Rethinking engagement in breakout rooms

NB: Originally posted on Digital Education @ UNE


Zoom breakout rooms are a common feature of workshops, tutorials and meetings, and they are often used to replicate the small-group discussions used in face-to-face events. The difficulty with this approach, though, is that it defines a single model of engagement  – ‘talking in a group’. This is something that can be challenging for many people for a wide range of reasons, and when people are uncomfortable, it’s difficult for them to work or learn effectively.

DigEd has been trialling a new approach to breakout rooms in our team that allows people to engage according to what’s most comfortable to them – a talking/silent room model. It’s based on the idea of temperament-inclusive pedagogy – instead of using breakouts that depend on talking for engagement, it focuses on creating spaces that allow people to engage in the ways that are most effective and comfortable for them.

Here’s how it works:

Instead of creating randomised or preallocated breakout rooms that divide participants into small groups, only two breakout rooms are created and participants self-select which is best for them.

Talking Room

This room is for people who work best out loud, talking things through with others and connecting through conversation. Lurkers are also welcome – people who just want to listen to the conversation but not participate. 

Silent Room

This room is for people who prefer to keep microphone and camera off and work through things in their own time and space. It doesn’t preclude connection – text-based interaction (eg chat and messaging) and working in collaborative tools still allow people to connect – but it doesn’t enforce it.

This approach is activity agnostic – we have used it for a range of different activities. Using online collaborative tools can be really helpful for capturing input across all spaces, and allows the discussion to easily extend into asynchronous format as well.

It’s a really simple model, but feedback so far has indicated people find this approach far more effective and really value being able to choose how they engage. If you use breakouts in your Zoom sessions but don’t always find them effective, consider trying this approach and seeing if approaching engagement differently supports better outcomes for your students or your team.

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