Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Microsoft Teams, Class Notebooks, 200 students and 11 teachers in Vladivostok

I'm currently delivering the 3rd year of the Global Scientific Dialogue course in Vladivostok with wonderful colleagues at the Far Eastern Federal University, led by Elena Suvorova.  We did it first face-to-face in 2018 (see This time it's online and in Microsoft Teams. I have to say, Teams feels like a real advance in educational technology. Yes, it's Microsoft, with all its big corporate evilness. But.. this is a new way of doing teaching and learning, because it is a different kind of technical architecture.  Since my day-job has involved rolling-out Canvas, that might seem a surprising thing to say. Canvas has some strong points (its API!), but it remains a web-based, centralised Content Management System. Which is fine... but it constrains the educational practice around content delivery.

Teams can work a bit like Canvas - you can use its file storage mechanisms to deliver content. And if you try to do this, you would think Canvas is much better because it makes things look prettier. But you'd be missing the point.

The best bits in Teams are the ways that it distributes documents to students (or other team members). Each individual gets their own personal copy of a document, but if you are a teacher, the student's document is also viewable and editable by you as a teacher. This is new. In a content-management system, the system administrator, or the person who "owns" the course, owns the documents (with perhaps a few exceptions). In Teams, the users own their documents.

Perhaps there's not as much user-ownership as I would like, but it's a start. What can we do with this educationally?

Well, first it means that each user-owned document is a vehicle for personal conversation and dialogue with a teacher - or even other learners. In order to take advantage of that, we need a pedagogy which promotes personalised learning.

Global Scientific Dialogue always aimed at personalised learning - the idea was to take students through a set of "rooms" with different activities, tools and objects to get them to reflect on their own learning needs, career wishes, etc. Face-to-face there was lots of post-it notes and flip-chart paper... which was fine (good in fact). But online it's better.

Now the course is focused on "tools". The content of the course, as much as there is any, is themed around using tools and understanding what new tools mean - particularly AI, data analysis tools, simulation tools, creativity tools, etc. There are amazing tools out there, and since everyone is staring at their personal computers, they can download and play with these tools together! That's been a revelation. 

Then we need assignments to get the students to reflect on their experiences, and what they think these tools might mean for the future - particularly in a  post-COVID world (a number of them are studying tourism, or international trade, or other subjects which are vulnerable to severe disruption) 

Teams handles assignments by distributing documents, but tracking the workflow. Basically, it sees an assignment as a transaction which can bounce between a teacher and a learner. Assignments can be set up so that a learner is sent a document containing instructions on what they are to do (this can be a multimedia document of course), and the learner can either edit this document with their response, or attach other documents when they submit their assignment. 

So basically, I divided 200 students into 11 teams, with a teacher overseeing 17-22 students, being able to track the transactions of the assignments between the student and the teachers. 

Into these assignments, students can write, but they can also capture video from their small-group discussions and paste the video into their submissions. They can also download and edit these videos and include other things from the course (for example, AI-generated music or art). 

Face-to-face, the need for small-group activity meant that we needed to divide the students into small classes, each coordinated by a teacher. Online this has proven to be less necessary - we still divide the students for their activities into smaller teams (we have set up 1 main team and 11 small teams), but it is possible to get 200 students actively involved in using tools and experimenting all in one go online. I've made extensive use of Microsoft Forms to break-up delivery, and this is an exercise we did today in using Google's Deep Dream generator... For the first day, we asked the students to bring something "to make a noise", and got them to make a John-Cage like musical happening as a warm-up!

It's running until the end of next week, and we have a special "experts day" to come, alongside sessions on Data processing (I'm doing something with Kaggle), simulation (NetLogo), and knots. But so far so good - particularly for the technology.

What is fascinating me is that the technology presents a different set of constraints around teaching and learning, and with those, new ways of coordinating conversations becomes possible. Of course, I don't want to be tied to Microsoft, but frankly, this is almost a peer-to-peer delivery system which could have a variety of different back-ends as an alternative to Microsoft's - blockchain/IPFS anyone??

No comments: