Using MS Teams for online computer practicals

This article will show an example of how MS Teams can be used to organize online computer practicals.

Course: FPE10808 Food Production Chains (Part D: Operations Research and Logistics (ORL))
Period: Period 6 

Short introduction and background

Introduction and story behind the emergence of this learning activity. What was the need, what issue/problem was the teacher facing and wanted to resolve? 

To bring my computer practicals online, I looked into various options. I wanted to mimic an offline mode as far possible, i.e. the interactions and activities that were taken place on campus in the online practicals. On campus, teaching assistants and me would walk through the practical room, look over their shoulders to see what they are doing and help where needed.

The main requirements therefore were that I had to be able to meet with at least 80 students in a single timeslot and to add students to specific rooms; both in groups with teaching assistants and in one-on-one private conversations. Another feature I needed was to be able to let students share their screens. Moreover, I  needed to be able to request  control and take over their computer.

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The regular lectures were recorded in empty rooms and put on Brightspace for students to view. We used Virtual Classroom in Brightspace for the tutorials, in which we would discuss the lecture,  work on exercises and students could ask questions. The Virtual Classroom in Brightspace was not suitable for the computer practicals because of the limited number of of breakout rooms. I also looked into Discord, a tool used in the gaming world. It seemed promising as it has a nice entrance and waiting room option, but it did not allow to take over students’ screens.

With MS Teams, I found a solution that worked really well. Of course, there are things that are less doable than offline, for instance the more informal questions and chats that take place in between lectures. Also, teaching online is quite exhausting and requires multi-tasking. The multi-tasking part is the real fun😊 You have to be (maybe even more than with live teaching) alert. You need to handle multiple tasks when monitoring different channels especially in trying to keep up with the chats. On the other hand, I felt I was really able to give high quality, one-on-one guidance and feedback to students and last but certainly not least: no need to squeeze yourself between chairs in an overloaded computer room and (uncomfortably) bend over students to reach a keyboard, mouse and screen to repair mistakes or visualize issues by using pen and paper. Fortunately, my initial worries that I would not be able to provide good quality computer practicals online was hardly justified. A good and enthusiastic team in Microsoft Teams can break a leg!

Relevant tools / apps (software) or hardware used

Learning outcome(s)

What has been learned after this lesson/activity has been executed ?

From the computer practical, students learn to model problems, implement these models in state of the art modelling software, and practice with theoretical topics provided in Lectures and tutorials. Computer practicals are a very effective addition to the overall learning curve. They have a significant added value in acquiring insight and understanding. Modelling needs a certain degree of ingenuity and creativity. We believe that these aspects are available in our target audience. However, they must be mined and exploited by offering structured exercises, giving (individual) feedback including the demonstration of reasoning by experienced modellers. The audience experiences both their progress in modelling skills and the victory of finding “optimal” solutions given the problem descriptions.

This year we worked with one of the three available cases, i.e.  the Broccoli case. Yearly we switch to another case study.  The case integrates all parts of the course: food process engineering (Part-A), marketing and consumer behaviour (Part-B), food quality and design (Part-C), and Operations Research and Logistics (Part-D). The computer practicals for this showcase in MS Teams refer to Part-D.

Lesson idea / Learning activity

Specific description and demonstration of the lesson idea/learning activity.

The class of 160 students was divided into two groups of 80 students. Each group had several practical sessions of (commonly) 3x40 minutes.  During the period, for each group, eight sessions were scheduled.

Besides the default public General channel in any MS Team, we created 6 private channels to divide the number of students in every private channel. On average 6 to 7 student groups (each student group consisted of two students) are assigned to each private channel.

The real modelling work and its professional support were done in these private channels. Student assistants, postdocs and responsible teacher (I.e. the moderator) were assigned to specific (private) channels. On top of the private channel, we added another private channel solely for teaching assistants, postdocs and the main responsible teacher.

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Overall 14 channels were set up, one public channel (General), 12 private channels (groups - six per the main group), and one private channel (TA/Lecturers). This setup could be used for all eight sessions.

The course practical session consists of:  

  • Plenary start
  • Working in subgroups mentored by a teaching assistant
  • Plenary closure

Plenary start 

The practical (session) started with a short, scheduled, plenary session by the moderator in the general channel of MS Teams, to which all students have access.

Working in subgroups mentored by a teaching assistant 

After this, all six teaching assistants (TA) continue the meeting in their private channels to which 12-14 students have access. All students were divided into pairs to work together. If they had a question they could post a request for help in the channel chat and a teaching assistant could be called in. The student could share his/her screen to demonstrate the issue. The TA could request control and jointly work in the programme as well. Doing it in this way it was easy to assist students with the task at hand and guide them on how to proceed when they were stuck.

Each TA was the head of one private channel, that was named after the TA. However, all TAs, postdocs, and moderator were added to all channels, so they could step in and help out in channels that were busy. For every TA, postdoc and moderator it is very easy to see in MS Teams which private channels are quiet or overloaded with questions. Once you switch to another private channel you see immediately which TA, Postdoc or moderator is in a call. Immediately after they leave a small remark “issue solved” is posted in the channel chat. At that moment “non-channel owners” are informed that the responsible TA, postdoc or moderator is available again. The private channel for TAs, postdocs and moderator was only used to address question/issues TA’s could not solve on their own or communications between members of the support team, e.g. sharing experiences of the private calls in all channels.

Plenary closure 

About 5 minutes before the end of the practical, all private channel meetings were closed and everybody joined the plenary session for a joint closure.

Figure 1: Organisation of the MS Teams

Figure 1: Organisation of the MS Teams with one public channel General, 12 private group channels (with the name of the teaching assistants and postdocs), and one private channel for the moderator, teaching assistants and postdocs.

Figure 2: In MS Teams you can give or request control if a screen is shared.

Figure 2: In MS Teams you can give or request control if a screen is shared. You can easily see who is doing what, because the cursor is showing the controller’s picture (icon). 

Lessons learned / Tips

Mentions tips lecturer has for colleagues based on their experience.

  • Think well about the MS Teams structure in advance, and set it up clearly before you start, as it is more cumbersome to change later.
  • If available, work with sufficient TAs, so you have enough hands to assist your students while they work online. In this way students don’t feel lost, since the waiting time can be kept to a minimum.
  • Set-up a private channel for the teachers and teaching assistants, so they can easily have a consultation on the side.
  • Note that the progress per session in an online mode is less than offline.


Teacher(s): Frits Claassen
TLC contact (on MS Teams):
Eline Noorbergen, Barbara van Mossevelde
Author (interviewer): Barbara van Mossevelde 


Teaching assistants: Kimberley Tiemersma, Uyen May, Eline Koetsier, Lisanne van Hasselt

Postdocs: Viet Nguyen, Heleen Stellingwerf



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