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Published November 1, 2020 | Multidisciplinary

Working as a Team at a Distance (part 1). Teams: a Single Ecosystem Bringing Together All Collaborative Functions

Teamwork is often not easy for college students. In order to truly collaborate, rather than simply separate the work to be done, students need to form a cohesive and committed team. This is difficult enough when students are in the same room, but in a distance or hybrid learning environment, they are separated from each other and often don't know how to move forward effectively.

In this featured report, we present considerations and good practices to facilitate teamwork at a distance. Then, we contextualize these practices by presenting the Microsoft Teams digital environment.

Concepts

Whether in the context of a distance, hybrid or in-person course, college students are increasingly conducting their teamwork at a distance in order to accommodate their schedule constraints, obligations and other limitations of physical presence on campus. Although students use virtual collaboration tools for personal and social needs, they are not always able to transfer this knowledge into the context of their studies. Distance teamwork must therefore be planned so that students learn how to manage virtual team environments and make optimal use of the digital tools at their disposal. To this end, a self-positioning tool [in French] allows you to take an introspective look at the type and amount of interactive activities offered students, at a distance and face to face.

In today's organizational environments, teamwork is a core competency. However, the ability to work in a team must be learned. It is not always easy or natural to create synergy among team members. Several studies have shown that teamwork is not an easy task when approached face-to-face; working at a distance adds additional challenges. Certainly, virtual teams overcome the time and space constraints often associated with traditional teamwork. However, they also face obstacles:

  • learning and management of multiple online platforms
  • limited technological capabilities
  • lack of time to properly appropriate technological tools
  • lack of organizational and collaborative skills in a digital environment

Knowing one’s teammates

If the students don't meet (or not often) in the same physical space, it is obvious that they don't know each other well enough to create a bond of trust and work together effectively:

  • Without knowing the interests, strengths and weaknesses of each team member, the allocation of roles will be random. This can make the work division more difficult and may even become ambiguous later on, especially if something unexpected happens. This can affect the level of cooperation and collaboration of some individuals and have a significant impact on team performance.
  • The combination of different personality types can result in different work priorities and communication styles. This can be exacerbated in a team where students from different cultures, ages, and programs work together. Depending on the type of motivation (intrinsic or extrinsic) that individuals derive from doing the work, conflicts may emerge in virtual work teams.
  • The perceived anonymity effect can lead to some team members feeling that the team is doing enough and that they do not need to contribute or push themselves. Imbalance in workload creates frustration within the team, as some members often make up for the shortfall by working harder, rather than addressing the problem itself.
  • Students are more likely to work in silos; they focus more on the outcome than the process of the work and neglect tasks such as

Facilitate forming teams

Icebreakers and team-building activities are effective distance and face-to-face learning activities. Emphasizing the importance of the different skills of teammates is valuable to students.

  • An article published on Profweb presents a range of icebreaker activities suitable for distance learning and contains several relevant complementary resources.
  • The Flipgrid video discussion forum platform allows students to produce a short video to introduce themselves in a user-friendly way and take the time to learn about their classmates. This step is more difficult to achieve in a live presentation activity during a videoconference session and can become redundant if students are asked to write their description in a class forum for each of their courses.
  • Applications such as Keamk allow the teacher to form balanced teams based on certain parameters in order to promote peer support. For example:
    • gender parity
    • the level of knowledge of the students on a subject
    • the technical skill level of the students
    • Thus, a student with advanced technical skills can train his or her teammates on the tool they will be using in order to more easily create a positive team dynamic, in addition to promoting social learning.

Getting off to a good start

Distance collaboration becomes problematic when students choose not to participate on an equal basis with other members of their team or to avoid responsibilities agreed upon by the team. The conditions for teamwork must make each member responsible for his or her fair share of the work in order for the group to succeed.

Once the teams have been formed, a best practices guide for distance collaboration can be provided to students. This document gives the teams the responsibility of ensuring that the collaboration runs smoothly by sharing with them the teacher's expectations regarding the various aspects of teamwork. This will allow the students to learn about, but also determine :

  • a common objective to achieve the expected result
  • the various roles in a work team
  • recommended rules of functioning
  • the work schedule
  • how to communicate with the teacher and manage conflicts
  • the planning of technical tasks :
    • Choosing collaboration tools to simplify remote work by taking into account the heterogeneity of individuals' digital skills.
    • Autonomously becoming familiar with the platforms and tools chosen by the team.
    • Solve technical problems by mobilizing internal and external resources.
    • Grant sharing rights on cloud-based platforms.

The teacher can also provide the students with a team agreement to be completed, which includes :

  • Roles and responsibilities of each person (based on assignment instructions)
  • the common availability of the team members
  • the team's rules of functioning
  • a declaration of intellectual integrity to be signed by all members attesting that all individuals have contributed fairly to the work submitted and that it contains no trace of plagiarism. The teacher may request that this document, completed and signed by the team members, be attached to the assignment.

Technological considerations

The choice of technology for teamwork can be a real headache for students, many of whom need to learn a work method to use technology effectively. Students can expect teachers to advise them at this level, as managing and appropriating different digital tools can become complex for students for several reasons :

  • The level of digital competence of individuals and their motivation to learn digital tools is very heterogeneous in a team. The students’ perception of a digital tool has an impact on the learning approach [in French] they adopt. Therefore, depending on how technologies are perceived and used, they can become a lever or a barrier to learning.
    • A student with an intrinsic motivation to learn who also has technical skills will tend to be more confident and proactive.
    • A student with an extrinsic motivation, feeling helpless because he or she has little or no technical skills, may feel the need to be guided by peers and the teacher.

The model of Carliner and Driscoll (2019) distinguishes 5 skills levels of digital competency

  • Not all students have the same computer equipment.
    • Applications pre-selected by the teacher or chosen by the team may be unavailable or incompatible with some operating systems.
    • Some students with special needs may need to install additional digital tools on their computers that are adapted to their particular needs.
  • A growing number of students are concerned about protecting their digital identity and leaving as few traces as possible on the web.
    • Creating an account to use an application sometimes requires entering their personal information such as date of birth, a phone number or a credit card for a trial version.
    • Some students are not present on social networks, change their name so that they cannot be easily tracked, or hide their profile in search results to become "invisible" on the web.
    • Some students do not wish to share their personal contact information (phone number, personal email address) with their teammates. Others, such as international students, have restrictions on the use of specific data or platforms.

A platform or tool chosen for teamwork will therefore have to:

  • be intuitive and relatively easy to learn
  • be compatible with a maximum number of electronic devices
  • protect the privacy of students by not invading their personal sphere.

In order not to spread out (which is detrimental to effective collaboration), and not to multiply platforms and tools (each one requiring learning and, often, the creation of a user account), it is recommended to choose tools that make it possible to group together several tasks related to the work to be done. In the following section, we present a platform that meets these criteria: Teams. In a future second part of this report, we will present the functionalities of Moodle and Omnivox.

Pedagogical practices: Teams

Microsoft Teams is a platform originally designed for remote collaborative work. All tasks related to teamwork can be performed there. Students can create all of their teams, so they have a single platform to learn and manage.

In this technological environment that promotes socio-constructivist learning, students can develop a range of cross-disciplinary skills by making optimal use of digital technology:

  • communicate and help each other
  • organize and plan
  • analyze and develop critical thinking skills
  • create and co-construct

Teams is linked to SharePoint, which hosts all the content added in a team and creates a history of the actions performed by the team members. In order for students to use the platform optimally, it is necessary to support them, for example by providing them with :

Installing the Teams application on desktop and cell phone can be recommended to students so they can access information faster and receive notifications of new messages.

The range of options available is slightly less elaborate on Mac than on PC. However, regular updates are provided by Microsoft.

It is best to give students enough time to become familiar with the platform. In order to facilitate access to knowledge about inclusiveness, a webinar and a resource page are available on the Microsoft Education website.

Creating a team and communicating effectively with teammates in the different sections of Teams

Once the groups have been formed, the student in charge can create a team and invite teammates using their school email address. The teacher could distribute the infographics Tips for Successful Online Meetings (Conseils pour bien réussir une rencontre en ligne [in French]) and Tips for Successful Video Meetings (Conseils pour bien réussir une rencontre vidéo [in French]) to guide students in preparing for their meetings, as well as their summative evaluations in the form of individual or team interviews. An online code of conduct can also be provided by the teacher.

The Teams interface

Posts section

The Posts section greatly reduces email exchanges, as it can be used as a team forum to post general messages to the group.

A good practice is for the student to first drop a document into the appropriate folder in the Files section, then create a publication and use the option to link the document to it. This allows the documents that are correctly filed in the Files section to be found in the appropriate sub-folders, in order to maintain a consistent filing system.

Students can format their posts. It is recommended to identify each person concerned with the @ symbol, so they can be notified.

In this section, the team leader can add surveys with the Forms application, for example to determine the availability of members for team meetings.

Chat feature

The Chat feature can also replace email, as it can be used to start a first team conversation to set up the first meeting.

This feature allows certain members of a team to share documents in private. These files are uploaded to the Files menu located in the left sidebar of Teams, where they can be quickly retrieved.

When they are invited to a meeting, students receive a notification in their email and, if they have downloaded the application, a number will appear on the Teams icon on their cell phone.

Calls and Meet features

The Call feature allows someone to spontaneously call one or more teammates (or the teacher) in private. Teammates can use the Join Meeting feature to join a scheduled meeting or start a spontaneous meeting.

The OneNote notebook can be used for note-taking during meetings, since this task can be done collaboratively. For a formal agenda and minutes, it is best to use Word instead of OneNote and create a folder architecture in the Files section.

Video meetings make it easier to work collaboratively and simultaneously in one document in the Files section.

To get a verbatim record of the meetings and make note-taking easier, a Word document can be created and the Dictate tool can be activated to transcribe the discussions. However, it is necessary for everyone to have a headset with a microphone for best results. It is possible that the option to record the meeting has been deactivated by the college.

The whiteboard in screen sharing during a meeting makes it possible to explain a concept using an image, to schematize a concept or to work in collaboration with teammates. The result can be exported as an image and integrated into the team's notebook or PowerPoint.

Calendar feature

Team meetings can be created by the team leader (who becomes the project manager). He or she can include a tentative agenda in the invitation and invite all teammates.

Each meeting can be filed in the General channel so everyone can later find the discussion thread and resources exchanged during the meeting.

It may be suggested that students access the team meetings with their tablet or cell phone so they can work in full screen on their computer.

Each student can be asked to add their course schedule and block times when they are not available in their Outlook calendar. This allows the team leader to use the Scheduling Wizard option to quickly find out when everyone is available.

The team leader can invite the teacher to a Teams meeting (and vice versa) and share their screen to explain, for example:

  • the progress of their work
  • a portion of the assignment
  • a problem

Universal accessibility considerations

The Immersive Reader tool that promotes accessibility is available in all sections of Teams. This option can remove barriers to on-screen reading and comprehension of information.

During Teams meetings, the option for live captions can be activated, as well as the option for translation.

Create a schedule and follow up using the Planner application

Once the teacher has distributed the assignment instructions, the distribution of roles and tasks for each teammate can be set out in the team agreement that everyone will sign and give to the teacher. Assignment instructions can be added to the OneNote team notebook. It may be advisable for students to specify the name of the team leader and to assign shared tasks such as writing parts of the assignment, as well as individual tasks, such as:

  • the layout
  • verification of quotations and bibliography
  • correction of texts
  • the submission of the assignment

Subsequently, the tasks, deadlines and delivery date can be integrated into Planner as illustrated in this article. Unlike Trello (available as an application in Teams), Planner will send students an automated reminder a few times a week with a list of their respective tasks that are due in the next days and those that are overdue so they can avoid oversights and agree on new deadlines.

A graph can be generated at any time to check if the distribution of tasks remains balanced among all. This graph could even be added to the assignment submitted to the teacher in order to certify the distribution of tasks and to evaluate the students' contributions.

Example of a simple schedule for a group assignment completed by a team of 3

Work collaboratively on Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents in the Files section of Teams

Create a file classification system

It is recommended that a sample file classification system be provided to students, based on the instructions, especially if the work is done in several parts.

It is useful to designate a person in charge of maintaining this system, as it is easy to lose control of the architecture in this section. A maximum of 3 levels of files is recommended to facilitate the filing and retrieval of information.

It can be interesting to create an Archives folder in which to file the documents that are no longer worked on.

Filing system
Main file architecture Identical architecture for each subfolder
Example of a file classification system
  • In the Files section, one of the challenges is to distinguish the files that need to be filed in the Files section from those whose information needs to be embedded in the notebook. The Files section is designed to work collaboratively within a document, while the OneNote notebook can be used to share resources for an assignment and to view information for the purpose of using excerpts when writing the assignment. The notebook cannot contain large documents: If the document is on the web, it is best to add the URL of the document to the OneNote page.
  • If not, it is necessary to:
    • download the document and host it in the OneDrive space of one of the teammates
    • add the link to the OneNote notebook.

Work collaboratively in synchronous and asynchronous modes

In the Files section, students can create new Word, Excel or PowerPoint files or import files provided by the teacher. These files are hosted in the SharePoint environment connected to the team and not in the OneDrive environment of one of the team members.

It is important that the students work collaboratively on a single file version (designated as the original) to eliminate the confusion associated with multiple file versions. Teams keeps a history of all changes made by team members in the original file and all previous versions can be restored.

As a starting point, students can colour-code specific text to distinguish the work of each teammate. Students can use the Dictate function (they should use a good microphone for best results) which makes text entry easier, but also allows them to have their hands free and save time. A feature introduced in the fall of 2020, Transcribe, also allows students to upload audio or video files to be transcribed.

Word, Excel and Powerpoint 365 offer an instant messaging option, Comments, to communicate with teammates who are currently active in the document. Students can also add comments to the document to question and respond to their teammates. A notification system can be activated to be notified when a teammate has made changes.

It is necessary to anticipate that synchronization problems may occur along the way. A file entitled "Synchronization problems (text to insert)" can be created in advance in the event that someone in the team is unable to access the document or save its changes due to a synchronization problem. The student can add their text temporarily to the document and then, when the status is back to normal, they can move it to the shared working copy. This avoids creating a multitude of different versions from the original file.

Once each team member has added their content, the person who has been designated in the team to revise the text can activate the Track Changes feature located in the Review toolbar. This way, all team members can put their finishing touches to the text and see the changes made by other team members.

When and how to use the notebook?

The OneNote notebook is basically designed for individual and collaborative note-taking. It can be divided into sections and pages to organize information.

In order to facilitate the learning and use of the Teams platform, it is important to create a coherent, uniform and intuitive structure for classifying information. This is the first challenge with the notebook. For example, the student can use the instructions and create short labels similar to the main sections of the assignment to be done (Part 1 - Title; Part 2 - Title; Part 3 - Title). This allows the student to create an identical file classification structure in the Files section, in the column heading of the schedule in Planner and in the OneNote notebook.

The second challenge with the team notebook is related to the hesitation between saving a file in the Files section or in the notebook. A change in usual practices can be anticipated. In this regard, it is important to consider :

  • Is the information easily traceable if information within a page is deleted by an individual?
    • If the information is on a page of the OneNote notebook, it cannot be restored, unlike a Word document.
    • If an entire page of the OneNote notebook or a Word document in Files is deleted, it can be traced back to the Sharepoint Recycle Bin and restored.
  • How can I effectively consolidate all information in one place to simplify the main task and avoid scattering or duplicating information?
    • OneNote accepts a variety of file formats and it is possible to generate a printout of the file content within the page. For example, instructions for a team assignment can be filed here and students can add additional information.
    • OneNote does not accept the addition of large files and instead of filing them in Files, you can add the URL of the document in question (on the web or in a OneDrive account).
  • What is the file format that the teacher asks for when submitting the assignment (Word or notebook)?
    • If it is a Word file distributed by the teacher or if the student needs to create a new Word file to work with their teammates, this should be done in the Files section. A preparatory step, such as document research, could be done in the notebook.
    • If the (class) notebook is already used by the teacher in the course, the teacher's intention may be related to obtaining follow-up work. If teammates complete their work on a page in the Collaborative Space, the teacher will be able to view and comment on their progress at any time without the need for a formal submission; for example, when writing a personal log.

The use of the team's notebook is particularly appropriate for :

  • Adding and annotating teamwork instructions.
  • Creating a page for collaborative note-taking during hybrid or distance courses.
  • Creating a page at the beginning of a team meeting and taking notes collaboratively. A "Team Meeting" section in the Team Notepad can be created, as well as a page for each meeting.
  • Brainstorming.
  • Sharing resources during a research project. Rather than generating a printout of the files and ending up with a large number of pages, it is better to create a single page in the notebook and a table to list resources and add references.

Some tips and best practices with the team notebook

  • The Show/Hide Authors feature allows students to display the initials of teammates who have contributed to the notebook pages.
  • A variety of file formats can be listed in a page (text, video, sound, files, images, etc.).
  • Screenshots can be taken and integrated directly into the notebook with the Screenshot option on Mac or the Snip and Sketch tool on PC (Windows Button + Shift + S).
  • The OneNote Web Clipper extension can be downloaded to a web browser and cell phone to take a screenshot of a complete web page and send it directly to the notebook.
  • The content of podcasts and video clips can be transcribed automatically by starting to listen to them and then activating the Dictate function in the OneNote notebook on PC (on Mac, activate the Dictate function in Word and then transfer the content of the transcription to the notebook if necessary).
  • The Microsoft Office Lens extension allows students to photograph the board (the application eliminates glare) and scan paper documents (the application adjusts the angle automatically) and then embed the image into a page in the team's notebook. The text on the picture can be read with the Immersive Reader and the "Copy Text from Image" option allows the text to be transferred to the OneNote notebook page.
  • The Researcher function can be used to make it easier to find resources on the web. However, it does not replace the Zotero tool, as it does not concern specialized databases.

Integrate other applications into Teams to perform various tasks

It is possible to install dozens of applications in order to integrate their functionalities directly into Teams. Here is a selection of applications that are particularly interesting in a teamwork context.

  • Flipgrid
    • Give and share peer feedback
    • Conduct interviews with professionals in students’ fields; ask them to respond by recording a short video.
  • Kahoot!
    Create a quiz to be included in a team presentation
  • Microsoft Forms
  • MindMeister
    • Produce a mind map as a team to identify the main and secondary ideas to be developed in an assignment
    • Deconstruct a subject in order to have a general overview of it.
  • Mural
    Organize a structured brainstorming session where anyone can add content in real time. It is possible to request a free educational account.
  • PearDeck / Wooclap
    Make a team presentation more interactive and dynamic
  • Perfect Wiki
    Create a wiki in collaboration with other team members.
  • Quizlet
    Create flashcards to help them master the concepts essential to working in a team.
  • Site web
    Add a website created with an external application and work collaboratively.

Conclusion

In order to minimize external factors that can have a negative impact on distance collaboration, it is necessary to ensure that teamwork can take place in a digital environment that is relatively easy to learn, while adapting to the specific needs of team members. Teams is available for several devices and operating systems and there is a range of tutorials available for the platform.

In addition, it is recommended not to multiply platforms, as this increases the risk of scattering and losing information. The learning curve associated with each tool poses an additional challenge for students who are less comfortable with technology. Teams allows tasks related to all stages of teamwork to be completed.

In order to make the investment in learning the Microsoft 365 ecosystem even more profitable, students can design their virtual course notes by creating in specific courses). Students can create a file classification structure and integrate documents and resources distributed by all their teachers (course notes, instructions for exercises and assignments, etc.) into the pages of their notebook. They can take notes directly inside these pages and annotate them or create new pages. They can then copy some pages from their personal notebooks to the notebook of their work team.

Useful References

Theoretical Resources on Teamwork in the Digital Age

Icebreaker activities and tools to facilitate team building

Guides on Communication and Collaboration in Distance Education

Resources on Teams and Microsoft 365

About the Authors

Caroline Demers

Caroline Demers has been teaching Office Systems Technology at Cégep Garneau for about 10 years. She has also held a position as a digital pedagogy advisor at the Bureau de la mise en oeuvre du Plan d'action numérique. She holds a college degree in Office Systems Technology and a graduate degree in College Education (MIPEC), which has enabled her to acquire digital competency, project management skills and versatility. She is currently studying in educational technology. In addition to knowing how to target the needs and pedagogical potential of ICTs, she exploits them optimally by integrating them into different active pedagogical approaches in order to facilitate learning and collaborative work, with the objective of making them a real added value for students and teachers. Caroline likes to share her expertise by advising, training and guiding her peers, as well as by working as part of a team on different innovative digital projects.

Andy Van Drom

Andy Van Drom enseigne l'anglais, langue seconde, et la linguistique depuis 2005, d'abord à l'Université Laval, puis, depuis 2012, au Cégep Limoilou. Après avoir terminé des études doctorales en linguistique, il travaille maintenant à temps partiel à une maîtrise en enseignement collégial avec Performa. Andy a également publié 3 manuels chez Pearson ERPI et a développé plusieurs ressources éducatives libres en format numérique. Son grand intérêt pour les outils technopédagogiques et l'apprentissage actif l'ont mené à travailler avec Profweb, où il est éditeur depuis 2017. En 2019, il a reçu une Mention d'honneur de l'AQPC et le prix EF Excellence Award in Language Teaching.

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