The End of Student-to-Student Teams Chats
By Craig Papajohn-Shaw, Lucy Wu
Volume 2 Issue 2
November 19, 2021
Original screenshot by Eva Grace Martinez
From its introduction to the Valley Stream Central High School District during the 2019-2020 school year, Microsoft Teams was gradually integrated as an ongoing initiative to digitalize the student and staff experience. During the pandemic, however, Teams reached its peak usage. Without much formal training, teachers and students had to quickly learn how to navigate and use the program for daily remote learning activities from laptops at home and in school for the hybrid model.
Chat, a feature within the Microsoft Teams program, allows students, teachers, and administrators to readily connect even in a completely remote setting. For students, gone were the days of chasing someone down for tonight’s homework assignment or the final component of a group project. With a quick search and a few clicks, it was possible to contact a student in any group, class, or grade safely and instantly: no personal phone numbers, no waiting, no hassle. While many students dreaded the notification sound of a Teams message, Teams chats truly revolutionized and streamlined communication among members of the school community. With its intensifying use amongst sports teams, clubs, and project groups, Teams chat conversations grew into a vital daily resource. There were so many good things about it. If nothing else, it fostered a sense of unity and interconnectedness through a digital interface while users were recovering from a global pandemic.
As a result, the school district’s removal of students’ ability to initiate student-to-student Teams chats came as a surprise to most teachers and students. Under the updated system, if a student tries to create a new chat with a student they do not already have an existing chat conversation going with, an error message appears: “Unable to create chat: you do not have permission to create a new chat with one or more selected participants; please contact your IT administrator...” Frustration from students and teachers, especially club advisors, ensued.
An interview with Interim Assistant Principal Mr. Fabian Jara revealed that adjusting the usage of Teams chats has actually been an ongoing discussion since last year. Mr. Jara stressed how chats became a distraction to the learning environment. Because students could utilize the program to chat at inappropriate times, like during class as well as after school, it could become a vehicle for cyberbullying, so these actions forced district and school administrations to act -- to prevent further misuse. Disciplinary referrals have been distributed to students due to reports investigated by the school which included viewing the students’ chats. The Teams platform, and the information shared on it, is completely accessible to, and the property of, school administrators. Some students' lack of judgment has caused issues for the administration; however, many students were using student-to-student chats appropriately, and to aid their academic and student activities work.
Senior Luiginna Frederique, a prominent member of North’s yearbook committee, expressed her dissatisfaction with the new policy: “Personally, I find the restriction to be extremely inconvenient as a person who has to constantly reach out to students I may not necessarily be personally close with. I am in many clubs, and sometimes I don’t necessarily want to give out my phone number or social media to others to communicate [about] school matters. Even outside of extracurricular activities, I can’t communicate with classmates I have projects with or if we are working together for class assignments. Teachers can only take so much time to create individual chats for each group of students.”
A faculty advisor we spoke to admitted the workaround was a good idea but complained that being privy to those student club members’ chats adds more notifications and messages on top of the heavy communication traffic they already have to manage all day including outside school hours. Luiginna, among many other students, now faces an aggravating reality: either hunt for phone numbers and Instagram handles or repeatedly ask an advisor to create new chat conversations for the students involved. Distributing personal contact information among students can create a stressful and uncomfortable atmosphere. While some might argue students could just use their school Outlook accounts to e-mail each other, that does take longer than a quick chat, and most students do not have the Outlook app on their phones, possibly due to storage issues or a lack of knowledge about how to set up an e-mail account through Microsoft on their smartphones.
Mr. Jara elaborated on the issues leading to the district’s decision. Besides the intended use to correspond among classmates regarding academic matters, students were sharing homework, and even quiz and test answers with each other on the platform. But even more concerning to the administration was the creation of group Team chats with a shockingly large number of students chatting during and after classes, and cyberbullying of peers was taking place, especially among the middle schoolers. Not bullying other students on a media platform moderated by school officials should be common sense. And sharing answers, also on the school-moderated platform, blatantly violates our Academic Integrity Policy.
Even considering these problems with violations, many teachers have expressed the same sentiments as students about the removal of student-enabled Teams chats. For instance, AP Seminar Capstone Research teacher Mr. Powers stated how the shift in policy had changed the environment in his collaborative-based classes: “In a way, it has made class time concrete and less creative in that now our groups must directly collaborate daily to advance the agenda. In another way, it’s illogical [because] many chats are now off the academic platform and have reverted to social platforms for academic discussion.” Specifically, within the AP Seminar course, students are tasked with writing and presenting a research report in a group of three to four class members. When Teams was introduced, the chat feature became a productive and immediate method to coordinate members on an academic platform. However, the implementation of this policy has caused teachers to further scrounge for valuable class time, as much of it now must be devoted to providing a space for students to interact in person solely during their class period, whereas previously, the class could accomplish much of the project work asynchronously. Similarly, students must resort to other means of having academic discussions, such as through Snapchat, Instagram, or iMessage, platforms unmonitored by school officials. Ironically, in an attempt to mitigate the adverse effects of students using Teams chats, students now have discussions in platforms with a non-academic context, impeding the educational process and escaping the purview of administrators.
After considering the perspectives of administrators, teachers, and students, what is the future role of Teams chats? Should misuse among only a percentage of students necessitate the removal of the platform for the remainder of the student body? Is the new policy effective when pre-existing chats between students can easily still be used anyway? As the district administration and the Information Technology (IT) department work together to implement solutions, the fate of Teams chats ultimately lies in the hands of the administrative team at VSN and district.