Collaboration and teamwork

Effective student collaboration and teamwork can seem like the hardest thing to achieve in a virtual setting. However, it need not be.

Keep things simple, and build from small beginnings.

Grouping students in breakout rooms

Source: Windows. Unsplash, 2020.

While the decisions about mixed versus ability groups are yours, there is a way to put students into 'breakout room' groups while in a virtual setting. Creating breakout rooms essentially means creating separate calls, linked to your class-wide call, that smaller numbers of students can be placed into. This means you can create 2, 3, 4, or more areas for students to enter, engage and collaborate in. You can move from room to room checking understanding, scaffolding and challenging where necessary.

For Zoom, the guide and video from Zoom itself is still one of the best I have found:

For Google Meet, the official breakout room function is currently only available to schools with the Enterprise for Education license:

Mastering breakout rooms as a teacher (and a student!) takes some time. Don't rush into this. I recommend you practice as a department/school, with some teachers in the role of students so that you can experience the function from both perspectives.

One advantage of breakout rooms is that different groups cannot hear each other. So, the regular problem of one group eavesdropping on another to get answers disappears!

You can find some useful ideas for breakout rooms here:

Kagan structures

Kagan structures will be known to many of you. This video by Kagan Publishing and Professional Development provides a useful overview/reminder.

I have been trying some methods with my own students, with mixed success. However, I promise that the ideas below are ones that have generally worked well in terms of learning and engagement!

Collaborative documents

Boy, do I love Google Apps for Education (now called G Suite). I have been using them regularly for years, and when I worked in a Microsoft School I also used their suite heavily (I couldn't possibly say which I prefer the most 😉). Not only do they help with engagement, but you can feedback to them real-time. G Suite can act as a record of work completion/feedback/progress, and have been useful in some parent meetings where I was asked to prove that little Johnny wasn't doing any work.

I'd need to write another guide or two in order to take you through the basics of online collaborative documents, so if you really don't know much about what I am writing about then grab a coffee, find a quiet space for an hour or two and get going:

Now I'm going to assume you know how to open and share a collaborative document. Here are some 'dos and don'ts' to improve engagement:

Write clear instructions onto every document. Students need to be able to work out what they are doing with ease, especially if your own internet drops out.

Obviously, given what I write above, don't simply give students a blank document.

Consider assigning roles to students based on ability. For example, some students could be asked to research and add content; others could then collate and tidy up the content; another group might analyse or evaluate the content. You can comment on a particular task or element on the document, and 'assign' it to particular students on Google. I genuinely cannot find out if this is possible on Microsoft... do let me know!

Don't leave students on the document on their own during the lesson. They may disengage. I make a point of being on the document, commenting on a few good or bad elements I see, and contacting those 'dormant' students who aren't doing anything.

Collaborative slideshows and sheets can also be really useful tools. I've seen Google Sheets used by students to take lots of geographical data from an article, and visualise the data in charts. These were then copied and pasted into the students' own notes.