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Using Office 365 to create collaborative learning activities

Last week I was at the BETT show, working for The Tablet Academy who were running the interactive classroom on the Microsoft stand. We ran a series of 15 minutes interactive sessions, with one of my sessions being on the use of Office 365 to create collaborative activities. This session turned out to be very popular showing the interest from educators in this way of working.

The principle that I demonstrated wasn’t new – it was something that I have been doing for 8 or 9 years using the collaborative functionality of Google Drive (formerly known as Google Docs) which I have previously blogged about, however many education organisations are nervous about using Google Drive in this way, and the example that I used in my blog post, did involve the work being potentially visible to anyone in the World, which didn’t matter for what I was doing, but for other subjects would be an issue. If an organisation has adopted Google Apps for education then it could all be kept safely enclosed within the organisation, but most places don’t have this – but if they do have Microsoft, and now that Office 365 offers a real time collaborative functionality – I can easily set up similar activities in a way that the IT/Network manager will be happier with.

Before we progress we need to understand a bit about how Office 365 works in conjunction with OneDrive (Microsoft’s cloud storage option – formerly called SkyDrive). When a teacher creates a file using Word, PowerPoint Excel or similar – they can save this to their OneDrive – this will appear on their computer just like any other network drive, so behaviour wise it is very easy for staff. If they are offline, it doesn’t matter the work will save, and as soon as they are online again it will Synchronise with the OneDrive server.

The files are now stored on the computer but also in the cloud – this means that I can access them from any internet enabled computer by going to the OneDrive website and logging in as me.

Image showing the web view of Skydrive with the Words (Download, Share, Embed and Manage highlighted)

Example view of the OneDrive web interface

You will see in the  image that there are 4 options highlighted with the red rectangle:

  • Download – allows for a local copy of the file to be downloaded onto the computer.
  • Share – Is what we want here, as we can give students access to the file, without having to send them a copy.
  • Embed – allows for files to be embedded into something like a website, blog or VLE – this could be very useful for displaying a graph or chart following an experiment or survey.
  • Manage – allows options such as renaming, but also a version history – so if someone sabotages a collaborative file, you can roll back to an earlier version and find out who did the sabotaging.

These different options can be applied to individual files, multiple files or even folders. The folders options could be very useful, as you could set up sharing options with individual students at folder level once at the start of the year, then any file that is added into that folder will automatically be visible to the student – I can see lots of potential here for giving feedback after assessment, and an ability for students to make comments etc. on their feedback all with the same document. The history functionality gives me the data integrity that I need for assessment purposes which in the past caused us to produce lots of inefficient different files with no information moving between them.

If I were to set up a collaborative activity using these tools, there are 2 options for the students. They can either edit the file in the web app – this is great if accessing this activity via a device that doesn’t have Microsoft Office on it (e.g. an iPhone or iPad), and allows for real time synchronous editing (lots of people editing same document at same time) – but you don’t get the full Office functionality. Or students can access and edit the file in Office, which gives the full functionality and great for small scale non-synchronous collaboration.

The key to making any of this work, is changing the way that we behave with files – which will take time. Email although a great tool, has created a culture of sending files as attachments – which creates multiple copies of the same file in different location which then leads to problems. If a single file is stored in one place and a link to this file is shared then there is only 1 file and therefore less problems.

In the coming days I will release posts, giving examples of different collaborative activities using PowerPoint, Excel and Word.

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Why the Microsoft Surface Tablet will be a major player in education

In my years as a teacher and then as a freelance consultant/trainer I have been very much at the forefront of the use of technology in education, and I have always been excited by the potential that effective use of technology can bring to education, but nothing has been as exciting as the potential that tablet devices brings to learning, and in particular Apple’s iPad – which has been designed beautifully, and is really easy to use, so when I run staff development in this area, I don’t spend most of the time talking about which buttons to press – instead I can focus most of my efforts into the pedagogic considerations of the training, and that is a very liberating feeling.

For the last few months I have been working with a company called ‘The Tablet Academy‘ (formerly The iPad Academy) and I have been going into schools and running iPad training – but now that the company has changed its name, they are also offering support and training for Android and Microsoft devices, and as such I have been experimenting with the basic Microsoft Surface RT device – and even though it has received some negative press, I think it (and its successors) are going to make a huge impact on education.

Microsoft Surface (black)

A Surface Tablet


If you compare an iPad alongside the Surface, then the iPad is going to win in almost all areas – it is built better, there are more apps, the battery seems to last longer, it is more intuitive etc. however  if we compared a new iPad to an iPad 1 (which is the best way of thinking of the Surface) then the gap between the 2 was huge, so we have to take that into consideration as well. The Surface has some key considerations which the iPad lacks and that is the purpose of this blog post:

  • Many schools and educational organisations, have IT support systems which have been built around the Microsoft model (rightly or wrongly), so for them adopting Apple’s iPad hasn’t been an option. The Surface will just slot into their existing mechanism – and that makes it a possibility for lots of organisations who have so far closed the door on tablet technology.
  • Where the iPad works really well is when there is a 1:1 deployment, and each learner has their own device, they then set it up with their email account, their cloud storage (e.g. dropbox or similar) and apps that work for them and their subjects. What some organisations have done is buy a bank of iPads to use in class, but these aren’t individually owned so you cannot set up these individual services – and it then becomes harder for learners to save and export work they have created. With the Surface, this is designed around the notion of having a Microsoft account (Skydrive) and everything is based on that – so if you pick up a device, you log into your Skydrive once – and this connects to all your services. At the end of the session you logout once and the device is ready for the next person.  This to me is one of the Surface’s main points regarding its strategic use within education, and if I was going to set up a bank of devices for a classroom, I would go Microsoft over iPad.
  • I let my kids use both my iPad and the Surface to see how they got on. I expected that they would hate the Surface (having used the iPad for much longer) but they didn’t – in some respects they preferred it. As my 9 year old quoted – “The Tablet is really clever, because you can use it with the keyboard and it is just like a computer, then when you take the keyboard off it turns into an iPad*”. As a device for my kids to do their homework, it is so much easier to use than the standard computer, as it fires up quickly, we can use it in any room in the house, it easily connects to our printers, and it has what the kids need for most of their work which is the internet, and access to office tools such as Word and PowerPoint.
  • Personally I hate flash, and always have done, and it is a technology that is well past its best before date – but there is a huge quantity of legacy material produced in flash especially within education. It is well known that the iPad doesn’t support flash, and Android doesn’t really (although there are work arounds for both). For the moment Microsoft does flash no problem. Many schools have entire maths and science departments based around the use of flash based resources, and if these schools have gone down an iPad route – they are finding this tough.
  • The cost of the Surface is significantly less than the iPad or Android equivalents. Over the summer of 2013, the surface could be bought for £133 + VAT, which is a much easier number to work with when buying potentially tens, hundreds or thousands of these devices.
  • Although the Surface may not have the wonderfully creative apps that the iPad has, it does have Microsoft Office – which gives us Word, Excel, PowerPoint, (and OneNote) – which are still the main tools used by many educators and students. Although I love my iPad, and I use a mac as well as a PC, and a mixture of Office, Open Office and iWork – when I want to do serious office based work, I still revert back to the PC as I find the Office suite works better for me than the others.
  • The surface is only going to get better. If we look at how the iPad has evolved in a few generations, then in a few years time the Microsoft devices should be much closer in performance. The iPad seems to have reached its own plateau – whereas Microsoft is only just starting.

I think the arrival of the Surface tablet is a very positive thing for education – there are now 3 viable options for education (iPad, Android and Microsoft) and choice has to be good – people can choose what is best for their situation, and the competition should keep all 3 providers on their toes, and prices competitive.


*Obviously the Surface doesn’t actually turn into an iPad – but these were the exact words of a 9 year old, and their perception on technology.