In the modern day, it is essential that future generation understand how to communicate and collaborate using technology as an interaction mechanism, not only in their personal lives, but in their education and future employment too.
Communication is constantly evolving, and even more so today due to the fast paced technology environment. Within the space of 30 years we’ve moved from writing letters in order to speak to someone thousands of miles away, to emails, and now video calls using Skype and other video calling applications. We know that it can be hard to keep up with every new way to collaborate and communicate, however, it is extremely important to do so in education so that the workers of the future become technology literate and understand the productivity benefits that technology can offer. That’s why we’re going to show you the best tools to use in lectures and seminars to enhance collaboration and communication between student and teacher communities.
Microsoft’s primary collaboration solution, Office 365 for Education, gives students, staff and educators anywhere access to email and calendars, Office Web Apps, video/online meetings and document sharing. These features combine together to provide a simple and flexible ‘anytime, anywhere’ learning environment. It gives you all the necessary tools to collaborate and communicate both inside and outside formal learning environments. I’m going to take a more in-depth look at some of the individual elements of Office 365, but if you’re interested in an overview of what you get you can check out the Office 365 for education webpage.
Personally, my favourite part of the Office suite (which is also available as a Web App with Office 365) is OneNote. I wish I’d discovered it when I was studying as it’s an extremely efficient way to organise your life without all the little bits of paper notes we inevitably gather throughout our work and personal life. From shopping lists to work and school projects, OneNote is a single place for you to store all your ideas, plans and notes for anything in your life. I even know someone who used it to plan their wedding!
OneNote can not only be accessed from any device with the Office suite installed, but it can also be accessed from your mobile phone and, most importantly, OneNotes can be viewed and edited even if a device doesn’t have the Office suite installed by using Office Web Apps in your browser. All your notes are stored in the cloud and linked to your SkyDrive account, Microsoft’s cloud storage solution. As a result, your notes follow you everywhere, and can be accessed anytime, anywhere.
So you may be asking how this clever little tool can enhance collaboration in an education environment. Well, with the ability to save your documents to SkyDrive, your notes can be shared with your peers or colleagues, creating a collaborative thought-cloud in the cloud. This makes a noticeable difference to students’ attitudes towards group work, as working together no longer relies on numerous face-to-face meetings, which are often hard to arrange. Instead, groups can share a OneNote notebook on SkyDrive and add points and resources when they want. Rather than squeezing research into hour or two hour long group meeting, students can update their shared notebook whenever they find something relevant to the project, and their peers can immediately see the updated content in the notebook.
Another plus of OneNote is that you can ask students to share their work with you so that you can see how their project is progressing in real-time. This allows you to pick up on any potential problem areas early, and prevents your students from going down the wrong path when writing up their work, but doesn’t require the age-old impossible task of finding a mutually convenient time to meet each week to review their work.
One example where I think OneNote could be really effective would be during exam time. You, as staff, are always asking for students’ input on what they’d like to cover in revision sessions. Rather than sending an email which students respond to once and then forget about, you can create a shared OneNote for revision topics which students want to cover. When they’re revising at home and find a topic they’d like to go over, they can anonymously add it to a list within the shared OneNote. You then don’t have to worry about ensuring you’ve seen every student’s email requesting for a topic to be covered and can concentrate on the content of the session itself.
A few other cool features of OneNote:
- The audio recording tool – allows students to leave each other voice notes next to information they find. Also great for lecturers to leave students feedback on their work.
- To do lists – students can create to do lists with check boxes of the things they need to complete for their project.
- File attachments – students can attach all necessary project files to their OneNote so that they have everything in one place. Lecturers can also use this to share documents ahead of lessons rather than mass emailing them to students.
- Templates – provide simple layout templates including to do lists, lesson notes and project overviews.
SkyDrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage solution, is another brilliant free tool available both on its own and within the Office 365 packages. You get 7 GB of personal storage, which syncs with any device, PC or Mac, for offline as well as online access. As I’ve mentioned in the OneNote section, SkyDrive is a file sharing tool which is perfect in a further education environment, as it reduces the amount of traffic in your email inbox, and allows you to save the most up-to-date version of documents in a shared location.
SkyDrive isn’t only a great tool for individuals to ensure that they have all their documents wherever they are, but is also perfect for encouraging collaboration in the classroom. As with OneNote, students can simultaneously view and edit documents within the Office suite or Office Web Apps, allowing them to collaborate with their peers on group projects and revision.
This could be invaluable for group projects as there’s no need for multiple copies of the same document to be created, which then have to be collated by someone, wasting hours which could be better used working. Students can see, in real-time, any changes their peers are making, which means that overlapping content in paragraphs is less likely to occur.
One thing I find particularly useful is the ability to update PowerPoint presentations the second before you’re presenting, all through the power of the Web Apps (and sometimes Office on my Windows Phone if it’s really last minute!). It’s common to get nervous before a presentation, no matter how big or small, so being able to talk yourself through the slides in the minutes leading up to your presentation, and change anything you think of last minute, is a great relief. Once you step up to present, you simply open the PowerPoint in the Web App or Office Suite and away you go, with your newly updated slides!
A collaboration tool I’ve written about before, Yammer is an enterprise social network which allows you to share your thoughts within an enclosed network. Similar to Facebook groups, Yammer is a completely private network which allows users to share content, documents, status updates and much more to specific groups or the whole network. A lot of students currently use Facebook groups to plan and coordinate their group projects, and while groups can be made closed, there are no guarantees as to the security of anything posted within them. Yammer groups, however, are completely closed networks, which can only be accessed with a valid network email address (ie. firstname.lastname@example.org). This ensures that your students’ work remains private and unplaigiarised up to, and after, they have successfully submitted their assignment.
To find out more about how Yammer could improve collaboration and communication in your university, take a look at the Yammer – the next step for social networking in schools? blog post.