Top 5 things that can Break your Breakout Groups

Blog Post created by lstock on Feb 1, 2019

One of the more challenging scenarios you might facilitate using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, is group work, using the Breakout Groups feature. Some of this is just the reality of managing multiple different groups at the same time, something that would be applicable in the real, face-to-face world, as well as online. You should think about what challenges you face in managing groups face-to-face and be sure to anticipate how those might equally manifest themselves online. But there are some easy mistakes you can make for lack of experience and understanding of the tool within Blackboard Collaborate. We'll try to cover these here, so you can save yourself the pain.


Stopping Breakout Groups Prematurely

It might seem strange to start with this one, but it's probably the most common oversight made by moderators when facilitating a Breakout Group activity. A moderator wishes to bring everyone back for a plenary (back to the main room), and so stops the Breakout Groups (normally via the Attendee's panel). This duly brings everyone back to the main room as intended, but also removes the breakout groups. The problem with this, is that participants may not be ready to return yet and it can seem quite abrupt for them to be cut off mid-sentence or mid-anything for that matter. Removing the breakout groups also removes any shared content that was in use in those groups, and this may be quite counter-productive if you intended for that shared content, to be shared with the full class in the Main room. You cannot necessarily rely on participants to save their work before they leave, especially if they were wrenched from the group mid-saving their work!


So the better approach here is to simply ask people to return to the main room when they're ready. You are at liberty to visit each group and use either carrot or stick to expedite their return, but no-one is actually forced to do so. The group spaces remain open, allowing for you to dip in and grab their work for them if needed. It's an approach which better reflects how we operate in the physical world as well, so people will likely feel more comfortable and things like this are an important part of maintaining rapport with your students and making segues seamless.

You will need to coach people on how to do this before you send them off and make sure the "Allow attendees to switch groups" feature, is enabled at the point at which you intend for participants to make their way back.

Once everyone is back and you feel comfortable stopping the breakout groups, you can then do so. This does have the advantage of de-cluttering the Attendee panel and returning things to normal.


Unclear Group Roles

In any group activity, it always helps to designate roles. You might have a chair person, a note taker, someone who agrees to feed back to the class, and these help to oil the wheels of an effective group discussion. Collaborate is no different. The group discussion will not operate optimally without group members agreeing on these roles. In addition, confusion can arise if multiple participants share ownership of the shared content. Just think about what happens when you click 'Share Blank Whiteboard' for instance. This replaces any existing shared content, with a blank whiteboard. At the present time, there is no way to retrieve the previously shared content if it too, was a whiteboard - instead the contents of the previous whiteboard (the annotations) are lost. And even when this changes, in the not too distant future all being well, and we're able to retrieve a stack of previously created whiteboards, it still won't make sense to have multiple people fighting over control over the shared content. This needs to be carefully overseen by the group chair so that one person at-a-time is responsible for the shared content and any work generated in the Whiteboard is saved before moving on. By 'saved', I mean that you capture the contents of the whiteboard as an image - which can be achieved easily in Chrome by right-clicking on the whiteboard image itself, choosing 'Save image as...' and then selecting a folder in which to save a flattened copy of the whiteboard annotations (as a PNG file).

Once again, you must coach your students on the need to adopt these practices, before sending them off on their activity. They will thank you for doing so and woe betide any of their peers if they don't observe the guidelines. Still, what we've described here is the kind of thing you do once, and never again so don't be too hard on anyone who wasn't paying attention!


Expecting too much, too soon

The first time you use Breakout Groups for real, expect the anxiety levels to be high for you, and your students. When you click that 'Start' button and everyone disembarks from the Main Room (assuming you've configured it that way), an eery silence settles around you and you will be looking expectantly to see that everyone has made it safely into their groups, never mind whether they are talking to each other or not. Don't forget, this is really not much different than it would be face-to-face. People gradually disperse from the centre and wonder into their groups, slowly orienting themselves to make sure they're in the right place, and then slowly start to form a sense of who's with them, who's doing what and the dynamics of different personalities coming together, slowly shapes the groups identity. This can be a challenging point in your class.

In Collaborate, people have other things to contend with. How will they communicate, how will they be reminded of what they are supposed to be doing, what happens if they disconnect, why is it taking so long to join my group, how were we supposed to save our work and so on.

What this all means, is that the first breakout group activity you undertake with a cohort, should be nice and simple. No significant expectations, perhaps something fun, minimal pressure and plenty of expectation setting about how you are there to hold their hand. Trying to do so too much, too soon can break the effectiveness of these activities.


Accidental use of the Clear Slide feature

Keeping that first Breakout Group activity low-key and fun is so valuable when you bear in mind that all participants are given the presenter role in breakout groups. The Presenter role will be unfamiliar to most of them and that unfamiliarity can create issues.

We have already touched on some of those issues and set out some practice that will help to keep group work running smoothly. The Presenter role is what gives all participants the ability to share content. It's also why your students have access to an additional content editing feature.

When using the Whiteboard in the main room, participants do not have access to the 'Clear Slide' button. It looks like an Eraser and because it wasn't there before, the temptation to click it, is pretty overpowering for most. It does what it says, it clears the slide. All annotations created up until that point using the other Content Editing tools, are removed and that's final. As a moderator it can be very useful when you are talking through a slide and you already have several annotations in place. If you want to draw attention to a new detail, the existing annotations can obfuscate your efforts to do so. Whereas if you clear the slide, and then draw the new annotation, it's very apparent what we should all be looking at. This is similar to the effect that animations serve in PowerPoint.

As useful as the feature is, it will not do the group morale any good if one of the group uses the feature during a Breakout Group activity. Of course, we are looking at several enhancements to the Whiteboard in Collaborate, and these will need to include considerations that limit the impact of this feature. Until that point, this is another thing to coach your attendees about before sending them out into Breakout Groups. And if you opt as advised, to keep the expectations of the first group activity as low-key, then when the inevitable happens, nobody will lose any sleep over it.


Connectivity Issues

In my experience working with Breakout Groups, those participants who have less stable connections overall, are more likely than their peers, to struggle when transitioning from your Main room into their Breakout Group. And of course, at any point during the activity, disconnections may occur just like they would in the main room.

You can use the Attendees panel to monitor this behaviour and if you spot something, you're able to step in to avoid it causing students unnecessary frustration and anxiety. Just as in the face-to-face world, so in Collaborate, it is your job as facilitator to ensure the transition from the class to group work is smooth and that students know which group they are in. If you see a participant that is taking a long time to join their breakout group, you may be able to privately message them using chat, and sometimes it's enough to ask them to reload their internet page. This has the effect of reconnecting them into the Main room and then they or you can re-attempt moving them into their Breakout Group. The same applies, throughout the group activity. All participants who experience a disconnection that requires a reload, will re-join the Main room.

This does raise an entirely separate topic of its own, related to why disconnections happen. If you notice that one student in particular experiences problems with connectivity, then there are a myriad of suggestions you can make but that's really another blog post for another day.


What issues have you faced?

As we began by saying, facilitating group work is one of the more challenging as well as exciting scenarios to be encountered when using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. These are some of the common things that I have come across in my experience.

One of the other things which is common to all learning technology, is whether you are using the right tool for the job? If you find yourself struggling with Breakout Groups, be sure to ask yourself whether it is the best tool for your use case? Is what you're trying to achieve, something that would be best done in the main room? Do you have too large an audience to really make Breakout Groups work? Are there other barriers which impede your students' ability to be productive, inside of a group based activity? We always need to make sure we're harnessing technology for the right reasons in the right ways.

What other challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them? Let me know if you have additional best practices, that help to enhance effective use of the Breakout Groups feature? Thank you to the folks at Letterkenny IT who prompted the writing of this article. Since you've read all the way to the end of what turned out to be quite a long one, you might want to go and take a break of your own. :-)