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Using breakout rooms in online classrooms

One of the key tools in the online teacher's toolbox is breakout rooms. For those who are new to teaching online, breakout rooms are used to create small group conversations or discussions as part of a larger online session. In this blog post, we'll explore how to go about creating breakout rooms, some of the things to lookout for and some hints and tips from making them work for you and your students.

Towards the end of 2020, breakout room functionality was introduced into Microsoft Teams and this post will mainly focus on Teams, however, it is worth knowing that they are available in BigBlueButton.

Creating breakout rooms

Some of the key things to consider when creating breakout rooms are:

  • Currently, you must use the Teams desktop client to create Breakout Rooms.
  • Only the meeting organiser can initiate and manage breakout rooms - this is really important. If you want to use breakout rooms, you must set up the session yourself.
  • You need to be in the meeting to create Breakout Rooms. Currently, breakout rooms cannot be scheduled in advance.
  • You can automatically or manually assign attendees to rooms (50 rooms maximum).
  • Participants need to be online to be assigned into a room.
  • You can rename rooms and start/close them manually. You can also add new rooms later or delete some of them.
  • The meeting organiser can send messages (announcements) to rooms.
  • Students using certain devices (android app coming April 2020) may have difficulty accessing the rooms. In this case, consider using the main room as one of the breakouts.

This video shows the basics of creating the breakout rooms.

Within the breakout rooms

Once you have created the rooms and assigned students, separate meetings will begin in which the groups can have their own conversations, share documents and collaborate on work. You can move between the groups observing and where required take a full part in the conversations. As shown in the video, you can also send an announcement from the main room to let the groups know how long they have left or to share a question you might like them to consider. 

Here are some things to consider when the rooms are active:

  • Every breakout room is a full Teams meeting experience with recording, sharing content, chat, whiteboard and together mode.
  • Everyone joining the Breakout Room will have “presenter” privileges, even if they are an “attendee” in the main meeting.
  • Only the meeting organiser can record in a breakout room. In the meeting toolbar, click the ellipses then select record. Currently, there is no way to automatically set all breakout rooms to start recording.
  • Attendees cannot add participants or re-join the original meeting themselves.
  • If a student leaves the breakout room, they will need to click on the original meeting link to re-join the session.

Best practice for breakout rooms

From feedback we saw in the first trimester and from the wider literature, the key to using breakout rooms is to do so with purpose and to articulate that to the students. Breakout rooms may be a new experience for some students. It is a good idea to set ground rules and breakout room etiquette. Based on feedback from trimester one, suggestions from our Community of Practice and from wider reading, here are some of our top tips:

  1. Pre-assign breakout rooms - Teams allows you to organise the rooms at any point without opening them. So if you have the time, it may be an idea to set them up at the start of the session to save you having to do so later.

  2. Group size - Where possible we'd recommend keeping the group sizes as small as possible (preferably between 3-8). This allows for more fluent conversation and understanding of role within the group.

  3. Roles and instructions - As mentioned, assigning roles to individuals within the group is a great idea but it's not always possible. If not, be sure to make it clear what you are asking the groups to do.

  4. Length - Although this will depend somewhat on what you are asking students to do, we'd recommend around 10-15 minutes for each breakout. Don't forget that you can plan several breakouts within a session.

  5. Collaboration - If you would like the students to work on a particular problem or question, suggest they use a tool to collate their thoughts such as a Word document, the collaborative whiteboard or the Meeting Notes area. This will help them in sharing their responses back with the larger group.

  6. Rename the rooms - Within Teams you can rename the individual rooms to remind students which group they are in.

Further Reading

5 Best Practices for Managing Virtual Breakout Rooms by Jennifer Brown (2020)

The best ideas from the Distance Learning Playbook by Fisher & Frey - Podcast by Angela Watson discussing the Distance Learning Playbook including some suggestions for using breakout rooms.

Collection of video and written guidance available on Canvas

Photo by Chengming WANG on Unsplash

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