Student at desk with laptop & notes, shot from above
Student Voice

Top Tips for Building Inclusive Online Communities within Breakout Rooms

As the first post on the building inclusive online communities’ theme, I wished to clarify what the aims of this theme are to BILT. Building Inclusive Online Communities is about exploring how we can maintain our sense of social connectedness within a cohort whilst studying online, as well as exploring different pedagogies to support inclusion within online contexts and how this can be balanced across synchronous and asynchronous learning.

Recently memes about disengagement in breakout rooms have been spreading around Twitter.

This disengagement was touched upon during our recent Student Hackathon. One possible reason is that if a student hasn’t done the required work it is far easier to leave the room, or stay with their mic and camera turned off, than it would be to not engage in a face to face discussion. An additional reason was that some students are not confident in sharing their thoughts under normal situations, however being online you have even less of an opportunity to gauge the room due to the lack of non-verbal indicators and expressions, meaning that they feel less comfortable to contribute. This also varied depending on whether the students were new to the University, or already part of a cohort. In this blog I hope to introduce you to some top tips for building communities within breakout rooms and why these might be useful!


First year students (including new master’s students) sometimes find that having randomly assigned groups for breakout sessions leads to a level of awkwardness, as they have still not met each other within their cohort. Using randomised groups all the time means that students may only interact with the same person once or twice per semester. This potentially leads to students not building a relationship with anyone else on their programme if it is mostly online.

I propose the use of ‘groups’ whereby for a period of time (half a teaching block) students are within fixed groups. This means that they are able to get to know their classmates and the team provides them with a sense of comfort and identity, particularly if the groups have names! This also brings back the social responsibility to be actively engaged (as we have with face-to-face teaching) as there is a need and social pressure for all team members to contribute. Continuing students mentioned that this approach may not lead to increased engagement for them as they already have a relationship with their classmates and were more worried about being stuck in a ‘dud’ group.

Group Size

Students have expressed a preference towards a group of between 3-5 students. This way everyone has the opportunity to contribute easily. Another preference was expressed towards random pairs. Pairs are best used for short periods of time (max 5 minutes) and to answer a specific question/complete a specific task. Random pairs can also be used in combination with groups to allow students to still meet new course mates.

The Task

Students felt it can be daunting at the beginning of a breakout not knowing where to begin. Students were more comfortable engaged in breakout rooms when there was a clear task to complete and there was a method of presenting their output as a group; for example, a shared PowerPoint slide/Word Document, Padlet, Jamboard etc. Having a shared area allows students to take notes collaboratively (the whiteboard feature in BlackBoard Collaborate could also be used for this) as well as the lecturer providing prompts for the students to be cognisant of. This allows for the team members to each have roles within the group. You could expand these further by setting the roles to structure the breakout session slightly more. Example roles include: first-to-speak, note-taker, reporter, timekeeper, equity monitor, or questioner/devil’s advocate.

Asynchronous Viewers

Whilst asynchronous viewers will not be able to fully benefit from the breakout group discussion, we should still provide an activity for viewers to complete independently and enter into a discussion if they wish. This could be a similar activity to the live breakout room but through the discussion board for example.

Next steps

These ideas and suggestions are the starting point for considering how to improve online engagement to build inclusive digital communities that our students will value and learn from. At BILT, we’re always looking for new ideas, pilot examples and case studies that can inspire colleagues across all six faculties. Get in touch anytime with your ideas, comment below or email the team:

Jonny Barnes BILT Student Fellow 20/21 working on the projects – Creating online communities – Assessment and feedback – Students as researchers -Decolonisation. 

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