Opinion | How breakout rooms are the blind dates of e-learning

Anika Radhakrishnan, Staff Writer

The moment the teacher says, “I’m going to put you all in breakout rooms now,” is the moment when all the color drains from your face. Your eyes widen, and your heart beats out of nervousness. Teachers think breakout rooms are a good way to get their students to socialize and for them to complete group work. But instead, they’re awkward, unproductive and uncomfortable.
They’re Awkward
Once you click the “join breakout room” button, you see that everyone’s cameras and microphones are off. This is where it gets interesting. Who’s going to speak first? Hello? Is anyone there?!
It’s exciting to see if there’s a brave soul who unmutes themselves to say something or types a “hey” in the chat. Oftentimes, one courageous student will start with the classic, “How is everyone doing today?” only to be met with silence.
The silence can last anywhere between five and 15 minutes. You’re meeting with people that you’ve never met before, which is nerve-wracking. It all depends on whether or not you have people that are willing to speak up in your group. More often than not, breakout rooms fail.
“At the beginning of school, I was put in a breakout room. I decided to put my camera on. No one else did. I tried to talk several times but no one answered,” she says. “It was silent for a solid 15 minutes,” says freshman Caroline Christon.
The issue with breakout rooms isn’t exclusive to ETHS. Many students nationwide have taken to Twitter to express their dislike for breakout rooms. An article by Elite Daily contains a collection of Zoom breakout room memes that were posted on Twitter.
A tweet by a Twitter user shown in the article posted: how “discussion” looks when the professor puts you into random breakout rooms on Zoom, alongside a picture of four characters and animals staring at the camera with blank expressions.
If people aren’t going to talk, then no work is going to be completed. So why bother putting students in breakout rooms if no one’s being productive? The blatant awkwardness of zoom leads to a lack of production.
No Work Gets Done
Before going into a room, the teacher will usually assign a worksheet or project that requires everyone to work together to complete. By assigning something that everyone has to do together, surely people will start interacting with each other, right? Wrong.
“I was in a breakout room, and we had to assign roles. Nobody talked except me, and it took us ten minutes just to get roles,” says freshman Sasha Van Den Berg. “After that, the person whose role was sharing their screen and typing didn’t type anything. I had to do all of the work. And I still didn’t get it all done because of the lag.”
Most of the time, no one speaks in the rooms, so there is little group work actually happening. Everyone who wants to complete the assignment does so on their own in silence, terrified to ask a question and would rather get a bad grade than speak up.
After groups finish “discussing” or doing “group work,” the timer with the sixty-second warning pops up is when everyone clicks the “return to the main session” button. Students return to the main session to find that the teacher has just asked every group to share out what they had discussed or written for a particular problem. This is when the panic sets in.
Uh oh, is the first thought that comes to mind. We didn’t talk about anything. What am I supposed to say when the teacher calls on us?!
“When no one talks, and we get called back to the meeting, I just ad-lib something on the spot, wait for a different group member to speak, or repeat something that a previous group said,” says freshman Eliana Sklar.
If people aren’t willing to talk and work with each other, then we aren’t ready to socialize over Zoom.
It Forces Socialization That We’re Not Ready For
Breakout rooms are basically blind dates that no one signed up for.
You can be thrown into meetings with people that you’ve never met in your life and you’re either sitting in silence or trying to keep a poor conversation going. Sometimes, the conversation is so awkward to the point where you would rather have the ground swallow you up or your Wi-Fi cut out.
According to a study by Forbes Insights, 85 percent of people said that they prefer in-person meetings because they help to build stronger and more meaningful business relationships. Virtual meetings can be convenient, but there is no substitute for being in the same room.
Since we’re in the middle of a pandemic, it’s not safe to meet in-person. However, breakout rooms are not effective when it comes to building relationships and don’t even lead to productivity.
“We still don’t know each other well and teachers want to put us in a private space with a few people,” says Christon. “This causes the students to feel unsafe due to judgment and being uncomfortable.”
The fact of the matter is that nothing can replace real human interaction. Thus far, breakout rooms have proven to be unproductive and awkward. Change is needed; whether it is removing them totally, or teachers establishing year-round groups so students have more than 15 minutes to develop a relationship, the way breakout rooms are currently operating is not functional.