Case study: Using Microsoft Teams for final year dissertation supervision

The project involved the use of Microsoft Teams for final year dissertation student supervision. The rationale for using teams was that with 13 project students to supervise, most of whom are working on individual projects, email was a slow, cumbersome and potentially error prone method of working. For example, students may attach different versions of their research protocol to different emails. Finding the correct and most recent version of the document proved tricky in previous years. From a communication point of view, it is difficult to keep track of a vast number of emails received over the course of the year and a central store of all communication between the student and myself was preferred.

This year I have used Microsoft Teams with 10 of my project students. All these students were undergraduates in their final year. For each student/group, a separate team was created. All communication is now carried out via Teams’ conversation tool rather than email and files are deposited in the files section rather than being attached to emails.

Benefits

Both myself and the students have found a number of benefits to using Teams. The first is that there is a clear archive of all our communications. The conversation history is a valuable way of communicating as it allows easy access to previous comments that were made. We have also found the use of a central file pool for all files relating to the project particularly helpful. The opportunity to collaborate on documents directly is also beneficial at all stages. For example, when students are creating their ethics application it is useful to work on the same document as opposed to one that is constantly emailed back and forth. Likewise, when the student reaches the data analysis phase we can work on a single Excel file before exporting the data to another format for final analysis.

We have not used the video calling functionality this year but, in the situation where a student cannot make a meeting for any particular reason, we have the option of using Teams’ built in meeting functionality. I did use Skype for Business with one student this year (who is a postgraduate and thus not in the pilot) and whilst this tool was fairly easy to use the ‘meet now’ functionality of teams is far superior.

The mobile Teams app works very well (I have used the iOS version). It would be nice if Microsoft built in a system by which the app notifies me during work hours but not out of office hours.


Lessons Learned

The student and I all feel that notifications was a particular problem. Generally I keep the Teams app running in the background and so I get a notification of any posts the students make. However, in cases of the students posting conversation messages in the evening or at a time when I do not have Teams running, unless I have been mentioned in the message, or the student has replied to one of my messages, I did not get a notification. I believe that this might be fixed by changing the settings to email on all activity. Part of this though is simply getting used to a new way of working and next year I think that this will be less of an issue for me. It might remain for the students however.

Another example of the need to get used to the way Teams works is to remember to ‘reply’ to a student post as opposed to start a new conversation. As noted above, the student was notified if I replied to a post from them. However, accidentally starting a new conversation meant that unless I mentioned the student (using the ‘@’ function) they did not get notified. As before I feel I will get used to this, but each new cohort of students might run into this from time to time.


Feedback from staff and students

Both students and I have very much enjoyed using Teams. All have given me positive verbal feedback about it. From my perspective, the vast number of emails that I once had to deal with have been markedly reduced and I always know which version of a particular file to work on thanks to the lack of attachments. I would recommend Teams to any staff member and I know that a few did contact TIS to arrange for their students to have access.

Student Testimonials

Microsoft teams has been so useful during my project so far. There are so many different pieces of work that being able to upload them all into one place that both myself and Chris can access easily without having to work back through loads of emails is brilliant! - Catherine Senior

It made life much easier. It's quicker to communicate with all team members and supervisors at the same time and as mentioned before being able to share and access changes immediately have been very helpful. - Rachel Smith

It stops me from having to compose hundreds of emails between the team members and our supervisor. Instead we can converse in a less formal, but still professional way, and share files, which allows us to update them without having to send a new copy. - Erin Swift

Future work

As well as project supervisor I would like to use Teams with my personal tutees. As is the case with the project students, easy communication, with an archive of conversations, is particularly useful. It would also mean that I can create a repository of files for the tutees. However, to do this would require all students to have access to Teams.

I am also interested in looking into additional functionality that is built into Teams (e.g. whether any of the plethora of plug-ins might be useful).