Microsoft has outlined dozens of new Microsoft Teams features that are designed to address key shortcomings that teachers and students have experienced in remote classrooms during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
The back-to-school season is usually about discounting Chromebooks and Surface laptops for students after the long summer break, but in this peculiar year software and online services are just as critical for Microsoft and its customers.
Over the past few months Microsoft has been flagging new and upcoming features for Microsoft Teams, in particular around online video meetings, which simultaneously became vital for schools yet didn't meet the needs of students and teachers involved in online classrooms.
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It's made so many announcements in recent months that the company has decided to outline exactly when education customers can expect the new features.
One of the most highly demanded features is Zoom-like support for 49 people on screen at once, which Microsoft in June said would be coming to education customers first in preview and then in August for all other users.
During the initial worldwide lockdowns beginning in March, Microsoft Teams bumped up support from four people to nine people on screen, and the company was racing to boost it to at least 49 as teachers complained nine was insufficient for engaging students and, for some, justified a paid Zoom account.
In a nod to those complaints, Microsoft said in a new blogpost summarizing new features for education users: "Thank you for sharing your feedback, triumphs, and difficulties with us along the way."
Fortunately, as back-to-school season starts with a high chance that education will be conducted remotely, Teams is in a better position to support teachers and students in online classrooms. It says in August Teams will have enabled the new Large Gallery view that supports 49 users via a 7x7 video grid.
With this year's software-focused back-to-school efforts, Microsoft also needs to provide a lot more product training for its Teams users.
One feature of Teams where people need more product training is Together Mode, an alternative to the 7x7 grid that uses artificial intelligence to superimpose meeting participants' heads and shoulders in a virtual lecture hall.
Microsoft argues that Together Mode will be more productive than grid mode for situations when many people need to speak and the main speaker, such as a teacher, needs to see how engaged students are. Apparently, it also reduces meeting fatigue by making it easier for students to focus on body language and nonverbal cues.
But, as Microsoft warned in July, Together Mode isn't cut out for a speaker using a physical whiteboard or meetings communicated through a PowerPoint presentation – a key consideration for Office 365 users. It also looks "weird", according to Microsoft, when speakers are moving around, almost "like you're jumping around in your seat".
Then there's also Dynamic View in Teams, which changes the view for users depending on who's speaking.
In September, when classes should be back in full swing, Microsoft Teams will have the Attendance Reports feature to show teachers which students joined and when they left a meeting. It needs to be enabled by IT admins.
Teams currently supports up to 300 attendees, but by the end of 2020 Microsoft's collaboration platform will support up to 1,000 students. Teams will also support a view-only meeting experience for up to 20,000 participants.
In Q4 2020, Microsoft will help teachers create virtual breakout rooms that lets them split students into smaller working groups and move students between the rooms as well as unify them when needed.
In September, teachers will have a 'hard audio mute' option to block out chatter when it's time for students to concentrate on their task. It stops students from unmuting themselves.
And in August, Microsoft will deliver improvements that help teachers handle assignments online by letting educators and students view upcoming and turned-in assignments by class or view them across all classes.
Educators and students will be able to visit Assignments in their Teams app bar to view assignments across all classes. It will also introduce anonymous grading to help teachers avoid bias when marking their students' tests.
Finally, there's a new Teams polling extension coming in August that should help teachers manage some of the emotional challenges that come with remote classrooms over extended periods.
"The Reflect messaging extension, available in early August, will give educators and staff another social and emotional connection with their students and colleagues," Microsoft explains.
"Through quick check-in questions and polls, students and colleagues can share how they are feeling in general, or about a specific topic, such as learning from home, an assignment, current events, or a change within their community.
"Using Reflect to check in with others can help you better understand wellbeing and open a dialogue for social-emotional learning (SEL) with your students by giving them an opportunity to practice self-expression and naming their emotions."