Three Cool New Features from Microsoft Teams for Virtual Classrooms

Arrange students in "virtual auditorium," live captions, and class is automatically transcribed.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

In February, few professors had never heard of Zoom. Almost overnight, the firm exploded in popularity on college campuses. Vendors like Microsoft Teams, Skype Business, and Cisco Webex seem to have been caught flat-footed. Over the past few months, Zoom has introduced some new features that improve its usefulness in class. For example, you can now use powerpoint slides as your virtual background. (I still encourage professors to avoid the temptation to use powerpoint and other screen sharing–they are boring and difficult to follow; use the time in class for frequent polling and other assessments).

Now Zoom's competitor are catching up. I encourage everyone to watch a video from Microsoft Teams. For sure, it is a slick marketing packeting. But it promotes several features that I think would significantly improve virtual pedagogy.

First, the software allows you to arrange participants in an auditorium format. The background is automatically cropped out, so you see a person sitting in a chair. You can view up to 49 students at once. This design resembles the "virtual bleachers" broadcasted in NBA games from the bubble. I would really appreciate this sort of view. It would make the class so much more life-like.

Second, the software supports live captions. As a person speaks, Teams will automatically generate closed captions. I am not an expert on the ADA, but this sort of feature would help ensure compliance. This captioning would also address a perennial problem in class: when a student asks, "Can you please repeat the question?" Now, students, once called on, can quickly scroll up and read the question. I'm not sure if this is a net-positive or net-negative move. On the plus side, a student can quickly read what was said, and avoid confusion. On the down side, a student may drift off, and re-read a question when called upon. On balance, I tend to think more information is always better. But I suspect some professors will disagree.

The third feature is potentially significant. At the end of the session, Teams will automatically generate a transcript of the entire class. Far too often, students feel the need to type down everything a professor says, verbatim. This dictation approach is awful. Students cannot process information when they are robotically typing. Some professors ban laptops, and assign a single student as a dedicated note-taker. Even then, the notes are not complete. But now, Teams generates a single, official transcript. Students will have no excuse–really no reason–to type everything verbatim. And all students will have access to the same material. I am very excited about this last feature.

Now, some professors will not want their words to be transcribed, for much the same reason they do not want to to be recorded. My general advice: get over it. Every professor should presume that they are being recorded at all times–especially over Zoom. Screen-recording is so simple. And it is always better to have your own backup copy. Still, a written transcript is far less risky than a recorded video. It is tough for a transcript to go viral on YouTube.

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  1. May want to post a disclaimer about transcription. Even if the teacher is in a one party consent state, a student could be in a two party consent state.

  2. How accurate are the transcripts? (I worked at a company which computerized court stenographers, back around 1980; one of the funny stories concerned a judge pissed at a lazy reporter who did not copyedit very well, and left intact “I would like to have urine put on this problem”)

    How laggy are captions? I have seem some caption systems which were just far enough behind to be really confusing.

  3. I am long past my college days but I find taking notes either by hand or with a computer helps me retain information much better. I do hate the clattering of key boards when someone is trying to conduct a session and I’m trying to pay attention.

    1. Taking some notes generally improves focus, but working too hard on capturing everything wears out attention. The proper balance will depend on the subject matter and the teaching style of the instructor. And on the student’s own style.
      If it were me, I would certainly turn off the sub-captions. They are almost surely a distraction in the moment, but having the full transcription after the class — even if the transcription is flawed — would probably be helpful for many.

  4. You are not bothered by the fact that every conversation on Microsoft Teams is recorded. But your ego is so stroked by having your words chiseled in stone that privacy concerns don’t even occur to you.

  5. I’m not certain that ‘[v]endors like Microsoft Teams … and Cisco Webex” were actually “caught flat-footed.” Scalability and maintainability are two factors that Cisco and Microsoft consider before releasing a product: Zoom is still young-and-foolish, but even now is hearing complaints about quality and performance issues that should have been addressed before product release. Profitability, too, is a factor: a perfect product which generates revenue too small to keep the lights on will not survive for long.

    The Microsoft and Cisco products are definitely designed to support real-world business needs: at some point, Zoom (and other smaller competitors) will move beyond the “this is cool” stage. I’m not knocking Zoom — it’s a good product — but I do question the long-term stability of both the product and the company. Would I invest in Zoom-specific supporting hardware? Probably not; instead, I would look at the Cisco & Microsoft products and select supporting hardware which _also_ offers Zoom compatibility. [To be fair, I’ve been a Microsoft investor since 1987 and a Cisco investor since 1990.]

  6. Virtual bleachers are lame. If you have a class of 50 students, you have to accept that you can’t actually watch everyone’s face.

    Cisco’s Webex has an advantage over Zoom that it supports a level of encryption suitable (as determined by DOE and DOD) for export controlled information. The interface is not as smooth as Zoom.

    Both can and will be improved

  7. JB is the one who should get over…. himself.
    Zoom recording can be forbidden to everyone but the host. If attendees are in a two party consent state, it is the responsibility of the host to deal with the obligation to obtain consent.

    I do so, in writing, for my classes.

  8. For what it’s worth, I find GoToMeeting (.com) both more reliable and easier to use than Zoom, and that’s even if you don’t believe Zoom’s authors may be engaged in espionage. As for Microsoft, I trust them about as far as I trust China, which is why I run Linux.

  9. Sorry Josh, but I don’t want anything to do with any Microsoft products.

  10. I remember one day in my high school advanced math class my professor asked a student a question, and she was busy writing notes and didn’t hear. The professor then snapped and literally screamed at her for taking notes in class. It would be funnier at the time if that anger didn’t freak everyone out.

    He then demanded that no one be allowed to write notes in class for the next month.

    It was well known that he had a temper when you pushed him hard, but he was really nice otherwise even if people came close but didn’t cross the line. So just taking notes and not hearing being enough to set him off hard was a surprise.

    His basic point was that in a math class, especially an advanced math class, simply writing down whatever is on the board is a waste of time. Anyone can read a textbook. The point of giving and listening to a lecture is to get the concepts and ideas, and to listen, because you must grab what the professor is saying. What the professor is writing is just an aid. This is especially important for higher level classes because your job in those classes isn’t to understand the basic concepts, its assumed you know them, it is to grasp the higher level thinking and abstract concepts that can only be shown through words.

    Thinking back, I largely agree, which is why in college and at work meetings everyone is just scribbling nonsense down and I’m listening, and its served me well. But it was still probably an overreaction.

  11. Recording a professor without consent is illegal in many states, and posting the recording is also likely a copyright violation. Yes, it’s easy to do … but so is picking the lock to a home door – that doesn’t justify it, and it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

  12. First sentence: “In February, few professors had never heard of Zoom.” Strike “never.” Insert “ever.”

  13. The auditorium view has uncanny valley problems in my view. Everyone at different head sizes, the disconnect between background and face, etc. are odd enough to be constantly distracting. Maybe you get used to it.

  14. The world has changed forever. Undetectable recording is everywhere. This is true for both in person communications and for electronic communications. In the in person case, everyone carries a cell phone that could be recording, and they could have a USB to memory recorder secreted about their person. In the online case, even if zoom as disabled recording internal to that app, it is trivial in Linux to direct any output to the speakers, also to a recording application such as audacity. It is just not technically possible to prevent hidden recording.

    If there are many listeners present, then copyright may prevent legal copying, but illegal copying can not be prevented because of anonymity.

    The old rules of the game are over. This changes the harassment equation. Genuine harassers need to fear a victim recording. But also fraudulent accusers need to fear that their targets might be recording.

    Universities and professors trying to ban recording, especially for private use, is just quaint.

    Always assume that everything you say in a public context will be shouted from the rooftops of YouTube and BitChute.

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