The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a monumental shift for many educators in needing to move their traditionally face-to-face classes to online formats. Many moved into synchronous video meeting environments in an effort to replicate the types of learning activities they did in the classroom. While synchronous video provided a good opportunity to continue classes synchronously, much was lost in this shift in terms of casual communication and the social cues needed to support fluid communication. The online facilitation skills and techniques to support equitable and well run synchronous meetings were new to many faculty. There are various nuances that make communicating in these environments distinct from communicating in person.
Many faculty have experienced the occasional dead air when asking a large group of students for participation or feedback online. It takes bravery for a student to grab the microphone and start responding, and if you happen to have a synchronous collision with someone else trying to speak, this can create an additional awkward silence and a reluctance to try again. Participants can be asked to use the “raise hand” feature built into many meeting tools, however learners at large are still somewhat reluctant to speak up to contribute, ask questions, or share ideas. It became critical to create opportunities for socialization through collaboration. The use of breakout rooms, where a large group can be divided up into smaller groups for discussions, became a big part of this social time and led to positive interactive discussions.
Small Group Discussions Online
While small group discussions and the use of breakout rooms in synchronous meeting environments are hardly new innovations, they have become absolutely essential tools to support fully online interactive learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. This short paper explores the crucial need for and design of breakout-room activities used throughout the Fall 2020 term and explores ideas for the future of small, online group discussions to support interactive and responsive pedagogy into the future. While synchronous online meeting tools have evolved quite bit over the years and certainly have been adopted widely in response to the 2020 pandemic, there are still many ways they may evolve to support collaboration, discussion, and interactivity for educational contexts.
There is ample evidence that small groups can contribute to positive learning experiences and outcomes (Akcaoglu and Lee 2016; Brookfield and Preskill 2005; Angelo and Cross 1993). Smaller groups allow for more fluid conversation, more voices may be contributed, and without an instructor present, it can be perceived as safer to participate. Small group discussions to support dialogue and the use of breakout rooms in synchronous meeting environments are hardly new innovations (Bates 2019; Bower et al. 2014; Themelis 2014). Yet, they became critically essential tools to support social learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and offer some nuances worth noting. In our Fall 2020 Technology Innovation in Education course, breakout sessions became a staple of each synchronous class, sometimes used at the beginning to brainstorm what was already known, sometimes at the end of a session to research a topic or idea. I noticed that in many cases, webcams that had been turned off in the main session lit up in the breakout rooms as students gathered and felt more accountable to one another while working in smaller groups.
I found it interesting to experiment with group size for different activities. There has been much discussion about the optimal size for small-group collaboration (see, for example, Akcaoglu and Lee 2016), and three to five members per group appears to be the general rule for small-group discussion. I explored smaller groups and even pairs throughout the term. Pairs worked well for focused discussion but were harder to debrief when the larger group reconvened. It would be useful to be able to combine pairs together for incremental or jigsaw-style discussions, allowing students to work first in pairs, then combine two sets of pairs to form a group of four for wider discussion. Currently this is not easily achievable with popular online meeting tools.
While it is possible to have pre-established groups, so that students consistently work with the same team throughout the term, I found that students enjoyed the randomness of groupings created on the fly. Some students suggested that this enabled them to get to know more people in the class. The speed with which we were able to form random groups and move into collaborative work was also remarkably quicker than possible in face-to-face settings. In face-to-face settings, groups would have to be first formed in a random way, then individuals would need to move themselves to a physical space for discussion (in some cases away from their computers or other resources). Breakout rooms allowed us to create these groups on the fly and of any size for creating opportunities for immediate collaboration. As the facilitator, it is essential to give students prompts and focused activities to engage with while in breakout rooms. Shared collaborative documents can work well to ensure students have access to these questions or activities, while giving them a place to capture notes and ideas for debriefing later. Furthermore, allowing groups to report back from the breakout sessions provides an opportunity to surface ideas raised within in individual groups. Time should be provided once all participants have returned to the main room for each group to share salient discussions.
Enabling Agency for Participants
Very recently, autonomous movement between breakout rooms has become possible for participants in some meeting platforms. In late 2020, the popular meeting tool Zoom enabled a feature that allowed users to self-select a breakout room and even move to another room during a session. This allows participants to move freely between breakout rooms. This feature opens up a lot of pedagogical possibilities for learning design and allows for much more agency on the part of participants in a session. The facilitator can name rooms as needed according to themes or topics, allowing for the migration of participants towards one or several topics of interest during a breakout session.
We used this feature quite successfully to run an online EdCamp session with our learners. EdCamps are untraditional conference experiences where, rather than coming to a predefined set of topics, participants arrive to brainstorm questions or themes of interest and then cast three votes among the brainstormed topics to identify those they are most interested in to narrow sessions to those of greatest concern. We conducted brainstorming and voting for our EdCamp in a shared Google Doc and then created breakout rooms named with the topics of interest. Participants used the time to engage with the topics they were most interested in and moved freely between rooms to explore additional topics as desired. Many learners suggested this was a liberating experience and appreciated both the democratic and participatory model of the EdCamp design as well as the autonomy to move freely and easily between topics. EdCamps are, remarkably, participant driven in terms of the session topics and discussion, allowing learners to follow areas of personal interest and inquiry, while not bounding them to a specific discussion directed by a facilitator. As our students are teacher candidates, we model the EdCamp learning design as an approach they may also use in their classrooms or during future professional development activities.
I presume that in a post-pandemic world, many of our programs and courses will return to a face-to-face format. Most are longing for a return to normality and the status quo in higher education. What we, as educators, decide to take away from this experience of teaching online is an interesting thought experiment. I have spoken to several colleagues who suggest they may alter their learning design and teaching approach based on what they have learned in this unique time. There may still be a desire and need to return to breakout rooms in synchronous sessions, to foster that quick, randomly formed, and collaborative dialogue that was made only possible in online groups. Certainly some of the affordances provided by synchronous meeting environments might offer quicker ways to collaborate on the fly, encouraging more active and participatory learning within limited class time. This may lead to an increase in blended or hybrid designs that deliberately use online classes for such collaborative work. Learners may also independently use these environments to continue collaborating on projects outside of the classroom, as they have gained significant experience using these tools during the pandemic and may come to appreciate the ability to connect synchronously when working collaboratively.