The Breakout Rooms Dilemma
By Samantha Wickramasinghe
“In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products but above all to reinvent yourself again and again.” - Professor Yuval Noah Harari One of the major transformations that occurred in education due to the COVID 19 pandemic is the transformation from the physical classroom to going online. Many educators and students are still wondering how to navigate through this new system.
Both groups are finding it challenging and the significance of the physical classroom and its merits could not have been emphasised more during this transition period. Nevertheless, educators must be made aware of the fact that there is a strong possibility that the future of education is going to be primarily online. The physical classroom is going to be secondary. Online teaching and learning are a reality that we face today and arguably the online teaching and learning process has its own merits compared to the physical classroom.
Can virtual groups replace physical groups?
When comparing the physical classroom with the online classroom, one way that the physical classroom outsmarts the online classroom is its ability to provide space and the environment for group activities. When students are in small groups, they tend to perform certain tasks better which is proven through many studies. Internet-based applications like Zoom and Big Blue Button have tried to breach this gap by introducing the so-called BORs (Breakout Rooms) in the virtual space. BORs are supposed to achieve the same functionality as group activities in the physical classroom. Although BORs are still novel, they are unique in their own way. They cannot replace the physical classroom but like in the physical classrooms, BORs allow the students to use functions such as whiteboard which allows them to draw shapes and write text and share among the groups in a virtual environment.
The ability to leave - Key factor
Many teachers are already using BORs in their online classes, however a major problem that has been identified when it comes to teaching English or in the English medium, is that students switch back to their native language while they are in BORs. In the bigger picture, this might not be a bad thing after all. If students achieve a common goal using whatever language they prefer, it’s not a problem at all. When it comes to learning/ teaching English particularly, this might be an issue. Even in a physical classroom, groups tend to use a common language where everyone can establish a common ground. While technical issues and accessibility hinder the learning progress, the biggest issue is not any of these hindrances. The biggest issue seems to be that students could leave the BOR anytime they want. When student participation declines, the dynamics of the groups also thus, decline. In the physical classroom, leaving the group would not have been possible since it meant leaving the building or leaving the school literally.
What options do teachers have?
The reasons for students leaving BORS can vary and they may depend on the age groups, gender, and proficiency level of students. Still, there haven’t been many studies done about this. If a teacher has experienced drawbacks at BORs due to students not joining or leaving the session, it is reasonable not to break students into BOR groups which would also mean that they might lose a vital component in teaching i.e. teaching students through group activities. A possible solution might be finding ways to engage students in the BORs by incorporating assessments into BORs. Motivating students by showing the benefits of BORs is another option. Finally in class team building activities that help students to identify each other and bond, would be a great option.