Enabling modern SharePoint experiences on Windows 8 for students and teachers

The Contoso Learning Companion is a modern Windows 8 application built to work with SharePoint 2010 and 2013. It uses SharePoint sites as collaboration spaces for classes and study groups and integrates with the popular OneNote application for lessons and assignments. This popular starter kit provides everything you need to deliver tailored Windows 8 solutions for SharePoint.

By Gerald Ferry, Hillary Mutisya, and Lee Riefberg

Interacting with SharePoint sites through Windows 8 apps

Today’s students and teachers are accustomed to working on touch-enabled mobile and slate devices. They check email on these devices, manage tasks, and catch up with their friends. Often, these devices enable interaction with data hosted in cloud services. This article presents a sample app built on Windows 8 that uses the rich tools in Office 365.

The Contoso Learning Companion was built to run on top of SharePoint 2010 and SharePoint 2013, using SharePoint sites as collaboration spaces for classes and study groups. It integrates with the popular OneNote application, enabling teachers and students to work on lessons and assignments while on the go. OneNote enables digital note-taking by using a pen input device, recording audio notes, or typing.

The Contoso Learning Companion demonstrates how teaching and learning scenarios can be more effective with the help of Office 365 services and a modern Windows 8 application experience. It enables aggregation of multiple classes and study groups into a single UI, even if the sites reside within different schools and organizations.

The Learning Companion app includes:

  • Support for both Office 2010 and Office 2013.
  • An aggregated view of current events, classes, and study groups.
  • Access to class and study group sites and their respective elements (events, materials, and so on).
  • OneNote integration for consuming and managing lessons and assignments via a class notebook.

How teachers and students can use the Learning Companion

A local university has customized the app and provided it to its faculty and students. It has been branded in the school colors and watermarked with the school logo. It has also been preconfigured with default SharePoint information and the school’s newsfeed.

When the app launches, the teacher’s current classes are populated on the home screen. She wants to create a new class, and is able to add the new class site through a few simple steps. She also adds some class materials and a few announcements. When creating each class, the application also automatically creates a class notebook, where she adds relevant lessons and assignments.

The students receive an email message with a link to the Learning Companion app, and they install it. The students are met with an experience tailored to their school and their information. They find all of their classes and study groups quickly populated in one place—and now just one click away. They are greeted by an announcement welcoming them and a link to the campus map. Each class Tile is live, and each class inside provides them with all they need, including coming events, course materials, discussions, and other information. The students are ready to jump in right away.

Live Tiles keep you informed

Schools and institutions will want to customize the application and tailor it to fit their specific needs. Live Tiles are a great way to keep students (and teachers) informed. For example, notifications, current events, and even message alerts can be bubbled up.

The home screen provides quick access to classes and information

The home screen can be customized to support a customized background. Again, this can be driven by the service, by the user, or by some other source, depending on your requirements. Figure 2, for example, includes a What’s New newsfeed that could be coming from the institution.


Figure 2. Example of a customized home screen experience

The customized Learning Companion home screen seen in Figure 2 illustrates the following categories:

  • Coming Up provides an aggregated view of your events, rolled up from your classes and study groups.
  • What’s New could be the school’s social or newsfeed, depending on how the app is customized before deployment, providing an ongoing forum for members to interact. Depending on how SharePoint is configured, social feeds may be easily supported.
  • Classes and Study Groups are categorized for easy access. If they haven’t been preconfigured, it’s easy to add them later.

Classes and Study Groups have everything students and teachers need

Classes and Study Groups are fully interactive. Students can do things such as post to class discussions, access course materials, and work in their notebooks. Where desired, the application can be extended by the developer to provide interaction with class members. All the information for their classes is right at their fingertips. Teachers and other authorized users can manage events, edit information, post new class materials, and perform other management tasks. Depending on how an institution decides to extend the application, there are many possibilities.


Figure 3. Example class view

On the example class view in Figure 3:

  • Coming up provides a list of events, respective to the class or study group, in chronological order. Authorized users can manage events via the application or from SharePoint.
  • Announcements, where supported, are provided in a list for quick reference. Announcements are managed by the teacher or other authorized users. 
  • Materials is the document library included in every class or study group site. This is where class materials are provided by the teacher and also where the OneNote class notebook is created. And, where applied, materials protected by Information Rights Management (IRM) can also be supported.
  • Members provides the list of students and faculty with roles in the respective class or study group. Where the functionality has been extended, it may also be possible to see the member’s online presence or location, or to initiate a chat session, a call, or an email message with them. Members are typically managed by the institution via a separate back-end system that the app pulls from, but they can be managed directly by an authorized administrator or dedicated role.
  • Discussions provide ongoing “rooms” of discussion for members on specific topics.

It’s easy to take notes in context with OneNote integration

Each class site includes a OneNote notebook for students and teachers to use, either for collaborating on lessons and assignments or to simply take notes on important topics and lectures. Located in the Materials library, the notebook is designed by default to support student/teacher interaction. It has sections for lecture notes and assignments. These sections are visible to all members of the class (both students and teachers) but they can be edited only by the teachers. Sections are created for the teacher to input lessons and assignments for students to consume. Private sections are also created for each student—visible only to that student (and the teacher)—where they can keep their notes, work on assignments, and collaborate with the teacher. By using OneNote as the repository, the teacher is able to manage student submissions at a glance.


The teacher assigns the first lesson and assignment of the semester. The student is notified via email and via a Learning Companion notification. The student clicks on the included link and the lesson opens in OneNote, where the student can immediately begin working.


Figure 4.  Physics 101 class notebook

Because OneNote pages support various content types, including ink (sketches), audio, video, text, tables, and more, it’s easy for the student to include all the information they need to complete the assignment.


Figure 5. OneNote lessons structure

The teacher is able to collaborate as the student is working on the assignment, checking progress, inserting comments, and answering any questions the student enters.  When the assignment is due, the student can either drop a copy into a predetermined alternate folder or the teacher can assess and grade the assignment in the student’s working folder. And because this is OneNote, grading can be done using ink!


Figure 6. OneNote assignment

More information about the Contoso Learning Companion, including the sample code, is available on the Microsoft Download Center: Contoso Learning Companion ver. 2.0 sample. Licensing is free for SharePoint solutions, and the sample is provided as-is, ready for customization. Watch for our follow-up blog post that will speak to the architecture behind the Contoso Learning Companion, along with requirements and ideas for making it your own.

The authors, Gerald Ferry, Hillary Mutisya, and Lee Riefberg come from the Microsoft Office engineering team, with experience and expertise in delivering modern data driven solutions leveraging numerous technology areas.