✨Tutorial: Microsoft 365 Copilot for Answering Students and Creating Slides
Answer emailed questions addressed by your syllabus, catch students up, and create lecture slides.
[image created with Dall-E 3 via ChatGPT Plus]
Welcome to AutomatED: the newsletter on how to teach better with tech.
Each week, I share what I have learned — and am learning — about AI and tech in the university classroom. What works, what doesn't, and why.
In this fortnight’s Premium edition, I explain how to use Microsoft 365 Copilot to save time with common professorial tasks in Outlook and PowerPoint.
🖼️ The Big Picture
We all spend more time than we would like responding to student emails. And we all have all been there, late at night, trying to get our doggone slides to look right…
Today, I explain how to complete three central professorial tasks with Microsoft 365’s Copilot:
draft emails with Outlook that answer student questions that your syllabus addresses (without simply replying with “Read the syllabus!”);
use Outlook to automatically catch up students on classes they have missed; and
quickly create lecture slides with PowerPoint from slide notes or class readings.
(Before I get any farther: if you have no clue what Microsoft 365 Copilot is or how to get it, scroll to the bottom of this piece or click here.)
I picked these three tasks because most of us engage in them every week and they are similar to many others that we complete regularly. However, there are other reasons, including: Copilot’s functionality is not especially useful in Word at the moment (given the power of ChatGPT and Bard/Gemini for drafting), Excel is its own beast that deserves its own treatment, and I am going to write a dedicated Premium piece on Teams, Zoom, and Google Meet.
Also, note that I will be showing how to complete these three tasks with the in-app functionality of Copilot, not via custom Copilots with Copilot Studio (that guide will come later, too).
In writing this piece, I confirmed my prior impressions that Microsoft 365 Copilot is in its early infancy and yet it is already powerful. I suspect that by the end of 2024, it will be capable of completing most standard professorial tasks, without as much need for Microsoft users to reach outside the ecosystem.
Let’s dive in!
🤔 Answer Student Questions
Addressed by the Syllabus
Every professor gets countless emails each semester from students who ask questions that their syllabus already addresses.
On the one hand, our students cannot be blamed too much, given how long modern syllabi tend to be, with the dozen or so pages of college/university policies (not to mention our own policies, like those covering AI use). And many of our students have a lot on their plates, both academically and otherwise.
On the other hand, it is very frustrating for students to expect for us to prioritize their time over ours. It is tempting to simply email back “Read the syllabus!” — a response that one of my old professors used to deliver with pleasure.
Fortunately, Copilot solves this problem, potentially saving each professor several minutes for every such student email. Students get the information they need while professors don’t lose the time they can’t spare.
Step One: Compose Document with Answers
Here is a sample email similar to one I received early this semester from a student, asking if they really did need to purchase ChatGPT Plus:
The student asks me a question that my syllabus answers directly — in fact, I addressed the issue in my classroom on the first day of class.
The first step to using Copilot to automatically respond to queries like this is to generate a document with common questions and answers. Perhaps your syllabus is already one such document, but I prefer to create a special document — copy-pasting from my syllabus — for this purpose, in order to help Copilot to parse it and thus more easily determine how you would answer various queries about your syllabi.
Here is the demonstration version of this Q&A document that I created in a few minutes:
For demonstration purposes, I have included two student questions that I receive many times at the start of each semester:
Must we buy the required course materials and software?
Can I schedule an appointment to meet with you during your office hours?
I have also included my answers to these questions (suitably anonymized for this context). These are answers that were already included in my syllabi but that students fail to notice.
Beyond the questions and answers, I also do two more things to ensure that Copilot will be clear on how I want it to parse this document:
Style tags to demarcate the overall heading (“Heading 1”), the questions and answer headings (“Heading 2”), and the paragraphs (“Normal”).
Quotation mark sequences to demarcate sections.
The latter tip is an effective method to clarify step-by-step instructions or sectioned content for LLMs, and it is one that OpenAI specifically recommends we use for ChatGPT (which is the LLM underlying Copilot).
The former tip isn’t essential at the moment given that Copilot in Outlook cannot directly reference OneDrive files, but it will be best practice in the coming months as Microsoft adds this functionality — it is functionality already possessed by other 365 apps, like PowerPoint, as I discuss below. I would prefer to not have to go back and edit my Q&A document later.
Step Two: Draft and Reply
After you have created the Q&A document, reply to a student email in Outlook when it arrives. There will then be two ways to use Copilot to respond.
The first is via typing ‘/’ in the body of your reply:
The second is via clicking the Copilot button in the ribbon and clicking “Draft with Copilot”:
Next, go to your Q&A document and copy its contents. Then, type in the Copilot Draft input box the message “Respond based on the following information:” and paste in the entire contents of your Q&A document.
As noted above, in the near future, we will be able to directly reference files without copy-pasting their contents, as we can with PowerPoint, Word, and other Microsoft 365 apps (see the below sections of this how-to for some examples), but for now this is not an option. Once this happens, you’ll be able to simply paste in the OneDrive link to the Q&A document.
Then, press “Generate” and let Copilot do its magic. Here is the first result for me:
You can click “Regenerate” to try again, or you can press “Keep it” and then send. In my experience, if your Q&A document is complete and detailed, you won’t need to regenerate Copilot’s replies.
And if you don’t like its tone or style, you can adjust them via the knob in the lower left of the “Generate” pane (more on this below) or add more to the prompt beyond “Respond based on the following...”
Here is a second case, again modeled on a real student email I received a few weeks ago. In this email, the student asks if they can meet with me or schedule an appointment at a specific time that falls within my office hours period. This is a common misunderstanding of how office hours work that I address on my syllabus; they are first come-first serve, and appointments are a separate matter.
With my Q&A document set up, I can complete the same sequence I described above (paste its contents into the Copilot draft window, after a brief prompt), press “Generate”, and I get a custom response that conforms with my policies and yet is sensitive to what my student wrote:
In this case, as with the prior one, neither do you need to paste some stock response to the student (“Read the syllabus”), which is rude, impersonable, and unforgiving, nor do you need to spend time typing a custom response. Copilot does the work for you. All you need to do is spend a few minutes setting it up for success in advance with the queries you regularly receive from students.
🏃 Automatically Catch Up Students
on Missed Classes
A slightly more complex case is one where a student asks for something that is not static like your syllabus policies. Some such requests are complicated and sensitive to your course’s subject matter — perhaps those are best left for office hours (and if that is your policy, then that would be something to include in your Q&A document). Yet, other such requests are answerable from documents or files that you have access to.
Take the case of a student asking for information about a class session that they missed:
This is a straightforward request for basic information that you remember. While another student could answer it as well — and you could have a policy of directing the emailer to their classmates’ notes via your Q&A document — you might have the position that you, the professor, should answer it. After all, it’s your responsibility to not let your students fall behind, as their instructor.
If this is your position, fortunately Copilot can answer the student’s bespoke request and save you a lot of time.
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