Improve Breakout Groups with Collaborative Document Editing in Google Slides or MS Teams

If you are teaching synchronous virtual classes on Zoom, Webex, or any other teleconference platform you are probably using breakout groups for small group discussions or student presentation preparation. Breakout groups are a great technique to break up a session and help build connections between small groups of students, but they suffer from three core problems:

  1. Students don’t remember or understand the prompt and take awhile to get started.
  2. Coordinating how to take notes or otherwise share the group’s work with other groups can be difficult and time-consuming, and may result in a single student doing most of that work.
  3. Students don’t get a quality set of notes from the presentations of other groups, reducing the likelihood that they will get much value from what other groups have done.

Collaborative document editing solves all three of these problems.

This idea is courtesy of Dr. Jenny Cooper of Stonehill College, who has found great success in creating a seamless breakout group experience in her classes. Instructors create a shared slide presentation in MS Teams or Google Slides that contains a slide with the prompt, instructions for the group work, and any expected output. This is followed by individual blank slides for each group to fill in, labeled ‘Group 1’ ‘Group 2’ etc. Share the link to the presentation with students, and then every member of each group can access and edit the document in real time during breakout groups, recording notes, images, or graphics in their assigned blank slide. The result is a single shared document that contains the work from each group, eliminating the need to share screens or additional files during presentations and ensuring that students have a complete set of notes they can review after the class.

This method can be used by anyone regardless of what teleconference system you are using. I advise that only those classes already using MS Teams should use the Teams method; everyone else should use Google Slides. This is easy to use for students: Google Slides does not require students to create an account to access or edit a document; all you have to do is send your students a link with editing privileges to the slide presentations, or post one in your LMS/VLE. They will click on the link and immediately be able to edit the document in either platform. As for faculty, if you have ever created a PowerPoint or other slide presentation, then this method will require minimal effort to adopt.

The only drawback is that there can be connectivity issues if a lot of people are accessing the same document at once. If you see that happening, you may want to ask a single student in each group to act as notetaker, and to share their screen within the breakout group so that their group mates can easily see what they are writing. In addition, students accessing Teams or Google Slides on a mobile or tablet may not have full editing functionality, so notetakers should generally be students using a computer.

Here is an in-depth guide with screenshots on how to do this in both MS Teams and Google Slides:

Improving Breakout Groups in Online Courses

For those of us holding synchronous online class sessions, you will probably end up using breakout groups at one point or another. Most of the major video conferencing platforms have some capacity for splitting participants simultaneously into separate virtual rooms, letting you hold small group discussions or facilitating other kinds of group interaction and work. Here are five tips for increasing the effectiveness of your breakout groups.

  1. Design concise prompts with clear instructions and outputs. More so than when in the physical classroom, it is really important to have very clear prompts so that students know exactly what it is they are supposed to be doing in the allotted time. The Transparent Teaching project calls on us to ensure students understand the purpose, required tasks, and criteria for success for any assignment, and this holds true for discussion prompts as well. In particular, make sure students know what output is expected, whether that is a collective answer to a question, a summary of their key discussion points, or a written product of some kind. Having an output will increase student focus on the prompt and motivate discussion.
  2. Excessively communicate your prompts. We’ve all been in the situation when an instructor asks us to do something, and after we move around or open the required software we realize we can’t quite recall the instructions. Breakout rooms are particularly susceptible to this, especially as it can take a couple of moments for everyone to transfer from the main video conference room to the breakout room. Simply telling students the prompt right before the move to the breakout groups, then, will likely result in many students being unclear on what they need to do. It is much better to over-communicate your prompts then the reverse. So, post the prompt on your LMS/VLE prior to or during class, so students can download it. Put it in the written chat. Share it on your screen while also explaining it to everyone. Pause and ask if anyone has questions about what they are supposed to do before you send them into their groups. And if you use Zoom or another program that lets you broadcast a message to everyone, do so 30 seconds after the breakout rooms start as one final reminder. This will make sure that students don’t spend the first two minutes of your breakout room trying to recall what they are supposed to do.
  3. Decide whether you want stable teams or constantly changing groups. Stable teams help students get to know each other as they work with the same small group again and again. That can be essential in a fully online course where building connection and community can be very difficult. Teams can name themselves and even compete with each other during the course. At the same time, if conflicts develop, students can feel stuck and isolated if they are always with the same group again and again. Plus if you can’t set breakout rooms in advance, you’ll have to manually assign each student to their correct team every session. One possible solution is to change teams up every few weeks. That lets students get the benefits of a stable group, but they also know that if they are unhappy they will have a new team soon. Alternatively, use teams but regularly poll your students to see whether they are happy or would like a change, so you can tailor groups to their preferences.
  4. Stay visible while the groups are running. In the physical classroom, you can look at into the room and get useful clues about who is doing well and who is struggling. You can easily see which groups are in animated discussion, and which ones are silent and looking confused. You can also easily wander from group to group. While you don’t get some of those clues in the virtual world, it is still important to check in regularly with your groups. You need to know that they understand the task, that the time you’ve given them is sufficient, and to give them the opportunity to easily ask you questions or get your input. Pretty much all breakout room platforms let the instructor jump from group to group. Do just that–pop into each group, stay for a couple of minutes and provide answers or assistance as needed, and then jump to the next.
  5. Use collaborative documents to capture the work of each group. One challenge with breakout groups is figuring out how to share the work of each group. In most platforms, students can access a whiteboard or share their screen, but they have to then save that document while still in the breakout group, and then figure out a way to share it with the rest of the class. A better idea (courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Cooper of Stonehill College) is to set up a single collaborative document that all the students can use to record their presentations or answers. Create a Google Slides presentation with a number of blank slides, labelled ‘Group 1’ ‘Group 2’ or with team names, if you are using teams. Share the link, allowing anyone with the link to edit the document. Ask students to record their prompt responses or other outputs in one of those blank slides. All the students can access and edit the slides at all times, meaning that every member of each group can record their thoughts or help build the team’s presentation. This also makes it very easy share their work with other groups, as everyone will already be looking at the same document. Once the synchronous session is over, they will still have access to it, which can be a helpful addition to their class notes.

There you go! Five tips that will improve your use of breakout groups. If you have additional tips, please share them in the comments!

Online Group Projects to Build Community: Platform Options

As the fall semester bears down on us and many schools are finally admitting that yes, there will be a substantial amount of online courses (either fully, blended, hybrid, hyflex, etc), I imagine many faculty are experiencing some amount of panic about having to once again suddenly move their courses online. In particular, faculty are concerned about building community in their classes. Online courses can feel very isolating; without physical interaction before and after class, students may not feel connected to either you as the instructor, or their fellow students. One way to combat this and build community is to use team-based learning, where you have set groups working throughout a term on one or a series of projects. This can give students a small group of people that they can come to know well, even if they only work asynchronously with those students. Whether you are interested in adopting a team-based learning model, or just want to use the occasional group project, it’s a good idea to look at what options we have to do this online. On general approaches, I will direct you to this article by Stephanie Smith Budhai in Faculty Focus; here, let’s stick to recommendations on platforms for group or team learning.

First, a caveat: you don’t have to always dictate what platform your students use to collaborate. If all you care about is the end-project or outcomes, then let them use whatever platform they feel comfortable with. Give them options, certainly, but don’t dictate–let them communicate in whatever way is going to make it easy for them to work together, whether that’s on a social media platform, texting, WhatsApp, or something else. The main reason to ask students to use a particular platform is if you want to be able to check in on their work in progress and to see how things are developing. Each of the below options would allow you to do that (although students may need to grant you access!). Just be sure to explain why you’ve chosen this platform, take some time to train students in how to use it, and be clear on how and why you’ll be dropping in to check on their progress.

Let’s talk about several platforms you can use for group collaboration or team-based learning.

Continue reading “Online Group Projects to Build Community: Platform Options”

Pandemic Pedagogy Webinar and Workshop

Colleagues, I want to invite you to an upcoming opportunity that I am involved in.

The International Studies Association’s Innovative Pedagogy Conference Initiative is creating virtual opportunities for faculty professional development. Teacher-scholars in International Studies around the world are facing unprecedented challenges to adapt our teaching and learning approaches in the COVID-19 era. The Pandemic Pedagogy series is designed to help instructors think critically and creatively about these needs. It includes two key elements:

  1. An asynchronous webinar designed to preview the workshop and related IPC initiatives has been posted on the ISA YouTube channel: (https://youtu.be/2FF3Lr5w7hg).
  1. The IPC invites teacher-scholars around the world to participate in our live, synchronous remote workshop on Pandemic Pedagogy on Monday, August 3, 2020, from 12:00 noon to 4:00 pm EDT. The workshop will feature presentations by ISA members and award-winning instructors focused on adapting our teaching and learning strategies in these difficult times. It also provides opportunities for base group dialogues, mentoring, the exchange of creative ideas, and professional networking. The registration portal can be found at: https://www.isanet.org/Conferences/Pedagogy-2020.

Conferencing online

Only the one person struggling to wave with both hands then…

Lots and lots to talk about off the back of EuroTLC last week, so I’m going to chunk it up over the coming weeks. But the starting point has to be some reflecting on whether and how you can have a conference online.

As a top line, I think our event went well. The feedback has been positive; we’ve reached a wider audience than with the physical events beforehand; we had no major technology issues; and I’ve come away with as much to think about (and act on) as before.

But it’s still a different thing to what it was.

Naturally, being good pedagogues, we had thought about that a lot beforehand, and tried a number of things to make it work as well as it could.

Continue reading “Conferencing online”

Settling in for EuroTLC 2020

It’s nearly time for the 2020 edition of the European Teaching & Learning Conference. We were going to be in Amsterdam, enjoying all the nice weather we’ve been having, but now we’re doing it at mine.

We’re going to need cushions. Lots of cushions.

And yours.

A fully-virtual conference is new ground for me (and for most of us), so as one of the organisers I’ve wanted to try and make the most of the opportunity to try out some different things to keep people engaged.

During the two days, we’ll be having lots of different types of sessions, with plenty of loo breaks, and nothing more than an hour. We’re flipping stuff and setting challenges, and generally asking all our participants to think about interaction as a key objective.

From the teaser videos we’ve received, it’s already clear that this has really been taken to heart and I think the record-breaking registration figures bear out how much of an impact this has.

Continue reading “Settling in for EuroTLC 2020”

What will Classes Look Like in the Fall?

As semesters come to a close, it’s a good time to take some deep breaths before we dive back in and start thinking about the fall and what classes will look like. This requires serious consideration of whether faculty should prepare to have part or all of their classes online in the fall. My short answer: yes.

Foretelling the Fall

’15 Fall Scenarios‘ set off much of the discussion regarding what classes will look like in the fall. It examines a range of options from ‘back to normal’ to ‘fully remote’, meandering through delayed starts, block scheduling, bringing some students back to campus but not others, and various hybrid and HyFlex models. According to the Chronicle, 68% of the 630+ higher education institutions they are tracking are planning to hold in-person classes in the fall. Given the uncertainties regarding the trajectory of the coronavirus in the US, and the near-certainty that we won’t have readily-available vaccines or treatments by August, at first glance its hard to understand why so many schools are engaging in what seems like wishful thinking. Certainly, that may be part of what is going on here–optimism in the face of pandemic is in some ways a good thing. Seen in a more negative light, this can be viewed as putting financial interests of universities ahead of the health of students, faculty, and staff. Covid-19 exacerbates existing financial problems at universities, with numerous reports of faculty and staff being furloughed or laid off, even at elite universities. Or perhaps universities are simply responding to what students want. A recent survey of students indicated that most of them want to return to in-person classes.

Another explanation is that this is largely strategic. Robert Kelchen lays out three explanations (link requires premium access) for why colleges have said they are reopening in the fall: sheer optimism, political posturing, and to keep students enrolled. As the deposit deadline shifted to June 1 for many institutions, students have more time to weigh their options. If campuses will be closed and classes online, why pay a premium to attend one institution when they could take online classes at a cheaper place closer to home? This is particularly the case as the hit to the economy will have made college harder to afford for many students and their families. Community colleges in particular are likely to be online in the fall; as a frequent safe haven during times of economic hardship, more and more students may shy away from attending a university that announces in May that students cannot return in August. Institutions that have announced they currently ‘plan’ on having classes in-person are therefore likely keeping a publicly positive outlook while they try to secure enrollments; I expect many to announce a change in their plans come the fall, whether before the semester starts or soon after, if an outbreak occurs. Several institutions are trying a third way, announcing that they plan to have socially distant in-person classes until Thanksgiving, or like Cambridge University are moving lectures online but not tutorials or smaller seminars.

Planning for Fall

Given the expectation that most classes in the fall will be online, either from the start or partway through, faculty should start preparing now for moving their courses online. In the spring, faculty had little or no notice before moving an in-person course online. Despite what your university may be announcing it intends to do in the fall, faculty should prepare their courses now, while there is time, to be effective in an online, remote environment.

Luckily, lots of professors and educational developers have started identifying best practices and are putting out articles on how to do this. Here are a few to get you started.

Planning for Virtual Courses. This is a guide to planning a virtual lesson and how to combine synchronous and asynchronous activities effectively.

Move to Online Learning: 12 Key Ideas, Dave Cormier, Dave’s Educational Blog

Online Teaching Toolkit, Association of College and University Educators

Turning Remote Education into Online Education this Fall, Elizabeth Johnson, Inside Higher Ed.

How College Students Viewed this Spring’s Remote Learning, Doug Lederman, Inside Higher Ed.

This post represents solely the views of the author, and does not in any way reflect the views or policy of the US Naval War College or US Department of Defense.

Online Lesson Planning for Suddenly Teaching Seminars Online

I know many of us are struggling with having to learn how to teach online in a very short period of time. For those of you about to turn your small discussion seminar into an online class, I thought it might be useful to go over some basics of online lesson planning.

Online seminars should, whenever possible, include a combination of synchronous and asynchronous approaches.  I want to help you build lesson plans that maximize the benefits of each approach to online learning. Even if you don’t have the ability to use synchronous tools, you should still find this useful.

The choice between what kind of activities to choose for your suddenly online class should be driven by content needs, learning outcome priorities, and efficient use of limited time for interaction during live online discussions.  If an activity can be done asynchronously without sacrificing quality, then do it. For example, if you normally start class by asking students to identify something they found surprising or interesting about the week’s readings, keep doing that! Just have them answer in a blog or discussion forum before class, then concentrate on the points of common interest during the synchronous discussion.

Asynchronous Activities

Students complete asynchronous activities on their own time, before, during, or after a synchronous class session. You give students a window of time in which they need to complete the activity, and they do so at their convenience within that window, not necessarily at the same time as their classmates. 

These activities should meet at least one of the following needs:

  • Prepare students for a discussion or presentation (individual or group)
  • Check student understanding of a specific term, concept, theory, case, or idea.
  • Follow-up on a discussion topic that needed more time
  • Initiate discussion on a topic there wasn’t time to cover at all.
  • Reduce the amount of time needed to deliver content synchronously
  • Give students meaningful work that will enhance their understanding of key content.

Synchronous Session Activities

Synchronous activities occur within a voice conferencing style virtual classroom. In these sessions, everyone meets live online at the same time for class. In some cases they will directly follow or precede an asynchronous activity, as the two types of activities should complement each other.

These activities should be used to meet one or more of the following needs:

  • Host a discussion that is well-suited to instantaneous response.
  • Review points of confusion in the readings, lectures, or asynchronous discussions
  • Student presentations and small group problem-solving
  • Introduce, discuss or review particularly complex topics, procedures, or ideas.
  • Identify and assess key take home points for the week and build bridges and connections to previous or future material
  • Give students meaningful work that will enhance their understanding of key content.

Example Activities

This is not an exhaustive list by any means and while they are written as paired lessons, faculty should be creative in how they build their class sessions. But for those just getting started, feel free to draw from this list and combine activities as you see fit.

Samples Lessons Combining Asynchronous and Synchronous Activities
Asynchronous ActivitiesSynchronous Activities
Quiz on prerecorded lectures and readings before class to check understanding using a quiz function like Google Forms.Discuss common points of confusion and focus on those to ensure understanding of key terms. 
Ask students to propose discussion questions for the next session on a discussion boardPick a handful of the discussion questions, have the student explain their question and invite responses.
Ask students to work in small groups before class to complete a prompt or activity.Have each group present their work and invite other students to critique and offer counter arguments. If the group work requires a short period of collaboration, use the breakout group function in your VTC.
After class, post a couple of discussion questions for students to answer on topics that you were unable to cover in class. Ask students to respond substantively to one or more questions by the next day and to offer a counterargument to another classmate by the day after that.During the class session, cover as many discussion topics as you like, but recognize that you may not have the time to achieve the desired depth and breadth. Stop discussions as needed to move on to the next topic, but provide a forum for them to continue the conversation after class.
Upload a short lecture on content that needs to be delivered. Alternatively, send them a link to a video. Ask students to post questions, take a quiz, or respond to a prompt in their LMS blog before class.Address any student questions about the lecture or video and highlight a couple of key points before initiating discussion on a related topic. Poll students using the chat function or ‘reactions’ within the VTC to check understanding. 
Ask students to annotate or analyze a key reading. They can annotate in the free software Perusall, or ask them to create a single slide that notes key points.Compare student key points or annotations and make sure that everyone has consensus on the takeaways. Apply the concepts or lessons to a case.
Have students use the Wiki function in the LMS in teams to collaborate and build an entry on a key theory, process, concept, or case.Challenge students on elements of their wiki, including assumptions, missing information, questionable conclusions, or other points of improvement.

One final piece of advice:When designing lessons, be clear in your own minds and communicate to students about the purpose of asynchronous activities. Provide feedback to students (individually or as a group, in writing or during a synchronous session) on their performance so they know their work has value. Estimate how much time a particular activity will take, and make sure you aren’t overburdening them with assignments when you also account for time spent in synchronous sessions.

What ideas do you have for lessons that combine synchronous and asynchronous tools?

What tools are we using? And why Discord should be one of them.

I’m really curious as to how different institutions are managing the sudden transition to online learning. For some, they are trying to maximize the use of synchronous learning with the use of video conferencing software such as Zoom, webex, or Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. For others, asynchronous tools like discussion boards, blogs, and social media are the main option, perhaps because synchronous is impractical or out of reach, perhaps because that’s how online teaching is already done there and that’s where people have expertise. I imagine many schools are using a mix of both.

We have asked faculty to include a significant synchronous component using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra to most closely recreate the in-residence experience. We have a number of advantages in doing so that other institutions don’t have–our students are all adults and paid to be here, and we already had the software in place. Devices may vary and home-based internet connections can be spotty, but we are well positioned to continue classes at their regular times without interruption. The biggest issues are those everyone is facing–quickly training up faculty and students.

For asynchronous tools, we benefit from having access to the Microsoft 365 suite–so things like Tools, Sharepoint, and Forms are available in addition to Blackboard’s discussion forums, blogs, and journals and Panopto for lecture recording. But I’m always on the lookout for other useful tools that can recreate multiple features at once. I’m not talking about Audacity for podcasts or Perusall for document annotation–I mean something that can do discussion boards and chat and voice discussion and allow for file sharing.

What I want to use is Discord.

For those not familiar, Discord is a free to use social media platform originally used by gamers to communicate with their fellow players and fans. Many content creators use it as a community-building space, particularly podcasts, but the platform would work very well for educational purposes. You have to be invited into a particular server, and then once in, you have access to a series of channels dedicated to discussion on particular topics. The channels can be text only or voice-based, restricted access or open to everyone in the server, and you can upload images and share links. The creator controls who can delete comments, create new channels, and can set up something called ‘slow mode’ which prevents a single person from dominating a conversation. Combined with a google drive to store documents, Discord could be a powerful space to connect students and faculty, many of whom may be scattered by time zones around now.

This is a sample server I created. The left side bar shows all the available text and voice channels. The right side bar shows who is currently online. In the center is the chat within a particular channel. Its easy to scroll up or down through messages or do a search, and you can ‘pin’ messages that are particularly important. You can also make channels read-only to communicate important information.

I’ve used Discord to connect with fans of various podcasts, but never for a class. I think it could work very well, though. Its pretty user-friendly and students will pick up on it quickly. The server creator has a lot of ability to customize settings to control who can access what, so it would be easy to build a channel and hide it while you are working on adding content, then let everyone see it. Group work is a breeze–you can assign students different roles, such as ‘Group 1’, and then give that group its own chat and voice channel. Sure, Discord doesn’t have video access or screen sharing, but voice-only access puts less of a strain on the system and doesn’t leave out students that don’t have cameras. Combine this with links to documents (in a google drive or shared one drive or dropbox), and I think Discord will do everything you need it to communicate with students and have high quality discussions.

I’m not teaching right now so I can’t try this out myself, but if someone else wants to take this idea and run with it, please do. I can walk you through the server set up and how to invite your students. All I ask is that you tell me how it goes!