Services and add-ins - Microsoft Teams, Messaging section in the Office365 admin console (below).

If the option is turned off the Chat icon is removed from member sessions but is retained for Team Owners.

However like all console setting this option operates at the organizational/tenant level only.

The Files sections of a channel provides access to a dedicated SharePoint site related to the topic.  A Microsoft Office document saved to this area is available all team members and documents can be opened and worked on collaboratively using the Office Online web tools. Like GSuite the Office Online web tools provide a Chat facility for users actively editing the file and all of this works very well on a Chromebook.

With this in mind the option to add Cloud Storage to the storage site provides some intriguing possibilities.

The screenshot above shows a GSuite Classroom folder mapped into the File section of a Team Channel allowing you navigate through the folder tree and open and edit a Google Doc (below) in exactly the same way as if you were working with Google Drive - which of course you are because it’s just another web session.

Google Drive isn’t the only storage option, you can enable other suppliers for the Team admin section in the console, but the same limitation applies - it’s a organizational level setting.

So where does OneDrive fit into all of this?

The answer as the storage option for the whole site, working outside of the Channels and any individual Team you might create. OneDrive sits under the File option on the main menu bar and acts as the default personal document store for the student. But if you enable Google Drive it can also join OneDrive on the menu bar pretty much as an equal partner.

This all may look a little strange but it works fine. Office Docs in Google Drive open in read only mode but Google docs work as you would expect, or at least it did on my Chromebook. You don’t get to see the Drive artefacts such as Recent, Shared with Me or any of the search features. The option to edit the documents Share details is also disabled but other than that it’s just like any normal GSuite editing session.

OneNote has been used as a collaborative tool in MS based schools for a number of years now and has a well established workflow based on a shared workbook principle. Teams doesn’t really add to it’s functionally but simply incorporates it into the framework of a Team channel.

In this respect a channel is essentially three elements brought together with a single set of access permissions.
  • Notes: A OneNote notebook with the teacher as the owner stored in Sharepoint.
  • Files: A Sharepoint Site.
  • Conversations: A hidden directory in Team storage (Conversation History\Team Chat) which is replicated to an Exchange Group Mailbox for compliance purposes.

The power of Teams is that every time a Channel is created all these resources are automatically setup and managed as a unit going forward.

The fact that Teams is built on top of Sharepoint is not hidden and indeed the meatball menu provides the option of opening the Team directly in the Sharepoint interface (above) which gives you additional facilities including the ability of importing existing Notebooks into a channel.

Another advantage of opening up the Sharepoint interface is that it gives you an insight into how Teams actually work. This is particularly useful when we look at the workflow around Assignments, which is covered in the next post.

Continue: >