Microsoft OneNote and Teams: Alternatives to the LMS


Since the closure of schools and universities this spring, Microsoft has been producing a wealth of remote learning resources in support of its educational tools, most notably Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook and Teams. OneNote Class Notebook, launched in 2014 and built on Microsoft’s note-taking tool, OneNote, is a digital note-taking, content sharing, and collaboration tool that can serve as a simple alternative to the LMS. Teams, introduced in 2017, is an online hub for communication and collaboration, including file sharing, chatting, and videoconferencing. Together these tools are perfect for instructors who are looking for user-friendly online course management capabilities without the complexity of the LMS. They can work particularly well for instructors who must quickly take their courses online due to emergencies such as COVID-19. The two products integrate with one another, with other Microsoft products, and with a growing list of education apps that instructors can add directly to the class space. OneNote Class Notebook and Teams are included in the Microsoft Office 365 Education suite, which is free for educators and their students.

OneNote Class Notebook

The basic structure of Microsoft OneNote is part of what makes it so easy to use. It is an online notebook that consists of sections and pages. You can have as many sections, as many pages within each section, and as much space on each page as you like. It works on any platform or device, although desktop versions have greater functionality than mobile or web versions.

OneNote Class Notebook takes the basic structure of sections and pages further and sets up three areas ideal for online classwork. One of the areas is the Content Library, which students can see but only the instructor (and any co-instructors) can edit, and it includes an optional “teacher only” section where materials not ready for view can be worked on. Another area is the Collaboration Space, which the instructor and students can edit. Finally, the students each get a notebook where they can do individual work. The instructor can see all the student notebooks, but students cannot see each other’s.

The Content Library is where I post all my course materials. I have a section for our course syllabus, where I can easily add live links for textbooks or websites we will use in the course. I have another section where I post the course schedule, which can include links to homework assignments (such as article PDFs or websites) and is easily edited if a snow day or global pandemic throws a wrench into your plans. For my Latin courses, I have a section called “Resources,” where I post different pages on Latin grammar and morphology, which the students can access for review. I sometimes add a section where I post links to any PowerPoint or Microsoft Sway presentations I’m using. And for my Latin literature courses, I can cut and paste sections of Latin texts onto a page for use during class sessions. During a live class, whether it is on campus or online via a web conferencing tool, such as Microsoft Teams video meetings, I can share my OneNote page with the Latin text and annotate it (with the digital inking tools in the Draw ribbon) as the class works through the translation. All my annotations are automatically saved, and students can look back at this page or any other in the Content Library after class. It’s kind of like a whiteboard that goes home with the students. When students have questions on grammar or morphology, I can easily navigate to the Resources section of my Content Library, review with students, and then click back over to the text page to continue with our translation work. This ease of navigation is key during a live class, again, whether on campus or online.

A student's digital annotation of Latin text in OneNote Classroom. Annotations indicate parts of speech, case, tense, and mood.

Figure 1. Example of OneNote page with digital annotations

The Collaboration Space is a great area for students to do group work. In my classical archaeology courses, I create sections in the Collaboration Space to correspond with each week’s topic. Within that section I create pages on different Greek or Roman monuments and have students work in groups of three or four, researching the assigned monument on their page. Students can work on a page simultaneously using any device (laptop, tablet, phone), and when each student adds content, a colored vertical stripe with the student’s initials at the top appears to the right of that content. If I hover my cursor over the initials, the student’s full name appears, along with the date and time they added the content. This way I can see which student added each bit of material to ensure that everyone in the group gets proper credit for their work. Each OneNote page allows for a variety of content: users can add text, annotations, images, links, videos, and documents (including printouts of documents, which can then be annotated with digital ink). The flexibility of the type of content that can be added to a OneNote page allows for robust sharing of material and collaboration in one space.

A page showing a map along with two photographs and a 3-D model showing Ancient Roman basilicas

Figure 2. Example of OneNote Collaboration Space with student images and text

The student notebooks within the OneNote Class Notebook are where students can complete individual work. There students can create their own sections and pages to take notes during or after class. As the course instructor, I can create sections in their notebooks where I’d like them to complete assignments. I can even create a homework page—for example, a worksheet or series of questions—and distribute that page to all the student notebooks with one click. I can then choose that page to review and easily click through one student’s assignment after another. I can make notes right on their page when grading, including digital ink annotations, and even add audio (or a video in some versions of OneNote) to give even more personal feedback on the assignment.

Class Notebook’s tripartite structure takes OneNote far beyond what a basic note-taking tool can offer. For four years I used Class Notebook on its own as an alternative to my institution’s LMS, which I (and many other faculty with whom I’ve commiserated) always found clunky, difficult to use, and lacking tools for student collaboration. With Class Notebook, I could grade student assignments right on the pages in their individual notebook space, and I kept track of all course grades in an Excel file. That said, a Class Notebook can, in fact, be synced to an institution’s LMS or student information system to report grades and can also be embedded in an LMS to serve as a tool within a course shell. As such it can be an excellent complement to an LMS, providing a space for student collaboration, note-taking, and digital inking.

Microsoft Teams

A newer tool that has been growing rapidly in terms of its features and popularity, Teams offers functions that can boost the feasibility of OneNote Class Notebook as an alternative to the LMS. At its core, Teams is an online communication hub where you can share and collaborate through chats and on files within a team space and hold secure video meetings. There are four team types you can choose from, one of which is a class team that includes an assignments tool and grade book.

A OneNote Class Notebook is automatically provided within a class team, so you have all the functions of a Class Notebook within the team and can use the other features of Teams for discussion boards and live class video meetings. Microsoft continues to enhance Teams with new capabilities, including recently announced video meeting features such as “Together mode,” which displays meeting participants in a virtual room (thus combatting video fatigue), speaker attribution for live captions and transcripts, and live participant reactions using emojis.

Teams is also enriched by the large variety of Microsoft and non-Microsoft tools you can add to a team, such as Quizlet, Kahoot!, Flipgrid, or Wakelet. I’ve been especially impressed by the number of professional development opportunities Microsoft Education offers, and the immediate support I have experienced when reaching out to Microsoft Education with questions about using Teams, OneNote, and other Microsoft tools. The combination of Teams and OneNote Class Notebook, which I’ve been using for my campus and online courses over the past academic year, has become an effective and compelling alternative to the LMS. As many universities already use Microsoft Office 365, it’s becoming difficult to justify the high cost of an LMS and other pricey, stand-alone ed tech tools.

The rich features that these user-friendly tools provide and the willingness of those who work at Microsoft Education to support educators and students and add requested features make them ideal alternatives for faculty who want a simple means of taking their courses online. The resources below will help you get started on the journey.

Microsoft Teams University: resources for using Microsoft Teams in higher ed

The Ultimate Microsoft EDU Wakelet of Wakelets: resources on a variety of Microsoft Education tools, including Microsoft Teams and OneNote

Microsoft EDU “You Can in :90”: a series of 90 second how-to videos on Microsoft tools

Remote Teaching and Learning Resources from Microsoft Education

Valentina DeNardis, PhD, is director of classical studies at Villanova University.

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