With the 2020/2021 school year approaching, there are still many questions associated with how to run classrooms remotely. Some teachers might just upload pre-recorded lectures while others will just post PowerPoint slides for their students. Perhaps the most popular way has become hosting a live video conference call through either Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Teachers and students are still trying to learn the ropes and figure out what works best. Microsoft is making things a bit easier for everyone, with updates and improvements made to virtual meetings. These include improvements for participant capacity in meetings as well as how users are shown on screen.
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a scramble to figure out how to teach kids remotely, with problems arising constantly. These problems have brought about change and a better understanding for the necessity of technology. Microsoft saw these struggles and decided to make their product, the video conferencing and collaboration app Teams, more efficient. They took this opportunity and have started to roll out new features.
Teachers will now be adding Teams to their list of things they need to get ready for the school year. Instead of setting up a classroom, they will be setting up a virtual meeting room. These changes will also affect the students. Now when going back to school, instead of just purchasing the usual things like notebooks and pencils, students are going to have to get new software and maybe even a laptop if they don’t already have one. This can turn into a pricey way to help them stay connected. Some students may also struggle with this type of learning style and might have difficulty adapting. Others may struggle with online classes and have a hard time understanding the material on their own. Now with teachers utilizing Teams, student will benefit from the video lectures and be able to respond and ask questions in real time which may help.
The new features that are rolling out focus mostly on video call quality. One demand Microsoft received was to create “Zoom-like support” that can host up to 49 people in one meeting room. When the pandemic first started, Teams could only support four people on one call. Eventually, they increased this total to nine, but it still fell short of the demands of larger meetings and most public classrooms. Now they are up to 49 people. They were looking to up this number because Zoom itself is currently ahead of the game, having the ability to host 100 participants in a single meeting.
Even though Zoom can host the most people, there have been some questionable security issues going around. They had a problem with “Zoombombing,” an attack in which uninvited users get into and disrupt a class or meeting, along with other bugs, flaws, and vulnerabilities that should have been taken care of from the start. Earlier this summer, to address these security concerns and protect their users, Zoom released E2EE for free to everyone, although many people had thought this was a feature from the start.
With school about to start back up and most things being done online, Teams is in a much better position to support teachers and students now. On top of increasing the capacity for meetings, Microsoft has come out with “Together Mode.” Together Mode is a new alternative to your traditional meeting set up. It utilizes artificial intelligence to make the participants’ heads and shoulders appear like everyone is sitting together in a lecture hall. In turn, this allows for more productivity and better communication because it is easier to focus on body language and nonverbal cues. This increase in productivity and communication comes from the understanding of cognition, social perception, and communication, as explained by Microsoft’s Jaron Lanier.
Microsoft has also incorporated Dynamic View into Teams. Dynamic View allows for the screen to change and focus on the one person who is speaking at that time. This allows for students to focus on the teacher when they are talking.
Hopefully by the start of school in September, there will be an attendance report feature in Teams that teachers can also utilize. This will show when students join and when they leave, making it easier for the teachers to keep track of their students. This way, teachers won’t have to worry about keeping up in the middle of lecture.
Another neat concept Teams is working on is the integration of breakout rooms for students to work in small groups together. It is helpful for students to get time to collaborate with their teammates without the distraction of a full class conversation. Once they are done in their separate groups, they would be able to reconvene in the class meeting without ending calls or waiting to get back in. This is as close as it gets to an in-person class. This could even be better than working in a loud classroom where there are a lot of distractions.
Teams is also working on new changes to improve assignment handling. This would help teachers organize their upcoming assignments and view turned-in assignments. Microsoft also wants to add a feature that allows for anonymous grading for teachers. This way, the name on the paper is hidden and teachers can grade without bias.
One last update is Teams Polling. Polling will allow for students and colleagues to offer feedback through questions and polls. This will allow for their voices to be heard and create positive changes. Poll topics can range from how students are adapting to learning at home, assignments, or anything going on in the school or community.
Enabling Access to Remote Learning
With all these new and exciting changes, there also comes some learning. Teachers and students are going to have to learn to adapt to these new capabilities and may even need a little training on how to use everything. Trainings are especially important because new changes can become easily overwhelming and you may miss some of the amazing features offered.
If your child is going back to the classroom in the fall and not using virtual modalities, then you may have some concerns. But Kat Ryder, founder of the telehealth start-up Maven, has released a free online tool to walk parents through the risks and benefits of at home learning versus in school learning. This helps to ease any concerns and help you make the best choice for your child.
To sum it all up, Microsoft Teams is rolling out many new updates and features to help improve the online learning environment, and in doing so, they want to make things as simple as they can for a seamless transition into the virtual classroom.