Just because your virtual classroom software enables breakout rooms doesn’t mean you have to design every—or even any—interaction for that tool.

Too many instructional designers and trainers so cherish the advantages of small-group engagement that we don’t cool-headedly weigh the pros and cons of using virtual breakout rooms (VBRs) in our virtual-classroom sessions. We have yet to accept that small-group activities that work smoothly in a face-to-face session are difficult, confusing, or too time-consuming online.

Worst of all, unhealthy dependence on breakout activities in a virtual setting can thwart students’ progress toward achieving learning objectives and burn goodwill with novice participants.

A trainer’s favorite instrument

Instructors and instructional designers favor small-group activities for many reasons:

  • They’re easy to set up in a physical classroom, and they work well for brainstorming and discussion, problem solving, completing assignments, and reporting back to the larger group.
  • They allow individuals to contribute more openly and directly and in ways they might not within a larger group.
  • They give learners an opportunity to speak and be heard, collaborate, and apply learning in real time while the facilitator eavesdrops on each group, checking in and providing guidance.
  • They enable role-playing activities and coax learners to act as characters—greatly increasing the breadth and depth of learner engagement.

Drawbacks of electronic breakout activities

In virtual classrooms, however, the logistics of breakout activities are much more challenging—and often not worth the extra time, effort, and cognitive load. How many of the following have you suffered through:

  • Novices struggle with microphones and presenter tools and end up dragging their fellow breakout room participants into time-consuming troubleshooting.
  • The inevitable bad audio connections knock out a few participants.
  • Inattentive participants miss the instructions for the assignment.
  • Presenters are not able to easily listen in, observe, and provide course correction. Likewise, with participants divided into subgroups, most will not hear or see the producers’ instructions when they step in to troubleshoot.

When electronic breakout rooms work well

The good news is that retraining yourself to choose VBRs judiciously will open the door to training and learning that is far more effective.

One my best early experiences with virtual-classroom breakout groups involved a course called “Fundamentals of Finance and Accounting,” produced by the American Management Association.

The program was successful because the breakout assignments, in my view, were designed well and were appropriately challenging. Participants were given clear instructions and were able to ask questions before moving to breakouts. Then, they were divided into groups and given a difficult problem to solve—involving a fictional but plausible accounting problem.

As the event producer, I listened in on conversations where learners argued about which accounting principle was best suited to their case. I observed as they consulted their notes and debated until they agreed on the method, applied it, achieved a solution, and posted their (correct) result in a poll that was then scored. It was easy to confirm that learning was happening!

This example supports other research showing that breakout activities succeed when:

  • They directly serve the learning objective, such as completing a challenging assignment, building team dynamics and group rapport, applying new skills, role-playing a scenario, and/or solving a problem as a team.
  • The assignment is appropriately challenging and closely mirrors a real-life scenario.
  • Participants receive clear and detailed instructions before they move to breakout, and they know how to ask for help. (In a blended learning format, participants would have received and read document(s) in advance that prepared them to quickly engage in challenging activities and deep discussions.)
  • Participants have the opportunity to opt in to the breakout activity, confirming that they’ve heard the instructions and are following.
  • Learners are directed to assume needed roles during and after the VBR activity: discussion leader, observer, note taker, timekeeper, and spokesperson.
  • The more reserved learners get to practice applying new skills in a safe, low-pressure environment with other learners.
  • The designer has allowed enough time for technical setup and troubleshooting, performing the activity, and engaging in a debrief discussion.

Alternatives to virtual breakout rooms

Unrealistic expectations for breakout-room technology can blind us to the value of other available options.

In an online setting—where 50 learners can respond as quickly as five can—many learning objectives can be achieved more quickly in a whole group than in breakouts. These include:

  • Icebreakers
  • Brainstorming ideas
  • Sharing opinions
  • Offering possible solutions
  • Responding to questions
  • Telling the facilitator what to click next

Consider, too, some options that don’t involve a virtual classroom at all:

  • Assign reading or video pre-work.
  • Encourage students to work together in another setting, maybe over coffee.
  • Meet at another time to complete the assignment, perhaps using the telephone or another low-end resource.

Get the most out of VBR activities

If you’ve decided that using VBRs will drive the learning objectives of your session, take these steps to make those breakouts run smoothly.

Session design:

  • Limit any session to three breakouts, maximum.
  • Use simple setups that don’t need to be updated between each breakout activity.
  • Create instructions both for using the tools and for completing the assignment.

Before the breakout:

  • Start testing mics as soon as participants join to ensure that all know how to control them, including muting and unmuting. Troubleshoot as many issues as possible before starting a breakout activity.
  • Have producer move participants’ names into breakout rooms and help pull learners into their VBRs.
  • Budget 10 minutes to get into the VBRs.
  • Boost participants’ focus by keeping VBR session times tight: 7 minutes is better than 15.
  • Provide the assignment in text and then talk through it. Address questions before participants move into groups. Budget at least 5 minutes for this.
  • Provide a tutorial on how participants will use the breakout group tools. Budget at least 5 minutes for this.
  • Encourage participants to opt into activity roles: discussion leader, observer, note taker, timekeeper, and spokesperson, as needed.
  • Provide information about how to ask for help.
  • Announce the time limit.
  • Be prepared to troubleshoot multiple technical issues.
  • Pre-type common instructions you’ll later paste into the message box, such as: “2 minutes remaining. Get ready to mute your microphones as you are moved back to the main room. Spokespersons, please click Raise Hand.”

During the breakout:

  • Move from room to room to support learners’ needs for clarification as they work.
  • Troubleshoot technical issues.
  • Provide reminders.

After the breakout:

  • Budget at least 2 minutes debrief for each leader.
  • Discuss highlights of the breakout assignment.

Ensure that VBR is the right tool choice

When selecting instructional methods, ask yourself whether using VBR supports your learning objectives and consider whether the time and effort required to set up and execute breakouts is justified.

Ask yourself whether you are leaning on VBR because you still hope to capture the small-group engagement you’ve experienced in physical classrooms.

With access to so many tools for online classrooms that support learner engagement more efficiently, focus on choosing the most appropriate approach.

And remember: Just having a tool doesn’t make it the answer to all problems.

Improve your virtual classroom events

Designing content for a virtual classroom session requires specific expertise and an understanding of how virtual classroom learning differs from both instructor-led training and eLearning. Join Karen Hyder and Melissa Chambers for a day-long BYOD workshop, “Instructional Design for Virtual Classroom Events,” ahead of DevLearn 2019 Conference & Expo. The workshop is October 22; DevLearn is October 23–25 in Las Vegas. See you there!