Office 365 Groups – Tools to Facilitate Student Collaboration

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Student or group collaboration can be one of the most fulfilling learning activities university students can experience. Given that collaboration is the standard of practice for individuals in post college career settings, it is preferable that students have opportunities to develop and practice these skills during their college career.  Faculty can have a positive impact in this area by carefully considering the design of collaborative activities, monitoring group progress thru regular status reports, assessing the group dynamic and intervening when and where necessary.

There are many ways to facilitate student collaboration for learning activities. One suite of tools available to students is the Groups function in Office 365. The range, variety, and integration of its online tool set can facilitate collaboration, communication, and connection.

Groups can be created for a variety of purposes (i.e., academic or recreational projects, department collaborations, or academic course groups). It is relatively easy to assign members, and Groups can  be either public or private.


There are a number of collaborative tools that users can access in Office 365 Groups. Conversations, a virtual place to communicate with teammates, can provide documentation of communications shared with teammates, similar to an email Inbox. Group members have access to all conversations that have taken place, even those that occurred before they became a member of a group.  Based on the settings for the Group, you can permit individuals who are not part of the team to email the Group so that their message shows up on the Conversations tab, which is a great way to get feedback from outside sources.

The Files tool is a virtual place for group members to share files, and collaboratively edit Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint files in real time. This simplifies file sharing (no more emailing files back and forth), and provides the sense of working together, despite not physically being in the same location.

The Group Calendar is integrated quite well with Outlook, allowing scheduling and coordination of multiple calendars (i.e., personal, professional, group).

Group members also have a shared Notebook, a place to share ideas and take notes that utilizes Microsoft OneNote.

Group members can also access Planner, a task management tool, to organize work, manage and assign tasks to one or multiple group members, create checklists for those tasks, monitor progress, and share that progress with group members who always remain “in the loop”.

Want to learn more? The Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center is offering a new workshop, Using Office 365 Groups to Enhance Student Collaboration, on Wednesday, November 29th, 1:30 pm – 3:00 pm. In this hands-on workshop, participants will explore the Office 365 Groups functionality, including the use of group email, conversations, sharing documents, simultaneously editing documents, and managing group tasks and responsibilities. Register Here! You can also explore the Microsoft Office Support page on Office 365 Groups.

For more information on this workshop, please contact Dan Cabrera, Multimedia Coordinator, at or 815-753-0613.

Photo Credit: Jay Cross

New Features for Combined Courses in Blackboard

Wrapped into the new, faster course request process are a few feature enhancements for those teaching a Master Course in Blackboard. Now when combining student enrollments from multiple course sections into a single course, a Blackboard Group and Grade Center “Smart View” will automatically be created for each section, with students assigned to them according to the section they originally enrolled in. These will make assigning section-specific assignments, and grading section by section, easier. Enrollments in these Groups will be updated as students add, drop, or change sections.

Let’s assume that you have combined several sections into a Master Course, and now you have multiple Groups for these sections. How can you use those Groups to make your teaching more effective and efficient?

Adding Content and Assessments for each Section

Teaching multiple sections of the same course is very common. Whether it is undergraduate and Honors sections, or an undergraduate and graduate section, students work through the same material. In these cases, it makes sense to combine enrollments from all sections into one, within Blackboard. Having done so, however, there may be a need to offer additional material or assignments to one or more of the combined sections, which will now be much easier.

For example, an Honors or graduate section of a combined course may be required to submit an extra assignment. Once you have added any relevant materials (readings, links, etc) and created an Assignment for it, you can use an Adaptive Release rule to limit access to only the students in the relevant Group. Students who were enrolled in another section of the course would not be able to see the content or Assignment.

Selecting the Adaptive Release option from the contextual menu on a content item

Alternatively, you may want the students in one or more sections to participate in a Discussion Forum that is limited to only the students in that section. Perhaps this is an extra assessment for them, or you want TAs to monitor different sections of students. Blackboard Groups include their own Discussion Board (as well as Blogs, Journals, and Wikis), from which any number of forums may be set up for students to take part in a discussion, graded or not. Again, students from other sections of the course would not be able to access the Group Discussion Board. Note that the Groups are unavailable by default, and you will need to edit the groups to make them available to students before you can use the Group Discussion Board feature.

Grading by Section

The other new feature for combined courses is the automatic creation of a Smart View, allowing you to see a given section by itself in the Grade Center.  Previously, if you, or your TA(s), wanted to grade each of your sections independently, you would have to consult MyNIU’s section rosters, going down each list, and mentally skipping over students that weren’t on the current section’s roster. Or, you would have to replicate the rosters using Blackboard Groups and creating a Smart View for each. Now, all of that work is done for you!

To use a Smart View, go the Full Grade Center, and click the Filter button. You can use the Current View drop down menu to select the Smart View you want to focus on. You can also enable a Smart View as a Favorite by clicking the Manage button, choosing Smart Views from the drop-down menu, then, on the Smart Views page, clicking the Star for each of the Smart Views you would like as a Favorite. From then on, you’ll have quick access to each sections’ roster by expanding the Grade Center menu in the Control Panel, then clicking the relevant Smart View.

Adding a Smart View as a favorite, for easy access from the Grade Center menu in the Control Panel

Emailing Students by Section

It is easy to email students in a single section of a combined course, with the new automatically-created Groups. In the Control Panel, click Users and Groups, and then click Groups. Click on the Group Name to open the group, and then Send Email to select students from that section to email. You can use the Select All button and then the right arrow to quickly select all of the students in that section. If you have made the Groups available to students, you can also use the Send Email tool in Course Tools to select a single Group to email.

emailing a group of students


These new groups can be very powerful for making your teaching more efficient, and to enable student collaboration within a single section of a Master Course. What other use cases can you think of? Post them in the Comments – we would love to hear how you are using them!

Facilitating Group Work on Blackboard Next Generation

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It has become an axiom in education that students learn best when they are actively involved in the learning process. Active involvement can be facilitated by integrating group activities with other learning strategies.   Davis notes that “regardless of subject matter, students working in small groups tend to learn more of what is taught and retain it longer than when the same content is presented in other instructional formats” (Davis, 1993).

While group collaboration on student projects is a common feature in face-to-face instruction, successful implementation is dependent upon a number of elements.  These include planning each stage of group work, demonstrating the relevance of group work course objectives, creating group tasks that require interdependence, structuring these tasks for an equitable division of labor among group members, dealing with student concerns and reservations about group work, and evaluating group members’ performance (McInnerney, 2007; Davis, 1993). Faculty may also need to instruct students in group work skills such as active listening and conflict resolution.

Creating Groups

Conducting group activities in an online environment can be facilitated with proper preparation and design of learning activities and a set of appropriate collaboration tools.   Blackboard, the learning management system used at NIU, offers a number of useful tools that can enhance group collaboration.  Earlier versions of Blackboard included a ‘group creation’ function. Faculty members were able to create single groups and manually assign students to each of them.  However, Blackboard Next Generation, the most recent upgrade, includes a number of expanded group features. While faculty can still create a single group, they are now able to create multiple groups, known as a “group set.”

In addition, there are now three ways to assign students to groups (see Figure 1):

  1. students can still be assigned manually by the faculty
  2. students can self-enroll, determining for themselves what group to join
  3. students can be randomly assigned to groups (random assignment can be helpful in the context of larger class sizes and creating multiple groups)

A faculty member’s preferred method of assignment may reflect their individual teaching philosophy. For example, a faculty member may assign students to groups based on specific criteria, such as prior achievement or level of academic preparation. On the other hand, students may be permitted to self-enroll in cases where students are more familiar with each others’ preparation, abilities and skills. Finally, faculty members may utilize random assignment to ensure maximum heterogeneity as well as to expedite group creation with larger class sizes.

Figure 1





Figure 1. Methods of Assigning Students to Groups


Group Page (Group Area)

Group members have access to a customizable group page/area, with a collection of collaboration tools to facilitate communication and enhance completion of group activities (see Figure 2).

In addition to group tools available in previous versions of Blackboard  (i.e., chat, virtual classroom, file exchange, email, and discussion board), several new ones have been integrated into Blackboard Next Generation.

  • Group “blogs” allow group members to post their reflections or discuss and analyze group work. Only group members can participate and contribute to their group blogs.
  • A group “wiki” tool allows members to create and contribute to one or more pages of group-related work. Unlike course wikis where all students can read and contribute, group wikis are only accessible by members of a particular group. Group members can create and edit pages, as well as comment on entries.
  • A group “journal” is a self-reflective tool that can be read by faculty and all group members. However, only individual students and faculty can add comments to journal entries.  Students enrolled in groups have ready access to them from the group’s palette below the Course Menu.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Group Page (Group Area)


Group Assignments

Another new group feature is the ability of faculty to create “group” assignments. Faculty have the option to assign the same activity to all groups, or create different assignments for each group. Group members can access each new assignment from within their Group page (see Figure 2), work together using a combination of group collaboration tools to communicate, prepare, develop, edit, post, and exchange group documents. After the group assignment is submitted, faculty can review and enter a grade for the group as a whole (although there is the option for individual grades to be adjusted/overwritten where necessary).

Faculty considering integrating group activities to their Blackboard courses may want to register for a new hands-on workshop to be offered by Faculty Development November 2011:  “Facilitating Group Work on Blackboard Next Generation.” Participants will have the opportunity to create a single group as well as group sets, explore different methods of enrolling students, and create group assignments.

For more information on creating groups in Blackboard Next Generation, as well as a description of group tools, view the Blackboard Groups Quick Guide:


Davis, B.G. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Roberts, T. S.,  & McInnerney, J. M. (2007). Seven Problems of Online Group Learning (and Their Solutions). Educational Technology & Society, 10 (4), 257-268.