Dividing the audience into breakout groups is a common method to manage participation in an event which has a large number of participants. Breakout groups give the opportunity to all participants to actively contribute. In an in-person event, all participants are physically together so the formation of breakout groups can be easily and spontaneously decided and coordinated on the spot. No one will be accidentally logged out! However, breakout groups in virtual events come with their own specific – mainly technical – challenges such as understanding the technical capacities and features of the videoconferencing platform and diverse levels of digital literacy of participants. As a result technical glitches and confusion can detract from the effectiveness of the event and -- at its worst – can lead to losing participants.
To avoid technical glitches and confusion in online events, sessions with breakout groups require careful technical preparation and planning prior to the event as well as clear instructions during the event.
Area of application:
It is well known that the attention span of participants is shorter in virtual events. Therefore, mixing methods is often recommended to break up the flow of the event and keep participants focused and engaged. Breakout groups are a common feature of many event designs precisely because they are a way to mix methods. In addition to having the benefit of letting everyone participate, breakout group sessions re-engage the participants and keep them actively involved.
The purpose of the breakout groups should be aligned with the objectives of the event. It could be, among others, to let people get familiar with each other, brainstorm solutions, or collect experiences or feedback. All breakout groups can work on the same task or discussion topic or be assigned different ones, again depending on the goal of the event and the makeup of the participants (for example, if participants have different technical domains or represent different organizational roles/levels).
When designing the virtual event, make sure that adequate time is set aside for the breakout session. A breakout session typically includes introduction, warm-up and self-organisation, discussion, and reaching decisions/results.
Before splitting into breakout groups, the event moderator needs to provide:
- technical instructions on how participants can join the breakout groups (and, if necessary, how they can return to plenary). If there are separate links for each breakout room, they should be posted in the chat. If the instructions are written on a PowerPoint slide posted in the chat, participants should download the slide before joining their breakout group.
- instructions on the tasks to be performed in the breakout groups (for example, a slide with discussion questions that participants download in advance is often helpful). It should also be specified whether each group would have to present their results in plenary, in which case they should be asked to select a person to report back.
- a clear statement on how long the discussion session is and indication of the time participants should be back in plenary is helpful for time management in the group.
There are three main approaches to organizing participants into breakout groups. Which one is preferred depends on the technical capabilities of the videoconferencing platform and the purpose of the breakout group sessions.
The options are:
- Assign randomly; some videoconferencing platforms can do this automatically, for others it is useful to have a method at hand for assigning participants (e.g. alphabetically, counting from 1 to X depending on the number of groups to be formed, or based on colours or similar markers that are communicated to the participants beforehand via email or with a physical package).
- Assign before the start of the event, for example according to prior registration or expression of interest in a specific topic by participants, or based on criteria decided by the moderator. In this case some videoconferencing platforms have the option to pre-assign participants to their group manually. Keep in mind that last-minute registrations or participants joining without registering will need to be assigned to groups as well. Therefore this option might be most appropriate for closed events with a fixed number of participants.
- Allow participants to choose which group to join at the time of the breakout session. Keep in mind that in this case it is possible that participants distribute themselves unevenly (some groups could be much bigger than others).
It depends whether it is a closed event with a known number of participants which have registered in advance (so the groups can be prepared beforehand and assigned manually) versus an open event with unknown number of participants. Another aspect to consider in assigning participants to breakout groups is language diversity and the possibility to divide participants by language manually or by letting them choose.
Tools and technical aspects
There are different technical options depending on the capabilities of the videoconferencing platform. In some cases, breakout rooms have to be created beforehand and the link sent to the participants together with instructions. Also keep in mind that some videoconferencing platforms might have limits on the maximum number of participants in a breakout room.
- Moderators for breakout groups: Think in advance about whether a moderator (recommended if there is a certain result to be achieved by a newly created group) or a technical expert (recommended if a technically complex topic shall be discussed) will be needed for each breakout group or ask participants to self-manage the group. In the first case, you have to make sure that you have brought enough people on board in advance to serve as moderators and have set aside time to brief them prior to the event (often colleagues who might have attended the event anyways can be asked to do that). In the latter case, make sure you provide instructions that participants need to select a person among themselves who would keep time and report back to the plenary.
- When breakout groups are assigned different topics and participants can or should discuss different topics, shuffling the topics between groups is possible. When shuffling, it is better to switch the moderators rather than the participants so that there is less confusion.
- Technical check: The moderator needs to invest time in making sure that they are familiar and comfortable with the breakout room features of the platform. Therefore it might be helpful to conduct a technical check prior to the event.
- If possible, have a person as technical back-up in the main room to guide participants towards their breakout session rooms in case they experience technical issues.
Suzana Lange, Katharina TelfserContact us