Hi my name is Philippa Digby and I’ve just finished studying 3 A-Levels at my local Sixth Form in Cheshire. I wanted to reach out and share my experiences of using Microsoft Teams from a first-hand, students’ perspective. The events of the last 16 months have been anything but ‘normal’ for me and I’m sure I’m not unique in saying that!
In March 2020, the nationwide lockdowns bought on by the Covid-19 variant meant that no ‘in-person’ learning could continue in classrooms; leaving all schools and colleges shut. In order to allow learning to still go ahead, my school, teachers and peers had to change and adapt to teaching and studying from a home environment.
Due to most students already being familiar with other Microsoft Platforms such as Office 365, we continued to do all previously set work using this facility. However, it soon became difficult for students to remain engaged in the work load set without the provision of a dedicated study timetable and the general social interaction that a classroom provides.
Unaware of how long this ‘home learning’ would go on for, my college had to quickly find a new platform that could be used site wide for their 2000+ students. Key interactive features needed for this to work successfully would include; one to one teacher guidance, full class videocalls, an easy messaging system and an efficient way to submit work. By the end of May, Microsoft Teams had been deployed across all year groups and we had our own unique logins. Over the course of that first week, I gained a good understanding of how Teams worked and where to access lesson content and files. With teachers being equally new to the software, it became a learning phase for everyone where we helped each other by sharing new tips and tricks.
One of the issues the college faced that became apparent with remote learning was ensuring everyone had access to a laptop. The school were soon able to provide a laptop that could be indefinitely loaned to all students, fixing this problem for me and others.
The Government advice regarding National lockdowns, shielding and advising all those who could work from home to do so had a dramatic impact throughout my entire family. Both parents and my younger brother were all going to have to adapt and get used to spending a whole lot more time together in close proximity. It was at this point that the stark reality of spending my entire day studying within those confines suddenly filled me with dread!
Questions such as; Who is going to work where? Who needs peripherals? Has everyone got a desk?, and would we likely disturb each other, either on phone calls, Team chats or other interruptions?
This actually left me with very inadequate study area. I had to improvise quickly and turned a shelf in my wardrobe into a suitable study desk space. This worked well as it provided me with all space necessary and still allowed me to effectively ‘log off’ from the home desk environment once finished.
When surrounded by the same family members for such a long period of time, it became tedious and difficult to escape from the monotony and routine of the new daily life. We each dealt with this in our own ways, my father going out for short bike rides, my mother planting the garden and my brother allowing himself a ‘short’ time for gaming. I made a positive decision to improve my physical and mental well-being by doing an hours exercise just after the normal school day would finish, around 3 o’clock. I found this helped to divide my day and allowed me the time to process what I’d been learning earlier. Due to the good weather and being fortunate to have a garden, I spent a lot of my time outside working in the sun. This simple choice meant a lot to me personally and helped me relax which was both soothing and comforting during uncertain times. For people living without a garden or in areas where the weather wasn’t so good, I can imagine this would have been more challenging to remain mentally stable and may create a negative impact on their work ethic. I think if we were ever to get stuck in a similar situation again it would be a good idea to create some form of aid for people living in lower income areas without access to things such as gardens and open space.
The main issue with transitioning from a college-based day to continual home learning was finding ways to become self-motivated. Personally, I love challenging myself to see how much work I can complete and how I can continuously improve this, however some people struggled with this more. I believe it’s really helped teach people to become more independent and develop their own self-assertiveness. This is an important life-skill that I believe many young adults should be taught.
My self-motivation didn’t come from setting myself work hours in the day, instead it came from looking at the assignments set on Teams and ensuring I had my work handed in before due. I based my timetable around when I felt I was going to get the most work done. I knew that if I sat myself down to do work when I felt unproductive, I would get nothing done as I would just procrastinate. Procrastination would then often lead to spending more time sat at my desk unnecessarily, creating a bad working habit. Instead, I chose to work intuitively and when I felt most productive. Fortunately, I enjoyed my subjects so dedicated a lot of my work and personal time to them.
At college I’d always been used to working a 9am-3pm day, often with a 2-3 hour study break. I found myself studying and doing my coursework late in the evening after I had a break from college. As a result of being used to this routine, I found that during the first lockdown I mimicked this pattern, often trying to get a lot done in the morning until around 2-3pm and then doing another 4-5 hours after dinner.
Muted celebrations were had between myself and my friends as we were all subsequently advised to return to college after the long summer and lockdown 1 had finished. Hey ho! Within 2 months the National Covid markers were taking a massive upswing with hospitals full, doctors surgeries closing for attendance and we were once again advised to work from home!
This time however, I focused on getting more work completed during the daytime so that I could have my evenings free. On reflection, I felt I personally preferred the strategy I used for my learning during the second enforced lockdown. One of the main factors behind this was due to the winter nights closing in and the illusion that it was later than it actually was, making me subconsciously more tired. Using Teams during normal school hours also helped to ensure that I’d be able to get speedy responses from my teachers. The status icons also made this a lot easier to know when people were available or not.
Once everyone was fully set up on Microsoft Teams it meant proper lessons and directions could be given by teachers. I had a separate Team group for every subject, along with one for my ‘form’ and even one for my whole year group. I found it really useful having individual Team channels as it allowed me to ask more direct questions and receive help and advice from either my teachers or classmates rapidly. I loved the collaborative feel of this as well as helping others. I studied three main A-Levels; Product Design, Food and Science Nutrition and Photography along with an additional Project Qualification and for these I had two teachers per subject. We had both teachers added to our Teams channels. This also provided benefits for them as it meant they didn’t have to spend additional time discussing previous lessons with each other.
All the lesson content was kept in the same place and both teachers could easily view students work. This also helped to ensure that there would always be a teacher available. Having a Teams channel that included the whole year was a great way for the school to share information with us through posting messages and uploading files/ documents to designated areas. It made accessing useful information easier than ever as it could all be kept in the same place with clear resource headings. We all enjoyed the camaraderie of feeling like we were all in the same boat!
After Microsoft Teams was set up, we soon began to have live lessons using the Video Call facility, this made a great impact on my work ethic, commitment and mental health. Live lessons continued every day throughout the whole lockdown period. Even though some of these were just for registration, it provided me with the chance to communicate with others and verbally ask questions about any issues with the work set. This added communication made it much easier to see whether my other peers were at the same stage with their work, providing me with the motivation needed to complete all my tasks to the best standard possible. In addition to this, it allowed me to catch up on some of the social interaction that I had been missing out on when locked inside the house.
My teachers planned my lessons in advance; these were all scheduled to follow our previous timetables. Despite lessons taking place at different times on different days it felt great to finally have a schedule again. This really helped to motivate me and others, evident from the high online attendance daily. Due to only having 2-3 hours on average of ‘lesson time’ per day, I was advised to do approximately an extra 20 hours learning per week. This was in line with the previous years expected additional workload prior to Covid. For me this was one of THE BEST things about working from home. I managed to save so much time in my day.
In a typical college day I would often spend a lot of time getting myself ready, ensuring my bag contained the relevant study document for that particular day, walking to and from college and coming home during my study ‘down’ periods. This down time would quickly add up and I’d end up wasting approximately 2-3 hours per day. However, when studying from home I didn’t require to do any of this, therefore I found myself with a lot more free time. My love and passion for the subjects I was studying meant that I made a personal chose to continue developing my college work outside of the designated timetabled lessons.
My teachers were great at motivating me and others to do our work to the best standard we could, given the circumstances. Receiving recognition and getting feedback for my work was one of the significant reasons that I continued to work hard morning through night. This was made easier through teachers adding ‘comments’ to my submitted work as well as during 1:1 video chats. A lot of my work was self-driven meaning after every lesson brief/registration I could leave the call and continue with my coursework. Alongside these live lessons my teachers carried out 1:1 meetings. I would get approximately one of these per fortnight for each class. It provided the chance to go through my work visually as my teachers shared their screen to go through my uploaded work. Having these audio chats was really beneficial and allowed us to exchange ideas and concepts as if we were in-person. If desired, we could have extra one to one chats by waiting in the Teams ‘waiting room’.
All of our tasks were set as an ‘assignment’ and these had deadlines and clear instructions as to what was needed to be handed in. These were often used to help see the progression on my coursework and I would re-upload it after completing a set amount of work. These were then ‘returned’ by my teachers with comments once marked. If you failed to complete an assignment in the given time or handed it in after the deadline, it showed up as ‘handed in late’ and cut-off points were also put into place for 24hours. This meant you couldn’t upload the work after the event. The strict discipline of this requirement helped me to make sure I always submitted my work punctually.
Since coming out of Sixth Form I have found new aspects of Teams that I wasn’t previously aware of, nor using. Such as the ‘calendar’ feature. I think that due to everyone being new to Teams and people from age 11 upwards having to learn the new technology our school tried to keep it as simplistic as possible to make it easier to understand. One drawback from this however, was that we were missing out on optional key features that I believe would have really helped us! Having access to our own calendar that highlighted when our live lessons were, would’ve been much more efficient than having to log onto our school website to find out. Again, having it all visible on one page and knowing exactly when and what we’d have to do would’ve been a great tool for us. I know it would’ve benefited us significantly!
In addition to this, having notifications come through to remind you 15 minutes before a call would’ve also been a great feature that could’ve been used to optimise lesson attendance. In spite of the attendance from students being high anyway, I believe having a notification would’ve helped make it even easier for students to log on to get registered. Personally, I chose to set myself alarms on my phone to remind me 5 minutes before each lesson. I’m aware others also had to do this, so in conclusion this feature would’ve really benefited us.
My teachers were assigned to upload lesson plans before every lesson was due to start. Their great punctuality meant that these were always posted the day or even week before. This was posted to our class ‘Team’ and explained either the briefing for the forthcoming session or what work we should continue getting on with. At every time tabled lesson, I joined the waiting room until the teacher added everyone to the meeting. These were often just audio-calls, with the teachers sometimes screen sharing if content needed to be displayed to aid visual learning. As students we were allowed to un-mute our mic if we had any questions about the work set. When in larger group meetings, students found it a lot more challenging to speak up and ask questions due to a lack of courage or nervous anxiety. I found that the smaller the class, the more talkative each student was.
Within my food science class there were only 4 students. I loved these live lessons as it gave us a chance to catch up and interact with confidence, also giving a positive impact on my mental health. For my Product Design class, on occasions having up to 14 people I found it more difficult to communicate with others, despite my usual confidence. Going forward I think this is something that can be worked on to help students in larger groups feel more confident to communicate with each other during the chat.
For safety reasons students were not allowed to turn on our cameras during live lessons so this feature was disabled. If requested prior to the meeting, we could however share our screen to show work. I thought this was a good idea as it helped to avoid students feeling anxiety or even embarrassment at having the whole class see their home environment. This could also prove tricky if you were sharing a work room with other family members and may have caused awkwardness if some students showed their face and other preferred not to.
My own subjects were heavily coursework based so I knew that I could always continue adding new things to enhance my folder because a lot of my work was self-explanatory. The main thing I struggled with, working at home was the lack of equipment and machinery that I would normally have access to in college. Due to this it meant I had to improvise and adapt to the circumstances. This wasn’t mandatory, however I knew it would be difficult to achieve grades I was happy with without it. For my photography I cleared out our household garage (much to my mothers dismay!) then painted all the walls, ceiling and floor white. I then bought and got gifted basic studio equipment to set it up with. I often needed a large, coloured background, however these were very expensive, so instead a bought large rolls of wallpaper which provided the same effect. This studio allowed me to continue to take photos I was happy with, achieving the look I desired.
The challenges that came with my photography meant that I also had to teach myself how to use apps such as Photoshop and Illustrator. These apps use lots of different buttons to help create a variety of effects and as such I found it easier to learn the basics myself through trial and error and then if I was still stuck I would use YouTube video tutorials to help. Likewise with Product Design where I used CAD software such as Solid Works.
My Food and Science Nutrition class was the only lesson where I had information presented too me that I had to note down and use within my work. For this I found it a bit difficult to read what was on the presentation at the same time as writing it down. I tried to use Teams on my phone whilst using my laptop to write notes, however the screen size presented an issue here. This is where I think having an extra monitor would’ve been extremely useful for students. PowerPoints displayed during the live lessons were always uploaded to Teams straight after the lesson. I know that for some students that studied A levels such as Science and History they ended up spending far more time working than usual, due to having to write down their study notes after the lesson had finished instead of during it like they normally would have in college.
Overall, I enjoyed working from home and using technology to communicate with my teachers and peers. There were many benefits which came with this. For example, it allowed me to be much more flexible with planning my day, thus teaching me valuable life-skills regarding managing my time and appreciating feeling more independent with my own study choices. Whereas previously I would have three separate hour-long lessons whilst studying in college, the working from home allowed me to spend three consecutive hours on the same subject. This was extremely useful as it meant I could remain focused on the same thought train without having to remember what I had started a day earlier. Here, I also saved time as I was no longer having to walk around my Sixth Form building and re-start my laptop every time a new lesson began.
The technology really succeeded in facilitating my studies and is a credit to the ever-evolving industry. Considering the sheer dread on my face when it became apparent that lockdowns and remote studying were to be the new norm, it was a massive relief at the end of each working day to feel proud of what I’d achieved.
In conclusion, I think having the technology and facility of Teams was a great addition to my learning and was something that really benefited both me and my fellow pupils. I daren’t even imagine the chaos and disruption that will have been caused working without it for such a long period of time!
I’m grateful that my college acted promptly in response to the lockdowns, as without the use of Teams I feel I would have found it much more difficult to achieve grades that I would have been happy with.
The use of Microsoft Teams was a necessary by enjoyable experience for staff and my fellow students and even after we returned to college we continued to use it for work, assignment and lesson plans.
Occasionally, groups of students had to go home and isolate due to positive cases once returning to college. Teams allowed for great flexibility and the teachers could continue teaching students at home and within the classroom at the same time. This was easily done by creating a lesson live and sharing screen if necessary so people at home could access the work.
Too be honest I wish we had the facility from the begging of Year 12! It made submitting my work and getting teacher responses so much easier. Whereas this was previously done via email, having work set in an orderly way made communication between student and staff far better. Looking back at how my sixth form and school experience started it does make me wonder why we didn’t start using it sooner! Nevertheless, I’m hopeful that my school will continue to use and develop Microsoft Teams functions throughout the coming years.