How Microsoft Groups is Reworking the On-line Classroom

The school year in the United States ended recently and it was anything but ordinary. For most school districts, getting up and running quickly with the right technology to support online learning was child's play. In the meantime, millions of students at home have had to deal with the personal challenges associated with the new normality of distance learning.

Microsoft has had a lot of success with its team collaboration service, but especially in the corporate area. But today Microsoft has announced a number of team functions related to remote learning, particularly in the area of ​​student engagement. I had the opportunity to preview these new features and chat with Microsoft about how to change the future of online learning.

New functions support digital transformation


To understand how teams help, it's important to look at the numbers behind how things have developed in recent months. In an online press conference, Jarod Spataro, corporate vice president of Microsoft 365, released a really surprising statistic.

He said that Microsoft underwent a digital transformation worth almost two years in two months after the transition to remote learning and work. He also noted that 70% of Microsoft Teams' meetings in the education market now include video feeds.

As the future of education becomes clear throughout the day, Spataro says Microsoft wants to help by listening to, learning from, and learning from customers, researchers, and third-party experts such as scientists.

After listening and researching, Microsoft has developed a number of new team functions that help students and employees connect with each other by reducing the fatigue of remote learning and meetings. This includes “Together Mode”, a team meeting experience that was developed and published due to the “emergency situation” caused by the pandemic.

The shared mode is pretty impressive. I was allowed to try it out in a conference room with 14 people. With one click, the square video tiles in my meeting room changed to a feed in which all participants were seated in a virtual auditorium. I could immediately see and scan the other people on the call. They lay on the chairs in an auditorium as if we were sitting in the same room.

According to Microsoft, this works well for brainstorming, meetings, and classroom scenarios because everyone looks at each other when people speak. In my demo I was able to pat the head of the person sitting under me and notice the small body language elements of others when I called, such as: B. the smile.

According to Microsoft, Together mode is less stressful than traditional video calls.

I really felt like I was in the same room with them, and I could even show someone and five to five if I wanted. According to Microsoft, Together mode is less stressful than traditional video calls, and they're right. I was quite relaxed from the experience, which is in direct contrast to the anxious feelings I get from video conferencing.

Shared mode is one of many functions that Microsoft can use to create so-called “blended learning”. It is a mixture of online collaboration in groups, work on record lectures and live lectures. Partially. This also distinguishes teams from Google Classroom, Zoom and other services.

I also spoke to Anthony Salcito, Vice President for Worldwide Education at Microsoft, who stressed how collaborative learning environments should be.

"One of the things I think will be true in the future is to integrate a full learning environment," said Salcito. "You will have some time in live video feeds, but a lot of time you will be working in groups or working on live projects. This mix of learning is what teams can do great. It really is one Center of collaboration and engagement with students. ”

Other functions for teams developed for training are "Dynamic View". It's a smoother and more flexible way to optimize teams' screen space for users, highlighting what's more important. Chat bubbles appear over video feeds to make communication easier, and live responses make it more natural for you to turn on to show support during a meeting.

The challenges and science of online learning


Microsoft has put a lot of scientific research into Together mode. To keep the overview, I spoke to Jaron Lanier, a scientist at Microsoft.

Lanier noted that when you are videoconferencing in grid mode, you don't know where other people are on the screen, both in terms of you and from their perspective. This means that natural looks and other subtle clues are impossible. The common mode fixes this by creating a common space in which people are not separated by barriers.

"In Together mode, people are in certain places in a virtual space so that the brain can perceive people in a natural way," explained Lanier. “Part of this requires the precise perception of angles in three-dimensional spaces. When someone is usually in front of the camera, they seem to be rotated on the screen wherever they are looking. This is caused by a mismatch of the gaze. "

Lanier bragged that Together Mode's “mismatch of gaze” solution was both simple and new.

“We place people in known locations so you can scan them, and the geometry of Together mode gathers everyone in front of a large shared mirror. With Together mode, we can use people's physical locations in a unique way to support naturalistic spatial social perception, but suppress the suppression of eye defects by the brain, as the brain does not notice this in mirrors. ”

How have users reacted so far? Lainer says preliminary results and his research shows that it was very positive.

Teams receive free Microsoft 365 subscriptions that some schools already pay for.

"I have never met anyone who has decided not to use it," said Lanier. "So far, every teacher who has tried has decided to use it."

It all sounds promising as long as Microsoft can convince school districts to sign up. Teams for Education are already in use in some school districts, including Duval County's Florida public schools. It's included free in Microsoft 365 subscriptions that some schools already pay for. Microsoft states that there are also career development materials that can help teachers and students use teams.

“We have provided IT administrators, teachers, students and parents with extensive materials for professional development. We have a Microsoft Educator Community Center where we have extensive educational tools to help you learn remotely, tips and tricks, and (and) best practices for commonly used tools such as teams, ”said Lanier, who also highlights weekly webinars where teachers are exchanged information.

Teams are given functions that go beyond training

Education teams offer more than just the "together" mode. Microsoft is also working to streamline your work in teams, make meetings more inclusive, and more.

These include video filters for meetings similar to those of Snapchat and social media apps, an extension for messaging functions that managers can use to check the well-being of employees, and the assignment of speakers for live subtitles and transcripts. Microsoft even announced that team meetings would be expanded to up to 1,000 participants.

For those familiar with Cortana, Microsoft's virtual assistant, she'll soon find a new home in teams. You can use Cortana speechless to make a call, join a meeting, send chat messages, share files, and more.

Just like Windows 10, Microsoft, Teams is a constantly evolving product, and Microsoft always listens to feedback.

"With teams, we bring every point together so that employees stay in the workflow and are always up to date," said Spataro. "We rethink every aspect of this experience to help people better prepare for the meeting, conduct more effective meetings, and continue working afterwards."

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