Breakout Warrior: Engaging Online Learners in Ways Not Possible In-Person

Many would agree that the most effective online teachers leverage technology to enhance their teaching methods rather than simply attempting to replicate in-person instruction. We learnt quickly that remote learners tend to be more engaged when the technology supports interactivity and fosters creativity.

In this post, business academic Terry Wickenden reflects on four strategies he used during remote learning to take breakout rooms to the next level (earning him the title Breakout Warrior!). While these strategies were developed for the remote environment, Terry offers some thoughts on how they helped him rethink aspects of his classroom practice.

Terry draws on the PICRAT model (Kimmons et al., 2020) to evaluate how technology can be used effectively to facilitate and support learning. The model can help you to reflect on students’ relationship to the technology – is it Passive, Interactive, or Creative (PIC)? And also how the technology influences the teacher’s practice – is it about Replacement, Amplification, or Transformation (RAT)? The PICRAT matrix can be used to work towards “active, more effective, and better-justified classroom technology practices”. For example, if students are engaging with each other and the teacher using an online collaboration board “to collect and thematically organize examples of current genetics research”, this might be considered an example of a Creative and Transformative (CT) task (Kimmons et al., 2023).

The PICRAT Technology Integration Model (Kimmons et al. 2023)

Let’s hear from Terry…

Pre-assign Breakout Rooms

Strategically assign small group discussion participants in pre-loaded breakout rooms before each class. As the semester progresses, strive for a balance of high and low engagers to promote collaboration and shared learning. Always load a spare breakout room to accommodate late arrivals. It can also be used so that you have a space available for a private consultation with a student if needed.

Student feedback highlighted the countless opportunities they had for discussion in breakout rooms, commenting specifically on how it helped them develop their communication skills.

Warm-up with a Big Idea

Begin class with a Think-Pair-Share activity to encourage students to reflect on a key or troublesome learning from the week’s module. This warm-up activity helps build a sense of belonging, whilst the shared learning informs and allows for refinement of subsequent learning activities.

Students commented on the benefits associated with being ask to respond to “big ideas” related to the weekly module at the beginning of each workshop.

Breakout – Dynamic Allocation

Reallocate pre-loaded breakout participants on-the-run when confronted by a troublesome learning activity or when some students arrive late. Small group discussions are most effective with at least one highly engaged participant, especially when navigating challenging learning activities.

Students highlighted in survey responses how the breakout group configurations provided opportunities for students to take the role of leader, help build confidence among group members, and influence the extent to which students collaborated with each other.

Breakout – Backdoor Exit

As the class concludes, open breakout rooms indefinitely to allow students to keep collaborating, learning, or socialising voluntarily. This can help to promote students’ sense of belonging in the early weeks, and is most useful when students use the virtual space as they are forming and establishing their assessment groups. This facility would not normally be possible in-person due to timetabling constraints.

What ideas can we take back into our classroom practice?

As we return to in-person teaching in 2023, how might some of these remote teaching and learning strategies be used inform our classroom practices? Try to:

  1. Incorporate multi-media activities into the classroom. Padlet, short illustrative videos, animations, sounds and music can be used to nudge behaviours, and promote engagement and enjoyment.
  2. Replicate break-out room discussions through organised activities that involve student rotation to enhance collaboration, and produce shared learning that involves all students.
  3. Encourage students to communicate with classmates through dedicated subject discussion groups e.g. WhatsApp, Messenger or Facebook can provide a supplementary space for supported learning. This supports informal learning if students are not able to hang around after class due to timetabling.

As suggested in an earlier CDRG post, it’s important not to “rinse and repeat” the ways in which we have approached teaching and learning in the past. Let’s consolidate what we’ve learned through the remote teaching period and use it to enhance our practices as we move some of our learning and teaching back into a shared physical classroom.

If you’re interested in exploring the PICRAT model to reflect on how you use technology to support your students learning you can explore the matrix further or watch this video.

About the author

Terry Wickenden

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