Small group synchronous discussion or presentations using WebEX

WebEx has a new feature that allows you to automatically or manually sort your students into small groups so they can remotely do the types of small group activities you had them do in your face to face classroom. While they are in groups, you can:

  • send a message to give instructions, to all or some of the rooms or people
  • pop into the rooms to observe
  • invite people back to the main room
  • end all the break out rooms to automatically close them

When students return to the main meeting room, they have video off and be muted, but they can change those settings once they are back.

The 5-minute video below is a step by step video of how to set up breakout rooms and use the features.

Remote Breakout Rooms – Facilitating Small Group Discussions and Interactions with WebEx

The move to remote learning has created challenges for actively engaging students in our classes.  A simple think-pair-share activity now requires an extensive descriptions of who is partnered with who, how will you communicate, and how much time do you have – not to mention how to use the available technology to complete the activity.  The truth is – facilitating learning activities and interactions remotely is different, but with some planning still provides our learners with valuable opportunities to engage, think, create and do – to practice and improve the things you want them to learn.

If you are considering delivering any part of your class synchronously – consider actively engaging your learners by creating smaller groups to complete learning activities in breakout rooms (now available in WebEx).  Facilitating breakout room learning activities builds opportunities for connection and interactions that are easily missed when we aren’t in the classroom together. Learning activities are also a way for you to collect feedback about your students’ progress and learning – when the groups comes back together have a member from each group report or summarize key points or join different breakout rooms during the learning activity (similar to circulating in a real classroom) to check student progress.  Tip: If you plan to join various groups – let your learners know this in advance and explain you are only there to observe discussions and consider keeping your camera off.

If you are wondering what type of learning activities you could use in breakout rooms – check out this blog post: Building Broad Minds: Active learning strategies for large classrooms or this list of active learning strategies for face-to-face teaching that can translate to remote with a bit of imagination (we would love to brainstorm ideas with you) and this post on building community remotely.

Some tips for successful remote breakout activities:

  • Turn on your cameras – distractions are more common when cameras are off. Turning cameras on will increase engagement and minimize distractions in breakout activities.
  • Groupings – there are benefits and challenges to keeping groups the same and changing groups. Consider your purpose in determining if it is best to keep groups the same or change groups.  Generally groupings of 3-5 work best for breakout activities.
  • Provide clear directions – to ensure the best use of time, more is better remotely. Provide clear directions on what should be accomplished during the breakout room activity (eg: each person answers a question in alphabetical order in “x” amount of time).  If possible, also write instructions in the chat box for students to copy into their notes (notes is a function in WebEx that stays with the user as they move from the main room into a breakout room).
  • Broadcasting & Student questions – some ideas for using these breakout room functions: broadcasting is a function in WebEx that allows you as the facilitator to communicate to breakout rooms.  For group learning activities, you could broadcast the next prompt for discussion, remaining time, or provide new details of a case that is being discussed.  Students are able to send you a “help” request if they have a question, or if they have completed a problem together – they could call you in to share their solution or get feedback on work.
  • Consider Group Roles – to foster engagement and ensure time is well utilized, assign roles within the group. Some ideas of roles are:
    • Facilitator: keeps the group on task and focused – ensures everyone engages in the discussion.  This role can also function as the timer – reminding the group of the time remaining.
    • Recorder: keeps a record of the critical points from the group’s discussion (uses a shared document or the NOTES function in WebEx – and shares this with the group)
    • Presenter: presents the group’s ideas to the rest of the class (relies on recorder for notes)
    • Questioner: asks questions to encourage discussion or challenges ideas with questions.

Quick Links for when we have access to WebEx Breakout Rooms:

High quality, respectful classroom dialogue

This post is the third post in a series of the “Charter Chats” related to our new charter.  The others are linked on the bottom of this page. The chats are informal introductions to a charter educator commitment or commitments.  They explain what that commitment means for educators, and suggests one or two implications for teaching in a higher ed setting.

High quality, respectful classroom dialogue is essential in helping student learning.  When students are engaged in actively thinking about their own learning and discussing it with others, they are more likely to understand deeply. If students are just listening to an expert talking without the interaction, they are less likely to remember the learning 6 months later.  However, understanding more deeply and remembering more works best if the interaction in class is focused on the most important learning and it is safe and encouraged to share your ideas, even if they are not fully correct or are different. There are 2 key areas to pay attention to if your goal is improved learning through high quality, respectful conversation.

Open and healthy dialogue

The instructor is essential but not sufficient in creating open and healthy dialogue.  Good dialogue occurs when diverse perspectives are welcome in the group and genuinely considered, and that requires all group members. However, you can make a big difference to how likely good dialogue is.  Some key actions you can take are:

  • Share diverse perspectives and debates in disciplinary theory to make it clear good scholarship requires considering different ideas deeply. When possible, make space for plurality, rather than just one or two ways of thinking or being. We live in Treaty 6 territory and the homeland of the Metis, therefore including Indigenous informed perspectives and content along with Western ones is an essential first step in welcoming diversity
  • Describe what you mean by open and healthy dialogue before the first conversational opportunity starts.  In subsequent opportunities, discuss anything that needs “a refresher” to be a bit better than the last time. Focus on ways of communicating that are problematic, rather than describing specific students or ideas that are a problem
  • Have students work in smaller groups much more often than asking questions of the full class.  More students will get to participate, and most will feel safer to say more about what they think if they are only speaking to a few people
  • Overtly praise students who raise a potentially contentious activity delicately and effectively. Brave spaces are important
  • Warn students in advance if the content about to be discussed will be difficult or triggering, so they can manage their own emotions and expectations more effectively

How to create a shared, positive space in your class

Students know what it is to be positive in your class by what you do.  Your language, demeanor, and willingness to allow student to help shape the thinking and decision-making all help communicate what your classes will be about.

  • Use language that includes rather than excludes potentially marginalized groups
  • When dealing with a complex issue in class, ask yourself, “What story am I telling myself. What story might the other person be telling about themselves or about me?” Thinking it through helps with defusing, rather than escalating, potentially problematic moments
  • Co-create, with students, a shared space for learning through co-constructing or brainstorming together and working often in small groups as a part of daily class interactions
  • Raise errors as opportunities to learn.  Praise students who ask for clarification or surface their thinking about how to do something, even if it is wrong. Don’t pretend their processes are correct if they are not, but do point out that it was great to ask, and it is a very common misconception.
  • Don’t just share good examples.  Share examples with common errors and ask small groups to find the problems and explain why
  • Provide choice and voice anytime you can
  • Learn more about engaging with students and peers in a respectful manner with some tips for managing interaction in class, and use those strategies regularly
  • Ask students to set personal goals for the class, then allot time and marks to those goals
  • Use strategies like cooperative learning strategies or power sharing approaches like a talking circle to give student the opportunity to share the gifts of their identities in relationship with one another.  Seem to far from your disciplinary perspective?  Consider these 4 easy cooperative learning structures that are good across STEM and humanities courses

Learn more:

  • Attend Gwenna Moss Center for Teaching and Learning sessions on leading effective discussions or take our short courses on critical conversation
  • View other Charter Chats.