Dan Levy, the author of Teaching Effectively With Zoom and a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, noticed early during the pandemic that discussions in the virtual environment changed the ways teachers were communicating with students. Online discussions simply didn’t lend themselves to actual dialogue, he noted. In an article for Usable Knowledge, a publication from Harvard Graduate School of Education, he says: “Verbal dialogue seems to be the most important way in which students and teachers communicate in a physical classroom, but [in a virtual classroom] I’d say that dialogue is less natural because of the mute and unmute function. You can’t hear the room. It’s also harder to feel the energy in the room and read the room.”
Levy points to two features of the virtual environment that teachers can leverage to boost student discussions: group work in breakout rooms and the chat feature.
Using Breakout Rooms to Empower Student Discussions
Sherrie Starkie is a science specialist at Coyote Creek Elementary School in San Ramon, California. Starkie says that she has “doubled down on small-group work,” in the virtual environment and that she plans to keep doing the same once she returns to in-person instruction.
“Any time a lesson lends itself to small-group work, I put my students into breakout rooms to talk about the lesson, share their screens with each other, and otherwise interact about the content,” she says.
It’s not easy managing small groups online, though, Starkie acknowledges. “I may end up with eight groups and only eight minutes to visit them all. Also, I don’t have the same awareness of the groups I’m not currently interacting with that I would in the classroom.” Still, she says, she finds breakout rooms to be important as a way to “get kids off the script and thinking a little more spontaneously.” Effectively managing these groups, she says, “means popping in and out of rooms at lightning speed to stir the pot with questions or tell someone to unmute their speaker so they can talk to each other.”
“Online breakout rooms fill an important role in the virtual classroom space,” agrees Brian Galvin is Chief Academic Officer at Varsity Tutors. “They allow for quick allocation of students into small groups, provide opportunities for group discussion and collaboration, and—if actively managed by teachers—can add even more accountability and productivity than group work in a physical classroom.”
Like Starkie, he points to the active management of breakout rooms as critical for ensuring their effectiveness. In physical classrooms, he notes, group interactions happen “in sight and earshot of the teacher.” Breakout rooms require teachers to “proactively visit and monitor rooms to stay abreast of what’s happening,” he says. “Moving from room to room helps the teacher keep groups moving, and is a nice benefit of technology.”
Technology can augment and enable discussion, but teachers also must be adept at using that technology effectively. That requires a focus on strategy and a commitment to spending time in preparation to spur discussions.
A Focus on Strategy and Preparation
In an article for edutopia, Stephanie Toro, an assistant professor in the School of Science at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Columbia, points to three strategies teachers can use to increase student authority:
- “Map out the discussion,” Toro recommends thinking ahead about how the discussion will proceed from introduction of a topic, to seeking input, responding to questions, and summarizing concepts.
- “Allow for wait time.” Being comfortable with silence and giving students an opportunity to think before articulating their ideas is important in both face-to-face and online environments. Toro recommends that teachers model taking time to consider by pausing themselves before responding to student questions.
- “Utilize prompts strategically,” Toro recommends and shares examples of prompts to both engage students and to address incorrect or missing information.
During the past several months, as teachers have adapted to online and hybrid instructions they’ve discovered a wide range of additional best practices to empower student discussions.
Additional Best Practices for Empowering Student Discussions
James Bacon is director of outreach and operations at Edficiency. He began his career as a middle school math teacher and has coached teachers across almost all grades and subjects in K12. “Throughout COVID, we’ve supported many schools transitioning to offering virtual options during their flex time, including tutoring, enrichment, extracurricular, office hours, and social-emotional activities, he says. Based on these experiences, he says, “we’ve seen several best practices across schools as they think about supporting students virtually.” These include:
- Giving students choice in how they spend their time. “Many students might want to spend more time on a particular topic and struggle to engage in another topic or type of activity virtually,” Bacon says.
- Give students multiple outlets and options for engaging in different types of activities and connections. This might include, he suggests, offering opportunities for “social-emotional support or opportunities to engage and experience joy with their peers.” These moments, he notes, are limited in a virtual world that doesn’t include opportunities for interactions that would occur naturally during lunchtime or when changing classes, for instance.
- Be responsive to students’ needs. This, he says, “means ensuring teaches use data, both qualitative and quantitative, to recognize what their students need and align their offerings to that.”
It hasn’t been easy, but teachers have learned from their online experiences how to boost effectiveness and spur student discussions and engagement. They’re also finding that these lessons and learnings will be able to be applied in physical classroom settings.
Foundationally, though, there is a key reason that many teachers are struggling to adapt to the online environment—most have not been trained or educated about how to teach virtually, says Fred DiUlus, PhD, chair/founder/president emeritus of Global Academy. DiUlus says that teachers “all need to go back to school to learn how to effectively teach online, remotely and within a blended scenario—an expertise that literally 90% plus do not have because it was never included in the curriculum they were required to take in order to be certified teachers.”
Educational institutions are already rising to that challenge. Auburn is one example. In the meantime, though, teachers have risen to the challenge and learning by doing. As teachers have adapted breakout rooms and other features of online classroom technology like Zoom, augmented by Class, have been instrumental in allowing teachers and students to remain connected during the pandemic.