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Math teachers’ summer collaboration with Office Online in Office 365

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Today’s post was written by Cal Armstrong, Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert at Appleby College in Canada.

This year, I had the opportunity to be faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study’s Park City Mathematics Institute (PCMI)—a three-week, residential program for mathematics teachers from around the world. There are three aspects to PCMI: One is discovering (new) mathematics, another is delving deeply into pedagogy and the third is becoming a resource to other teachers. It is the latter in which Office Online has made our summer work possible.

The task in the two-hour afternoon sessions is to develop a resource not for you, but for others. This often takes the form of a professional development seminar, a task collection on a particular theme (i.e., “low floor, high ceiling”) or a rubric or framework for teacher learning.

Math teachers summer collaboration with Office Online in Office 365 01

Now, all that seems pretty manageable. But the teachers are from all over. They don’t know one another. They have different roles (elementary, middle and high school level). They have different curricula and widely varying expertise in professional development. They also all arrive with different devices, many of them school-provided that are subject to a variety of IT restrictions. To top it all off, we only had 14 hours to get everything done; so being efficient, flexible and open was important. We set Office Online and Office 365 to the task!

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Initial meetings via Skype, brainstorming in OneNote

The program runs for three weeks starting July 1, but beginning in May, we used a Skype for Business “meeting room” to introduce teachers to each other and the task. They needed to find a theme they’d like to work on, and a partner, since no one works alone. This year, we covered time zones from Amman and Jordan to California. It was nice that the link to the Skype meeting room never changed, and it stayed open for the participants to meet with each other independent of me, the organizer, at their convenience. We were also able to easily record the sessions for people who just couldn’t find a time that worked for them.

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We used a OneNote Online notebook to record everyone’s ideas, contact information and resources. This gave everyone an opportunity to describe what they were interested in and read over everyone else’s ideas at their leisure. Adding a table with everyone’s name in the first column ahead of time allowed everyone to just open the OneNote link, click in the cell and add their information. A little structure for new users goes a long way to making the transition to OneNote a lot easier. Several working groups formed and met online ahead of time so that they could hit the ground running in Park City.

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When we finally met face-to-face in Park City, I already had everything set up. There was a shared OneDrive folder for their group with the PD Facilitator Guides, a PowerPoint template and a shared OneNote notebook. Since their final project names or descriptions weren’t ready, they were given Utah city names. This worked really well for organizing us physically in the large room we worked in and for keeping their files together. The PCMI 2016 WG folder was only shared with staff so we could keep all the information from the afternoon together.

Math teachers summer collaboration with Office Online in Office 365 05

Math teachers summer collaboration with Office Online in Office 365 06

Inside their OneNote notebook, I created three specific sections for them. As many participants were new to OneNote, this structure gave them easy steps to get used to the program. I created a Notes section, and named the first page Brainstorming; a Research section, in which we could put journal articles; and a For Cal section, where they would drop materials that I needed to look at, such as learning goals, abstracts, trailers for their workshop, etc. I also put a link to their OneDrive (the Bountiful link, in this example) so they could easily jump between the two spaces. The master, shared OneNote notebook we started during the Skype sessions was then shared to everyone. This was basically our clearinghouse of information and scheduling for the 14 days.

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Math teachers summer collaboration with Office Online in Office 365 08

Overcoming “Why can’t we use Google Docs?”

One of the first questions I received was why we weren’t using Google Docs. For us, there were several reasons:

  • First, in our past experiences with Google Docs, we were hit with issues around convenience and maintaining our formatting. With Google Docs, when we needed extra functionality that Office desktop applications offer, we had to first export or download the file. In the process, we often lost some of our formatting. Whereas with Office Online, when we need more functionality, a single click can open the document in the Office desktop applications, and our formatting is preserved.
  • Second, we’re located in a ski resort with sometimes dubious Wi-Fi. By using OneNote for their initial development and to store their research and incremental draft copies, participants could continue to work even if the Wi-Fi was really slow or non-existent (and we lost Wi-Fi a couple of times).
  • Third, we wanted to avoid email and disparate information as much as possible. Ten teams can produce a lot of information in a short amount of time. Using OneNote made it easy for me to read, support and provide feedback in one place without having to send email. While you can share documents separately with Google Drive, you can’t share these within the context of other pieces of information. Using OneNote, you can provide a document but also frame it in relationship to the other documents you have, and provide annotated comments and layer information. Being able to truly brainstorm in OneNote—clicking and adding varied types of media/content (ink, audio, files, etc.) wherever you want—is something you can’t do in Google Docs.

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Writing, reviewing and sharing work with OneDrive and Office Online

Given that many of the participants were using school laptops, we couldn’t be certain that they had Office installed on their computers, or if it was installed, that it was a recent version. Fortunately, Office Online works really well across devices, allowing them almost the full power of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote in a browser. And of course, simultaneous collaboration (or real-time co-authoring) was very powerful. Since all of the participants were math teachers, they sometimes wanted access to the Equation Editor or other rich functionality, so they would occasionally “drop down” into the desktop version of Word if they had it installed on their PC or Mac.

The participants wrote, edited and shared with other groups for feedback, and then wrote again. That Office Online enables multiple users to seamlessly edit the same document made it so easy to collaborate. Plus, it’s free for OneDrive users.

On the eighth day, all of their work up to that point was to be given to an external reviewer (mathematics educators at universities and schools across the U.S.) for additional feedback. In order to make this work, I created a folder in each of the OneDrive folders called FINAL. Participants put all the files that they wanted the external reviewer to look at in that folder, and I just copied each of these folders into a PCMI 2016 WG Reviews folder (picture above). Since I had everything synced to my laptop, it was a quick step to open two File Explorer windows and drag copies into the folder created for the reviewers.

With that done, I opened up my Excel spreadsheet with all the reviewers’ names, interests and emails, and pasted a sharing link into another column. Next, using Mail Merge in Word, I created an email with instructions, a list of review questions to answer and the sharing link to the folder with all the group’s files that was sent to each reviewer.

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A few reviewers used Word Online to add comments to the participants’ files. Others created a new Word document in the folder to add their comments. Most used the PD Criteria Review document template I provided and edited it in Word Online. Once the review was completed, I copied all the reviews from the reviewer folder into the participants’ original OneDrive folders. They could see all of the content the reviewers had seen and all of the comments. It worked beautifully!

With only a few days left to work, participants were asked to put all their final copies in the FINAL folder again. One of the files they had to submit was a two-minute “trailer” for their professional development. Most of them shot the video on their phones and quickly uploaded it into the OneDrive folder. Since my laptop was synced to OneDrive, I could copy all the trailers into another OneDrive folder I shared with the organizer of our sharing afternoon so everyone could see all the trailers and all the other work done at PCMI.

Suzanne Alejandre, of the Math Forum, has been collecting all of our work for 14 years. So I zipped each FINAL folder and put all the zips in another OneDrive folder I shared with her, and now they all reside at

And just to continue to reinforce the power of Office Online, I wrote this blog post while on a motorcycle trip. I stopped in at the public library in Billings, Montana, where I was able to open a Word document via my OneDrive account and pull up the participants’ work in their OneDrive folders as needed. Even in the sometimes restrictive environment of a public library, I’m able to view, edit and continue to reflect on what I learned over the summer. Why wouldn’t anyone want this flexibility?

—Cal Armstrong