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Getting sucked into the Microsoft ecosystem (#1077)

Topics/tags: Teaching

Like most faculty members these days, I’m thinking a lot about how to deal with all sorts of online teaching activities now that there’s a bit more time to plan [1]. As one of my colleagues said, We have a responsibility to provide online courses that are as good as our in-person classes. I’m not completely sure that that’s possible while keeping our lives sane. And I think it requires that we are able to make some assumptions about our students (e.g., that they can meet synchronously, that they have enough bandwidth [2], that they have access to technology). But I do agree that we should do our best and I even think there can be some advantages to remote small-class teaching. For example, I was discussing with a colleague about how some modes of screen sharing might better enforce the Driver/Navigator model for pair programming. A recent article from Inside Higher Education even suggests that active learning may be better online than in person, at least in a time of socially distanced classrooms.

So online and active is likely to be the model I’m going to pursue for my CS classes, even if I decide to be on campus this fall [3,4]. That means I’m thinking about the tools I will use. As I mentioned in the prior paragraph, I’m working with others to think about mechanisms for pair programming that range from screen sharing to using shared development environments like Repl.It (doesn’t support Racket, need approval) and Microsoft VSCode (moderate support for Racket).

But I’m also working on a related issue, which is how to manage my summer research team remotely. I realize that remote teams are more of a norm in the commercial world, but I also know that (a) those teams have more experienced programmers and (b) most successful teams include an in-person component.

One thing that makes my life a bit more complex is that Grinnell has come down pretty hard on the use of unapproved software and I seem to be one of the folks who feel that it’s better to follow the rules than to make assumptions or to ask forgiveness, not permission. I was happy to get permission to use Trello (although with some limitations) but sad to discover that since Microsoft Teams provides a similar feature set to Slack, I was expected to use Teams.

Like most Microsoft software I encounter, Teams is a bit clunkier than many competing offerings. For example, Teams provides no way to discover who on your team currently has Teams open. And that’s been an outstanding feature request for a few years. I’d prefer a list of available Teams more readily available; Slack lists them down the side. Teams requires me to hit the Teams’ button and then theAll Teams" button. It also doesn’t navigate in the way I’d expect. Still, it’s nice to have individual chats and various teams all together in one application. And I like that it has screen sharing (sometimes with control sharing) and audio chat.

In any case, my team seems to be adapting fairly well to Teams and such. We’re developing protocols of where to post different kinds of messages and how to respond. I’ve started a Whatchaupto channel as a way for the team to know what people are working on, which serves as a type of alternative to the Which of my teammates is online. I hope that people can use that plus the @-sign callouts to better communicate. Oh, River is also looking at how to manage React on Windows. I can reach out to them.

My research team is also struggling at times. For example, I set up a few shared folders. But, as far as I can tell, shared folders don’t show up naturally in the Teams interface [5]. I had students log into Office 365, select OneDrive, and then select the Team. In Teams, the Files link doesn’t take you to that list of files. Oh, I did figure out that you can add a folder to a channel. But shouldn’t Files do that?

Yesterday, I learned that Teams includes a Trello alternative, called Planner. More precisely, Microsoft provides a product called Planner and has some integration into Teams. So I’ve started to explore Planner. As is the norm, I’m finding it a bit counter-intuitive. Plans don’t immediately appear in your team; you need to attach them to channels (at least as far as I can tell). It’s hard to delete a Plan. On the other hand, it seems like I can integrate Planner in Teams, which should make it easier to bring conversations into planning and vice versa.

Now I’m waiting to see how Microsoft will next suck me into their universe.

[1] Grinnell is still in decision mode, but it’s pretty clear that at least some classes will be offered online.

[2] Not only internet bandwidth but also emotional and mental bandwidth.

[3] Whether or not I’ll be on campus this fall will likely depend on what the College does and the advice of my physician.

[4] I would like to find a way to teach Tutorial in person.

[5] If you know how to access Team folders easily, let me know.

Version 1.0 of 2020-05-27.