How one UMass professor spanned the globe with Office 365

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Credit: Lucas Mascaro

When former professor Gino Sorcinelli retired from teaching at the University of Massachusetts Isenberg School of Management in 2010,* he left some unfinished business. He had been developing a class for working in groups for a number of years, but he wanted to do more with it and he wasn't going to let a minor thing like retirement get in his way.

He and a colleague in Ireland had been kicking around the idea of an international collaboration course for years. It took some twists, turns, and technological advances, especially around cloud computing, but he stuck with It, even through his retirement, and the class he envisioned finally became reality.

Today, he oversees a class called Effective Decision-Making in the Age of Cloud Computing that involves students from UMass working together with overseas students in Ireland, Egypt, and Russia. In the fall, he will be adding one more class from Taiwan, giving his students not only the ability to work with cloud tools, but also to understand how to work in groups online across cultures -- all valuable skills in an increasingly global business climate.

The class works with an all-Microsoft solution, using OneDrive for storage and file sharing, Lync to communicate with peers in other countries, and Office 365 -- particularly PowerPoint, Excel, and Word -- to generate class assignment deliverables.

For each assignment, a team has to produce a presentation they create in conjunction with one US team and one of the teams from an international school. For example, one assignment teaches them how to work together on competitive research: "Your companies & competitors - Business Intelligence (BI) Activities and Planning."

The current course didn't happen overnight. It was actually a series of steps and experiments that got them to this point, Sorcinelli explained.

Sorcinelli taught at Isenberg from 1994 to 2010. He began teaching a course in Business Information Systems that would be the precursor to what would eventually become this cloud course. In this original course, students did lab assignments from a workbook to teach them how to use Microsoft Office. As you can imagine, students were bored with this approach and complained about the lack of interactivity with their fellow students.

At the same time, a business advisory group that works with the business school recommended that courses build in more teamwork. So Sorcinelli worked with a business reference librarian to build the first assignments for the course and put them in a SharePoint portal that he built himself. He said he has been working with SharePoint since 1999 in its earliest iterations, and while he isn't a SharePoint expert, he certainly knows his way around it.

In this earliest iteration, UMass students worked in groups to complete the assignments in the portal.  

Sorcinelli refined his process over the years, but he wanted to do more and around 2005 he met a colleague Murray Scott from the National University Ireland (NUI) Galway and began kicking around the idea of having the Irish students and the US students work together.

That got Sorcinelli thinking, and he began to imagine a course based in the cloud where students could work together. Given his experience with SharePoint and Office, he focused on Microsoft's cloud solutions. Sorcinelli wanted to provide a technological foundation for the students, not expose them to different cloud solutions. In his view, that would have been impossible in the context of the assignments and what the students have to accomplish over the course of the semester.

Unfortunately, the Microsoft tools he wanted to use weren't quite ready for this, but by 2011 the technology had caught up with the vision.

The first international team, including Sorcinelli and Scott, met in Cambridge, Mass., at the Microsoft R&D labs to work directly with Office 365 team. By this time, Lync had matured to the point they could use it for international communication among the teams, and they were able to put together a package of technologies to teach the course they are running today. Over the years, the have folded in the other universities and refined the process along.

Anthony Moh, a graduating UMass senior who took the course, says working with the Microsoft tools was trivial. Moh, who will be working for Microsoft after graduation on the Office 365 engineering team, said the package of tools worked well together, especially in the context of the design of the overall course. He admitted there may be individual cloud tools that would have been better for certain tasks, but in terms of how it all fit together for the course, it suited their purposes. Otherwise, he explained, students would have been forced to open individual tools for each part of the process, rather than having them all work together in a package.

The problems they have encountered tend to be social and cultural, not technological. For example, there are logistical problems finding a time to meet that's suitable for all when crossing time zones. In Egypt, the weekend is Friday and Saturday, whereas in the States it's Saturday and Sunday, and the teams have to work these things out.

Plus, while all the teams speak English, there is still a language barrier because English is not the first language of the Russian and Egyptian teams.

Student Moh explained that when you work across cultures like this -- and he grew up in Singapore, so he's used to this some extent -- you have to drop the cultural assumptions about what people will understand and make clear points. You can't use a lot of colloquialisms. He believes this will help him when he goes out into the work world and he has to be clear and concise in meetings.

Sorcinelli said he gives interviews at the end of every semester and asks students what they liked and didn't like. While some students have made suggestions, nobody has questioned the technology choices used in the class.

He admits a certain bias about using Microsoft, but he says the course as designed has worked well using the Microsoft tool kit. "Could we have done it using Google Docs?" he asked. "Sure, but this is what I know." And so far, that's worked pretty well for him and his students.

*The original version of this article misstated the year Sorcienelli retired.

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