These remain challenging times for education and for educators. What looks likely to be a long series of rolling pandemic lockdowns around the world will require schools and colleges to quickly shift between classrooms and online learning, with very little notice. The question, then, is what collaborative platforms will be able to support these shifts, allowing for teaching, discussion, and more?

Microsoft has been rapidly evolving its Teams platform, rolling out new features and accelerating its roadmap. While most of us think of it as a tool for work, with a focus on collaboration and voice and video conferencing, those same features make it a powerful tool for education, and one that has quickly found its way to the heart of many schools’ online education plans.

SEE: Video teleconferencing do’s and don’ts (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Teams for Education is a remote learning-focused version of the familiar Teams platform, available through educational Office 365 plans. It’s currently a free option, for staff and for students. Because it uses Microsoft’s cloud services, there’s no need for additional infrastructure, giving the option to scale from one-on-one tuition to large university lectures with hundreds of attendees.

So how do you bring a school online with Teams with very little notice? Getting teaching materials into digital forms is going to be important, using tools like PowerPoint and OneNote class notebooks to capture course content. However, you’re going to need to look at how you manage those classes, adding students to online groups and building and implementing an online timetable.

Setting up a school in Teams

Getting started is easy enough, Microsoft’s School Data Sync tool can bring in data from existing student records to automatically add students to Teams Class teams, and at the same time setting up other classroom tools like OneNote class notebooks, Office 365 groups for email, and any policies for managing Intune for Education for school-issued and personal devices. Automating classroom creation this way can save a lot of time, otherwise you’re going to have to manually set up accounts for all your students and assign them to appropriate groups and teams.

There are four types of team in Teams for Education: classes, professional learning communities, staff, and ‘other’. Classes are for groups of students, and they don’t necessarily have to be aligned to specific classes — you can also use them to set up project workgroups, discussion groups, or use them to assign and manage homework. Professional learning communities are for groups of staff working together, so you might want to use these for subject groups of teachers or for year-group tutors. The staff team is not only for teachers; it’s for handling administrative tasks, so use it to mix teachers and admin teams. Finally, the catch-all ‘other’ team is for extra-curricular groups, which under normal circumstances would include sports teams, but during lockdowns might be used to keep other school clubs and activities in contact with each other.

Managing staff and students with policies

The different team types get access to different features, enabling and disabling specific Teams and OneNote tools. As an admin you’ll be in charge of putting those policies in place, and will need to be flexible and ready to change initial settings if they’re found to get in the way of teaching and learning. In better times you’d have the resources to run a series of trials with pilot groups of staff and students, but these are not those times and you’re going to be working on the fly to get systems up and working while at the same time supporting a live service with hundreds or even thousands of users.

You can’t watch every Teams classroom, so keep an eye on both feedback from teachers and other staff and on the metrics in the Office 365 dashboards. It’s a good idea to set up a specialised channel for feedback from teachers, so you can quickly see what staff want from the service.

Once Teams is up and running, simply by turning it on in your Microsoft 365 or Office 365 Admin Center, you can start to deploy appropriate policies. Policies are applied to individuals and groups, and control what features are available to which users. Microsoft provides default policies, but if these aren’t quite right for you, you can use them as the basis of your own — managing the apps students can install and the messaging features they can use, for example.

If you’ve used SDS to bring in your students as Teams class members from your school data, it will be easy to apply the appropriate policies separately from staff. One tip from Microsoft is to use global policies to close off features and then enable them for staff groups, making it easier to manage a smaller group of users rather than managing what could be a rapidly changing set of students, who might be switching between in-classroom and remote teaching at very short notice.

Users, both staff and students, can download the Teams client from Microsoft. The education Teams service uses the same client as the business tool, with Windows, macOS, Linux and web versions, as well as mobile clients on iOS and Android.

Supporting a remote school

Once you’re set up, it’s time to use tools like PowerPoint to capture lesson content, and to explore the growing education tab in the Teams Apps view. You can integrate Teams with familiar educational software, as well as new approaches to online education. As it’s part of the Office 365 for Education bundle, you can use tools like PowerApps to build workflows for handling submitted assignments, as well as using OneDrive as a common store for educational materials and for students’ own work.

As a Teams admin in education, you’re there to support the teaching staff and the students. That may mean opening functions and services that aren’t what you’d personally recommend if a teacher thinks they’ll help a class work better. You must stay on top of Teams’ accelerated roadmap, picking up new features like Together Mode, and sharing them with teachers to pilot new experiences in advance of a rapid rollout. This is not a time for slow, measured progress — it’s a time to quickly try out new things to find what’s right for specific teaching and learning styles. The switch to online and remote teaching is hard for everyone, so it’s up to Teams admins to make these changes as comfortable as possible.

It’s easy to get distracted by all the options and tools available in Teams for Education, but it’s important to remember that you’re providing a tool for people to present and to collaborate. So, start by talking to teachers and students about what they want from their online education. It’s worth spending time listening to the experiences of other schools with this and other platforms. What they did probably won’t be right for you, but it can help you think of alternative approaches to solving your problems and providing a workable educational environment in trying and stressful times.