Skip to main content
Usable Knowledge

Enhancing Online Discussions

How Zoom features can enrich — rather than inhibit — classroom communication
Child learning on laptop conference

As K–12 classrooms and university lecture halls shifted to computer screens to facilitate remote education plans, Harvard Kennedy School’s Dan Levy noticed that not only was the physical geography of the classroom changing but the way teachers communicated with their classes was changing, too.

“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 says, also adding that instructors can struggle to use non-verbal cues to communicate with students.

Communication is one of the many online teaching challenges that Levy explores in Teaching Effectively with Zoom: A practical guide to engage your students and help them learn. The book, which has been circulating on college campuses and among educators at all levels this summer, explores some of the features of online learning — Zoom specifically — that enhance a synchronous lesson and may lead to more adaptive teaching.

Here, Levy highlights two key features that can enhance class discussions and provides guidance on how best to use them.

Group Work: Breakout Rooms

Group work has been shown to be beneficial to students. Yet for a teacher, managing smaller groups of students can even be difficult to coordinate in-person. “You might circulate and put your ear next to one of the groups and that might disrupt what they’re doing, or they start acting differently. You also might not realize the group that really needs help is somewhere else,” Levy says. Zoom’s breakout rooms can provide a solution.

Though teachers may be aware of this feature, they need to think strategically about deploying breakout rooms to ensure this feature enhances learning, Levy says.

  • Breakout rooms work best if student groups record their thinking in some way — Levy suggests using Google slides or a similar collaborative tool. Teachers can then monitor progress and flow of conversation in the groups. If one group hasn’t started the assignment, the teacher drops in to visit that group.
  • They allow for more responsive teaching because by monitoring student responses in the collaborative document, the instructor can pick up on common threads or differences in opinion and use those to frame the class discussion.
  • Different student groupings are possible because students can be grouped randomly. This gives students a chance to work with others they may not have chosen to work with otherwise. New pairings can lead to new ideas.

Keep in mind…

  • Clear instructions are essential. Many of the students Levy surveyed felt that the breakout rooms worked best when they knew what they had to accomplish. Make sure students leave the main room knowing what they need to do or make the instructions easily accessible to help them stay on task.
  • You may need more time than you think. Students also felt that they could have used more time in the breakout rooms. He recommends teachers build extra time into their lesson plans if they’re considering using this feature.

"We can’t forget that teaching is inherently human, and we need to think of ways to foster that human connection with students and among students."

Write: The Chat Feature

Everyone who has used Zoom knows that the chat feature can be distracting both for students and teacher, but Levy observes that when used correctly, it has tremendous benefits. For one thing, it can be a good way for teachers to solicit feedback and read the room. "Verbal dialogue makes online teaching less efficient in terms of time — the chat can make online teaching more efficient,” Levy says.

Using the chat, instructors can:

  • Solicit feedback in real time. “The chat is great if you want to have a sense on what’s on students’ minds in a less formal way than using a poll,” Levy says. Simply ask students a question and ask them to put their responses in the chat. Based on student responses, you can adapt your teaching to address any misconceptions or move ahead with the lesson.
  • Get quick responses. In both the physical and virtual classroom, collecting responses or reflections can take time. “In a physical classroom, you have to call on students one at a time. Five minutes go by before you get a few answers that give you a sense of where the class is.” Instead of gathering materials for students to record their takeaways or surveying the class, have them drop their takeaways into the chat.  
  • Prioritize. When answering student questions in a physical classroom, Levy has found that teachers often do it sequentially as they call on students. This process often means that some important questions go unanswered. Ask students to drop questions into the chat. Prioritize the most pressing or commonly asked questions that benefit the whole class.
  • Robust participation. The chat feature is another way for students to engage with content. Some students who may be hesitant to speak in front of a whole group may find that dropping a question or comment into the chat allows them to participate.

Keep in mind…

  • Establish norms. Talk with students at the start of class to make sure everyone understands how and when to use the chat. Will it only be used for questions? Or can students use it to comment on the discussion? Without these guidelines in place, it can easily become a distraction.
  • Practice. It can be difficult to balance managing a verbal discussion with the chat. This requires coordination from the instructor. The only way to get more comfortable is to practice. Start using the chat with a smaller group of students in a seminar setting before using it for a large lecture.

Ultimately, both the chat and breakout rooms are effective when they’re used in a way that enables the class to connect and communicate quickly and efficiently. “Teaching at its essence is about helping another human being learn and grow and develop,” Levy says. “We can’t forget that teaching is inherently human, and we need to think of ways to foster that human connection with students and among students.”

Usable Knowledge

Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities

Related Articles