Learners working together
Collaboration - bringing learners together

Cultivating collaborations with learner communities in HE

This case study looks at a pilot of Microsoft Teams in a Faculty of Health and Wellbeing.

When students begin their journey, it is vital that they are able to connect with their peers and form meaningful relationships around their studies. For some students this can be challenging and there are a number of different factors that can have effect. Building communities in an ‘asynchronous environment’ enables students to learn at convenient times without having the need to physically host discussions.

The introduction of Microsoft Teams as part of the Office 365 application suite has added a new way for learners to communicate, collaborate and access content online, underpinning scholarly activity. In an age where smartphones are becoming the essential device for students, it is increasingly important to address their needs for instant and more accessible learning. Teams provides a free-to-access mobile/desktop application which all students and staff at our institution automatically have access to through the university’s Office 365 tenancy.

Learners working together
Collaboration – bringing learners together (Photo by Bill Nessworthy, University of Central Lancashire)

Through a Faculty of Health and Wellbeing pilot, we have evaluated its effectiveness in terms of student participation and the way in which learning has become much more accessible and able to take place outside the traditional classroom setting.

The introduction of Teams was able to address two clear concerns for academic staff in relation to the learner experience:

  1. A drop in student engagement with existing chat/discussion tools available via the University’s VLE. Following increasing student expectation in demanding effective use of technology to support and enhance their studies, students are no longer logging into a traditional desktop PC and instead seek much more accessible and instant learning experiences.
  2. The creation of numerous social media sites (e.g. Facebook) linking to academic courses and groups across the university. Usually brought about by students and sometimes staff, they have become increasingly difficult to police with no one quite knowing who has ownership. This leads to inconsistency across the student experience and puts staff and students in a difficult position; What if learners do not have an associated user account to engage with the platform? Supposing they do, what if they still don’t wish to interact with university groups in the same online space where they connect their own private social lives?

Teams promotes digital professionalism and provides an opportunity for learners’ voices to be heard in a secure and private environment, with all content being stored on the Office 365 cloud. The online spaces are managed by academic staff in an ‘owner’ role, giving them full administrative access to any content posted by learners.

The accessible and appealing mobile interface of Teams has helped bring students together with staff, taking learning outside of the traditional ‘classroom’. The student buy-in lies with the parallels drawn between Teams and contemporary social media platforms. They can use the internal chat function to connect with each other privately either through text, voice and video. This removes the potential need to exchange phone numbers, Skype and email addresses – making communication much easier.

The new-look online communities complement the existing University VLE. Cohesion between these two core systems is key to overall engagement for both students and staff.

Microsoft Teams demonstration
Microsoft Teams demonstration in action (photo by Phil McMillan, University of Central Lancashire)

Learning technology support throughout the pilot has proved an essential factor in both staff and student participation. Initial in-class Teams induction with tech support allows students to familiarize themselves with the technology and resolve any technical queries and concerns at initial participation.

The creation of a Faculty level ‘Digital Learning Community’ in Teams has provided opportunity for colleagues to interact, engage and share good practice in using the application. This has generated the confidence needed for colleagues to successfully embed Teams into the student learning experience.

There is clear evidence from initial student feedback suggesting a positive impact. Students recognise the ease of access and particularly appealing ‘social-media feel’ of the platform.

Here are some of the things that students particularly liked about using Teams as part of their module:

“I can use it anywhere and I am able to share information quickly.”

“It’s handy for supervision; I don’t have to travel to University.”

“Accessibility and group support from peers.”

“Keeping in touch and sharing ideas. It’s easy to use and navigate.”

“The phone app is so easy to access! It’s useful for sharing information and seeking support.”

“It’s good to get to know people before I started.“

“Teams has allowed me to keep track of stages on the module and share questions or answers.”

“Discussions could continue from lectures and it enabled group supervision at any time.”

“Everyone is on the same page.”

“Very good for communicating with lecturers.”

In conclusion, Microsoft Teams is helping us to communicate, collaborate and share content with learners and colleagues, and is encouraging digital professionalism.




Chris MeliaChris Melia

University of Central Lancashire

CMelia@uclan.ac.uk, @ChrisLearnTech


Editor’s comment:

We would love to hear from anyone else who is using any kind of institutionally-owned social media platform where their students and staff can collaborate alongside the VLE. Questions arising from this post include: Are there any issues or concerns around who owns the content that students (and staff) post on such platforms? What happens when students complete their degree or leave the institution – do they retain access to their contributions (and the contributions of their peers and tutors)? And what are the pros and cons of students having access to an institutionally-owned platform where they are encouraged to have private conversations with peers? (E.g. Is there a risk of some students setting up groups that exclude others?) If you want to tell your story about similar successes or concerns from your institutional context, please feel free to comment below – or submit your own post as a response/follow-up to what Chris has shared.

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