As Care Leaver Co-ordinator for UK Student Recruitment, I had my first experience of leading Microsoft (MS) Teams sessions over the summer; ‘Preparation for University’ webinars for external offer holders. Using MS Teams with these participants has prompted me to reflect on how I can support engagement, through my actions in advance of and during online sessions. I am sharing what I have learned from my early experience of using MS Teams, as this may be useful to colleagues working with diverse groups of students and supporting students in this new, unfamiliar, environment of blended learning.
New to using Microsoft Teams, and still developing my understanding of privacy and boundaries in online teaching, I wanted to provide external offer holders with the opportunity to maintain a degree of confidentiality when joining Microsoft Teams sessions and to be supported in actively participating. Significantly, my sessions included students who may have been under 18 and potentially under a Child Protection Order. Whilst care leavers are not a protected category under the Equity Act, their identity as a care-experienced student could be classified as sensitive data under GDPR and, consequently, it was important to do as much as possible to enable confidentiality to this group of students. I was also aware that students might not want their backgrounds to be seen and open to scrutiny, which may make students more reluctant to turn on their camera in online sessions.
What I did pre-session
To address these concerns, I wanted to provide participants with information that I hoped would encourage them to join the Microsoft Teams webinar including raising advance awareness of the ability to join anonymously and how to make use of a virtual background.* It appears that joining MS Teams through the app means that individuals are identifiable by full name, whereas joining online, via a browser, gives individuals the chance to choose the name that appears when they join the meeting. Furthermore, through introducing students to the use of virtual backgrounds, I hoped they might be more inclined to have their videos turned on if they were aware of the option to manage their background.
I designed a PowerPoint** to include in the webinar email invitation, which also included the link to the MS Teams meeting. I wanted to keep the PowerPoint concise and clear, including screenshots so that the participants could visualise what things look like, as well as focusing on keeping the tone informal and friendly. The PowerPoint included an image of me, with my virtual background; designed to encourage participants by making the guidance appear more personal and welcoming.
What I have learned about supporting students in-session:
- Attendees at my webinars were not familiar with Microsoft Teams. Many had no experience of joining online sessions in an academic or study context, so it’s important we don’t assume students have experience of online learning.
- Students definitely need some instruction on how to use MS Teams (where to find ‘hands up’, ‘backgrounds’, chat and emojis).
- Give students the time to turn their microphones on and off.
- Invite students to turn on their video cameras but be understanding of different Wi-Fi connections and that it might not be possible for them to do so.
- Even if the video camera is off, still give students the opportunity to comment – most did when prompted.
- Students joining via a mobile phone will have a different experience and so will you. (They think that you can see their face – because they can – but in reality, you will mostly see their chin!)
- Anyone moving around whilst holding a tablet or phone will be extremely distracting, so it’s best to ask them to turn off their camera until they are in a position where the camera is static.
- It’s useful to remind students about the potential use of their virtual background. However, remember that students joining through the web browser will not have the same options with regards to backgrounds as when joining through the app.
- Don’t expect to be able to transfer a normal PowerPoint presentation to an online teaching session – it’s boring and flat unless it’s really short, or your presentation slides have lots of interactive questions e.g. using Mentimeter.
- Interaction will take longer than you expect. To have an effective learning session you might need to look at splitting the content over two sessions or to think about the blended learning approach. Can you provide preparatory material as a video for students to view before the session, or as an activity to complete following the class?
- It’s better to have a more relaxed session where you can invite different people to present their thoughts and experiences in whichever way they can participate.
- It’s extremely helpful to have someone monitor the chat who you can ask to speak for a few minutes to give yourself a rest / take a sip of water – think about how you can make use of students as chat champions.
Teaching online is completely different to teaching in a classroom but it can be done! When it’s working well, you’ll know it and it’s a whole other experience which has great potential for the future!
Care Leaver Coordinator, UK Student Recruitment
University of Greenwich
*Student and Staff guidance on joining MS Teams sessions anonymously, and making use of virtual backgrounds, is available here.
**The PowerPoint is available to University of Greenwich staff on Section 3.4 of the ABLE Moodle site. Colleagues are welcome to adapt it for future use.