Using Breakout Rooms in Online Courses

by Ms Hidayat Abu Elhawa, Student of the UNIC PhD in TESOL Programme

An overview: 

At education institutions in Palestine, emergency measures enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic forced a 15-month halt to all in-person instruction (March 5, 2020–June 5, 2021). Higher education institutions in the country moved courses to an online format in order to provide continuity of learning. At one university in Jericho Palestine, a lack of existing online course delivery infrastructure led to the adoption of Google Meet and Google Classroom as the primary tools for facilitating online teaching and learning. Instructors at the university moved their courses online by using these platforms to create virtual classroom spaces. 

Google meet and Breakout room function: 

Breakout rooms are a feature of the Google Meet versions included in most editions of Google Workspace. The breakout room function allows meeting moderators to divide video call participants into smaller groups during a call. Up to 100 separate video calls can be created within the main video call, and each breakout group cannot see or hear the other groups. A moderator can create scheduled breakout rooms in Google Calendar, or create rooms during a meeting in progress. All users of the updated versions of mobile Google Meet and Gmail can participate in breakout rooms. Breakout room members can engage in group audio-video chat, send individual chat messages, or notify the teacher/moderator if help is needed. The moderator can change the membership of breakout room groups at any time, join individual rooms to monitor or participate, set timers for rooms, and close individual or all rooms as desired.  


Teachers’ perspectives on using BR: 

After becoming accustomed to delivering e-learning via the Google platforms, several instructors in the university English Language Teaching Department employed breakout rooms in their online courses as a strategy for creating more cohesive, interactive learning communities. As most students were experiencing online study for the first time, interesting e-learning pedagogies were important to increasing motivation and engagement. Instructor feedback on their experiences with breakout rooms was generally positive: 

“Breakout rooms are good. I can smoothly move from one classroom to another seeing everyone, what they are doing in this group and that group, and if there is some kind of assistance I can give, and observe the students as if we are in a real face-to-face classroom.”

Another instructor perceived higher levels of student engagement and participation when using breakout rooms: “If I split the class into smaller groups of three or four students, then they have the courage or the motivation to speak out and to discuss to negotiate or interact with a smaller group. But they feel shy to speak with the larger group. So, this is one of the advantages of using the breakout room class.”

The ability to monitor students’ activities in an online class was noted as a key advantage of break-out rooms. “It [breakout rooms] works well. If there is any problem, then I can assist them. It is my role as a professor. I have to move from one room to another room to see that they are working fine.”

The same professor suggested the use of breakout rooms to overcome challenges associated with evaluating student learning in the online environment. Individual assessment can be accomplished by posting questions on the Google Classroom forum, then having students address them in the breakout room session while the instructor monitors.

As instructors become more comfortable working in digitally-mediated environments and build their skills with a growing variety of tools, they realize the benefit and even necessity of deploying breakout rooms or a similar tool. Used properly, breakout rooms are the simplest strategy for replicating face-to-face classroom interaction in the virtual environment.