Publication Date

December 1, 2020

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


Teaching Methods

My students at Georgia Highlands College are smart, engaged, and mostly not history majors. In order to motivate them, I emphasize the skills and habits of mind that historians cultivate that will be useful in their own lives, especially as they enter the labor force. Inspired by the AHA’s Tuning Project, I have redesigned my introductory US and world history courses to emphasize transferable skills that students will recognize as relevant. In practice, this means more group projects with the intent of fostering collaboration, problem solving, and professionalization—skills that we know are essential to current work environments (and to historians).

Shannon Bontrager's family introduced him to Microsoft Teams, a platform he now uses to encourage collaborative and innovative learning in his American history class.

Shannon Bontrager’s family introduced him to Microsoft Teams, a platform he now uses to encourage collaborative and innovative learning in his American history class. Marvin Meyer/Unsplash

I maintain a 5/5 teaching responsibility at a two-year institution, often with multiple course preps. Like many of my colleagues, I struggled with my own workload even before COVID-19 upended our work; teaching and grading individual students’ performance was overwhelming. I needed to identify a way to develop student-led projects that would facilitate student peer review while reducing my grading load to a manageable level without sacrificing standards. I needed to create a system to pair more advanced students with less experienced ones so that they could collaborate with and mentor each other.

As I began to think about what this system might look like, my daughter came home from fourth grade excited about her teacher’s demonstration of Microsoft Teams, a suite of collaboration tools within Microsoft 365. My daughter could chat with her classmates, have video calls, and post emojis and gifs, all while uploading documents and editing them in real time. My wife’s company had also started using Teams. She described how more than 20 people were editing the same document seamlessly in real time while also on a video call. As they talked, I began to see how Teams could help me accomplish my dual goals of creating opportunities for students to collaborate while also controlling my workload.

For educators, Teams offers several advantages over other popular tools. The video call feature is much more secure than Zoom. From a desktop, laptop, or a mobile phone, students can make their own video calls with each other and they can share and edit documents in the same medium as they call and chat, making it more efficient than Google Docs. Teams also offers learning management system (LMS) features not readily available in Google, including a gradebook and assignments page. There are many other applications, including a sophisticated planner, that can be imported into Teams.

For educators, Teams offers several advantages over other popular tools.

When COVID-19 hit, my transition to Teams accelerated. This summer, my online students exclusively used Teams as I transitioned my courses away from their traditional LMS. I put students into groups of six and gave them their own space in Teams. There, they could access recorded lectures and work on their group project: an annotated bibliography, Pecha Kucha presentation, and a three-scene, 15-page screenplay based on primary sources in the Federal Writer’s Project Slave Narrative database.

Teams, software designed for both the workplace and the classroom, made it easy to assign roles to each student and to monitor their work. Students chose from specific roles within each group. One could be a program director that oversaw the entire group project and controlled the planner, three more could be project directors that oversaw each specific assignment, and the rest could fulfill associate roles. Everyone had to work together on all stages of the project. While I gave everyone the same grade for the group work, I also included a significant individual grade to incentivize students to perform their fair share of the work.

Teams can be like a panopticon. Everyone can see what everyone else writes. As the instructor, I can see student posts, view recorded group meetings asynchronously, and track individual task completion on the group planners. I used the analytics tool to evaluate and gain insights into individual and group performance. This revealed that students are willing to be responsible for their own behavior and keeping distracted students within their group on task. I can see as leaders emerge and take on management roles. These students tend to be more experienced and model peer mentorship for the less experienced. They often help develop rapport and even comradery within the group.

Teams also helps me manage my workload by encouraging efficient interaction. Instead of having to respond to one-on-one emails, I simply participate in group conversations as needed. The software allows me to respond to student questions individually or collectively, all within the same platform. Teams works so efficiently that it has become rare for a student leave the LMS to pose a question via email.

Teams can be like a panopticon.

Grading is more manageable too. Teams allows for complete Word or Excel functionality, which means I can comment, track changes, and even post emojis and stickers on student work. They see my comments in real time and some respond immediately, making edits of their own and improving their work even as I am grading it. In this way, the grading process itself becomes a collaboration between the teacher and the student.

All of the groups produced fascinating screenplays. One used the Magic School Bus (based on the cartoon) as a literary device to weave their critique of modern education and the lack of education for slaves together. Another used a classroom setting where students watched “documentaries” to learn about African American education during Reconstruction. Each screenplay cleverly used quotes from specific slave interviews and worked in citations from JSTOR articles.

This learning environment was so successful in an all-online format, I decided to implement it in my face-to-face early American history classes this fall. These students met in a flipped classroom: while I provide in-class lectures and learning exercises to contextualize slavery, students complete all their work inside of Teams. It supported exactly the kind of real-world skill building I wanted to produce and enabled the creation of excellent historical work. In their evaluations, students voiced overwhelming support for Teams and its functionality. Software like Teams allows the instructor to build relationships with students, who have access to a wide-range of electronic devices across the varied and new landscape of remote, flipped, and blended classrooms, to teach historical thinking and professionalization skills without sacrificing the quality of collaboration, interaction, and the nature of academic work.

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Shannon Bontrager
Shannon Bontrager

Georgia Highlands College