Best Practices for Managing Virtual Student Breakout Rooms
The Benefits of Virtual Grouping
A teacher’s strategic use of flexible grouping and other small group activities has become a tried and true standby of an energetic, engaging lesson. That’s because, among other benefits, small group learning provides opportunities for students to direct their learning, be exposed to a wider “range of perspectives, ideas, and backgrounds,” and develop the communication and collaboration skills that are vital to a 21st-century education and valued in the larger society. Virtual grouping ensures that those benefits will accrue in your classroom despite the transition to physically-distanced seating and other features of today’s Hybrid Education environment.
Check the Tech
There are several moving parts to consider before you employ virtual breakout rooms during a lesson. Just like you would show up early to check the technology and think through potential pitfalls before giving a presentation, preplanning your virtual breakout rooms before the lesson helps everything go much more smoothly.
First, think through all the technology tools you will be using. I sometimes refer to these tools in shorthand as the classroom edtech chain. Whether you’re teaching completely remotely or instructing a concurrent classroom, you may be using a computer, projector, classroom sound system, and an external camera setup like an IPEVO device or similar—and that’s before you even log into your learning management system (LMS) to run the class!
Check the chain. Check all your connections. Log in and practice activating the video conference software. Practice creating the breakout rooms before class. The more you practice, the more the features of your software will become second nature to you, and the easier it will be to dance if something goes wrong. If something does go awry? Take the eponymous advice of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - DON’T PANIC! Laugh, take a deep breath, and think through the issue logically. Oftentimes, the answer is just a few clicks away.
Virtual breakout rooms are most effective and impactful when there is a solid strategy underlying how they are used. Otherwise, they may be no better than the dreaded, directionless “group work” that has plagued our brick-and-mortar classrooms for years. So, after checking the technology and getting comfortable with the setup but before you assign students to the virtual breakout rooms, think through the grouping strategy you will choose to implement to best support your lesson objectives.
Scholastic is just one source you might consider in aligning your virtual breakout room strategy with learning goals. Here are a few examples of what strategy you might select and why, according to authors Linda Shalaway and Michael Opitz:
- Random Grouping: This can be used when the content isn’t dependent on who is working with whom. Icebreakers, introductory activities, maybe some quick virtual think-pair-shares, or any activity where students need to mix with new faces and voices—these are great times to create random groups of students.
- Ability Grouping: Students with comparable ability levels are placed together in groups. This is a great way to differentiate lesson content by what the groups are working on. One must be careful, however, not to misidentify students or hold them back due to preconceived notions of student ability levels.
- Student Choice Grouping: This is not just random grouping as a prelude to poor student behavior as in days of yore. Students can make a group choice based on a shared affinity for a topic rather than simply who they want to work with.
These are just a few of the examples presented by Scholastic. There are other strategies, including grouping based on student interest, specific tasks, and/or subject matter knowledge. Some classic grouping strategies are still relevant today, such as learning cycles, group investigation, the jigsaw strategy, and group games—all can work in a virtual setting, powered by your K-12 LMS. Tailor your strategy to student needs, the needs of the lesson, and structure your virtual breakout rooms accordingly.
Facilitating Virtual Breakout Rooms
You are in control of your virtual breakout rooms. Just like you would circulate the classroom, checking in with groups, asking follow-up questions, clearing up student confusion, and more, you must circulate through your virtual breakout rooms as well. Try to spend a little quality time with each group during the breakout session. It’s ineffective to turn students loose in small virtual groups and then sit back to grade papers. Stay involved and attentive.
Even if you choose to empower students to facilitate their small groups (which can be a great idea), you must still be the master facilitator during the lesson. Sometimes student-led groups get stuck. You’re there to help them get unstuck. You have the wisdom and subject knowledge to help students think of things they might not have without adult participation. Set and model the appropriate expectations. You don’t have to provide 50 minutes of direct instruction to be seen as the lead learner in the classroom. You just have to be present, positive, and persistent in your approach. Students will respond.
Safety and Security
A final best practice for managing virtual breakout rooms is to ensure student safety and security throughout the lesson. As soon as virtual school started, so have the virtual pranks. This fall, schools reported that hackers—often someone from outside the district who has received access from a student—were attempting to gain access to virtual classrooms. The good news is that by staying calm and thinking through the issue, you can usually stop unauthorized people from gaining access to your virtual classroom and small group breakout rooms.
Your learning management system and videoconferencing software should have several layers of security baked into them. For example, your district can restrict access to the LMS to district-provided accounts. You can set up your video conferencing software and breakout rooms to restrict access to the students you approve. You might also want to set up a waiting room within your software to create a more stringent vetting process. Make sure your students have left the chat before you close it out.
Will all these precautions stop students from trying to prank you? No. Will it stop them from finding a creative workaround? Not always. Some students have recently discovered how to create a “back door” in a popular videoconference app by opening the same videoconference in a duplicate tab, thereby allowing them to reenter the chat after everyone else leaves. While software companies play whack-a-mole with such tactics, you should stay calm, follow best practices, and minimize the risk that someone will successfully hack your carefully constructed virtual lesson and breakout rooms.
Virtual Breakout Rooms are 21st Century Small Groups
When they work well, virtual breakout rooms can be just as collaborative and social as their in-person counterparts. When you learn the ins and outs of your LMS ahead of time, have a strategic purpose for the type of grouping you have selected, establish and model expectations, serve as an expert facilitator, and keep student safety and security in mind, your virtual breakout rooms will be just as effective as traditional small group work.