Breakout Rooms in Google Meet

Teaching in 2020 means, like it or not, teaching online. In the spring, I, like many of you, taught using Zoom. Zoom has some nifty features. In particular, the ability to create breakout rooms for small group discussions is an outstanding feature. But suppose you don't have access to Zoom (or some other video meeting service that provides breakout rooms), but you still want breakout rooms? Or suppose you do have access to Zoom, but found that its bandwidth requirements put students with weak internet service at a disadvantage?

I used Zoom because that's what I was familiar with. But I had more than a few students whose internet connections could not handle Zoom. They would miss long stretches of class and could not be heard or understood when they wanted to contribute. Often, Zoom would just dump them out of the class entirely, and they would have to be re-admitted. At the same time, I found that these students could use Meet with fewer problems, so I used that for one-on-one meetings, and began to wonder how you could simulate breakout rooms.

Well, it turns out to be possible. It won't be perfect, and it requires some advance work, but it can be done. Of course, I have not yet tried to teach this way, and there are bound to be problems I haven't thought of. If you have improvements, please send them to me (my contact info is below).

Here is the basic idea: We'll use the Chrome browser and a bunch of Google tools. We'll create a Google Meeting for each breakout room, plus one to serve as the regular classroom. We'll put links to each breakout room in a Google Sheet, together with a list of the students in the class. Students can then click on the link next to their name to join their breakout room. If you decide to use Google Slides for your whiteboards, you can also provide that link in the same Sheet. This sounds simple, because it is. But it's tedious to set up, and there is nothing automatic. When you send your students out to their breakout rooms, they have to take themselves. When you want them to come back, you will have to visit each room to chase them out (unless you have some kind of parallel messaging system set up). Setting and maintaining norms will be important here.

Security

If your are using the Google tools within G Suite for Education, then you get a nice security feature: anyone trying to enter the meeting who is not logged in to a school account will need your permission to enter the room. You can't get Zoombombed (Meetbombed?) from someone outside of the school. Your students, on the other hand, can join just by clicking the link...and so can any of their friends who they've shared the link with! Again, we will be relying on norms here, even though in 2020 America that is a wobbly idea.

If you are using the free Google tools, then classroom security may be an issue. If your students share the links, anyone with a gmail account can drop into your class.

The Spreadsheet

This figure shows the Google Sheet that I will share with my students (no extra charge for the typos). You can't see it all, but I typically need eight rooms to accomodate all the students in my classes. I create random new groups on a weekly basis, in a spreadsheet of course, so I simply copy the new list each week and paste it over the dummy student list that you see. Everything in this sheet, except for the individual student names, is going to be a link, but I only have to set it up once.

When this sheet is complete, I'm going to make a copy for each section. The links for every section will be the same (which may or may not cause problems), but the list of students will of course be different.

The Rooms

My main classroom and all eight breakout rooms are created over in Google Calendar. They are simply meetings with video conferencing. The trick is that if you designate a meeting as recurring, then the link is permanent and you don't have to go through all this again. So all my rooms are scheduled to meet on the first Sunday of every month. The meetings are all 15 minutes long, starting at one am and every 15 minutes thereafter.

Linking the Rooms

If you click on one of your meetings, you will see that it has a URL. Copy that, go to your spreadsheet, click on the corresponding cell, hit ctrl-k, and paste in the link. Then any student who has the spreadsheet can enter their assigned room by clicking on the link. In a single class period, if they leave the room tabs open, they can move back and forth between the main classroom and their breakout room without having to revisit the spreadsheet.

Once your spreadsheet is finished, you have all the elements, but it's still not very useable. You want to be able to open all your rooms at once with a single click. So open your spreadsheet in a new window (so the spreadsheet is the only tab in the browser). Then, starting at the bottom, open all your rooms, including your main room. The order is important. I cleverly named all my breakout rooms with their number first in the naive belief that the meeting name would appear in the browser tab. Nope. Your only idea of which room is which comes from the order of the tabs in your browswer, so you want to set that up right. Once all the rooms are open, close the spreadsheet tab so that you have your classroom at the left, followed by your breakout rooms in numerical order. Next, move your mouse over to end of your row of tabs, past the new tab plus mark, right click, and select "Bookmark all tabs...". You will be prompted to name the folder for these bookmarks. Being subtle, I picked "Rooms." Now you can create tabs for all your rooms at once by right-clicking on the folder and choosing to open all in a new window. During class, you can switch between your main classroom and all your breakout rooms just by clicking on the tabs. This may be the only way in which this whole cumbersome process beats Zoom!

Muting

We are almost done, but not quite. When your students go out to their breakout rooms and start collaborating, you will hear all the rooms at once. To control this, go to the Chrome Store and install an extension called Mute Tab. (Careful! There's more than one extension with this name, and several others with very similar names. I'm using the one by MeryDev). This app is not automatically pinned to the toolbar, so after installation is seems to have disappeared. Click on the Extensions icon on your tool bar and navigate to the options for Mute Tab. Select options 3 and 4 for the extension. Then, as you move among your rooms, you will hear only the room you are entering. All your other tabs will be muted.

It is possible that one of the (many) other tab-muting extensions for Chrome will work even better. This one is the first one I tried, and since I could make it do what I needed, I stopped looking.

Whiteboards

There used to be a section here on using Google Slides as whiteboards. At this point I believe is possible to get the all of the positive features of using Slides together with the positive features of using something that was actually designed to be a whiteboard. Please see my post on online whiteboards for Modelers.

The reason not to use Google Slides is that the drawing tools are terrible. They are basically the same limited set of drawing tools as in Google Drawings, but made dumber. After you use a tool once to, say, draw a squiggly line, you need to re-select the same tool to draw a second squiggly line. Worse, if your students have a stylus-enabled device, Slides (like Drawings) will refuse to recognize the stylus. Freehand drawing is only available through the mouse. (Google knows how to do this. Google Canvas recognizes a stylus. So if students have the patience, they can create a drawing in Canvas, download it to their device as an image, and paste it into their slide. Too much work.)

The simplest way to use Slides is to make a template with a blank slide for each group (maybe with a label "Group 1" etc. on each slide). Then make a copy for each whiteboarding session and share that with your students. This is what I did during the Spring 2020 shutdown. I had a lot of problems with the students messing with each other's boards (high school plus cabin fever). Since the history of the slide does not include who drew exactly what, I had no way to hold the misbehaving students accountable. It turns out, however, that each slide in a Slides presentation has a unique URL. You can give each group a link that goes to their slide and only their slide.

So, set up your template (only it's not a template now, it's going to be a permanent set of whiteboards), then go through the slides, copying each URL and pasting it into your breakout room spreadsheet, just as we did for the meeting rooms. Now the students have two links: one opens the breakout room, and the other gives them access to just their group's whiteboard. I'll need the students to erase their whiteboard at the end of class, because I really don't want to have to set this up again for each period, let alone for each section that I teach. If I want to save the whiteboards for future reference, I will just have to remember to make a copy before asking them to erase.

Problems

All the problems are theoretical at this point, although they may get very real in September. My main worry is that since the entry point to every room is in the spreadsheet, students can hop between rooms or between whiteboards if they really want to. If I were to break up the access spreadsheet into separate sheets (in my case, eight of them), then I could share each sheet only with the students in that group. That would be really tedious. Because I mix up my groups regularly, everyone will eventually have the link to every room on their Google Drive. Similarly, all of my students will eventually have every one of my whiteboard slides linked from their Drive. If they want to cause trouble, however, sorting through those links to find the one they want might be tedious enough that they won't bother. At least that's my hope.

Another problem is that the meetings are available 24/7. There is no way to turn them off or kick the kids out at the end of class. This might be a feature if the students use rooms to meet up and do school work together. (I expect this to happen at about the same time a certain someone starts regularly appearing in public with a mask on.) More likely, students will show up in your rooms while you're still trying to teach another class. Again, we're back to norms.

Acknowledgements

None of this starts with me. I learned about this approach from videos by Noah Campbell and Greg Kuloweic. Not everything needed was in one place, so I thought I'd pull it all together here.

Contact

If you find something wrong (likely) or have an improvement (please!), drop me a line: doc at this website (noragulfa.com).

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