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.