As we all anticipated months ago, college this semester looks different: Some students are attending lectures in cohorts, while others have weighed in on class discussions from their grandmother’s living room. Regardless of whether students are attending a university that has contained the number of COVID-19 cases to five or been plagued with more than 500, students taking online classes this semester have all virtually learned the same thing: Zoom breakout rooms go down as simply the worst.
Those attending class virtually have swapped their university IDs for entrance into a blander institution with fewer dimensions, one that some amused Gen Zers like to call “Zoom University.” At this point, weeks into yet another school year stacked with online lectures, the pitfalls of Zoom and a semester of virtual learning have become increasingly apparent. At the top of this list lies the platform’s inability to create a community between students enrolled in the same class. As many have learned, building a spontaneous and social atmosphere on Zoom faces its challenges when only one person can audibly speak at a time.
To combat this issue, professors have taken advantage of breakout rooms, which split students up into small groups so they can discuss course content. Breakout rooms foster community and facilitate conversation to aid in direct and meaningful learning. At least, that’s the theory behind them. Those who enter leave knowing that’s often not the way things turn out.
Casual conversation IRL — as the kids would say — does not translate well in breakout rooms. In theory, talking with someone via Zoom, FaceTime, Skype — whichever virtual platform you prefer — shouldn’t be that different from talking to someone in person. Shouldn’t the same principles of communication apply?
The short, and unfortunate answer, is, no. Despite Zoom’s neat presentation of fellow classmates and their environs into neat, individually sliced rectangles, the four, five or fifteen faces presented on a thin computer screen are more akin to paper cutouts than real people. They lack depth, and by virtue, so does the conversation.
Most of the time, when transferred to a breakout room, participants have their microphones off. This starts the timer on the dreaded waiting game called “Who will speak first?” Sometimes a person will chime in with an apprehensive hello, but more likely it can be upwards of 15 seconds before any communication occurs. This may seem like a short amount of time, but remember, Zoom creates a vacuum where everything is four times slower. Those 15 seconds really feel like an excruciating minute of “Why isn’t someone saying anything? Should I talk? But I don’t want to!”
This apprehension to speak stems from a lack of familiarity with the other people in the breakout room. While Zoom allows people to avoid in-person communication — a blessing for some — it still feels oddly intimate: People who you have never met or seen before all of a sudden get a glimpse of the wall art in your dining room.
To make matters worse, oftentimes other participants won’t have their cameras on, leaving you without a “real human being” to connect with. You don’t know who they are, what they look like or if that person named Lisa on the other side of your screen is even listening to a word you’re saying. A communicative awkwardness reminiscent of middle school appears from an abyss of random names swimming in empty black rectangles. Except the agents responsible for this awkwardness are not fidgety middle schoolers who don’t know any better, but 20-something-year-old college students trying to earn their degrees in molecular biology, or worse, communication.
But perhaps even more disconcerting is the Russian roulette you inevitably play when put into random breakout rooms in a 200-person lecture. You never know who is going to pop up on your screen, although you know it will likely be someone different every time, leaving you no opportunity to build a rapport with any of your classmates. Every class you get thrown into a breakout room with strangers is the equivalent of being trapped in an elevator and waiting for someone to come save you.
So no, for many college students, they are not a highlight of the virtual learning experience. Anticipating the dread that will ensue after a professor says, “Okay, I’m going to split you up into small groups,” some students decide to leave the Zoom call before they will be unwillingly forced in one with four other students who won’t unmute themselves. One of my favorite things to do on a call is to watch the number of participants shrink from 75 to 55 in a matter of minutes; it’s a small act of resistance that I like to call “the breakout drop.”
Escaping the Depths of Doom
While breakout rooms were by no means ideal this past spring, starting a whole semester virtually makes them even worse. Before, students forced to split into them likely had some familiarity with each other, as they had attended class together in person. Now speaking up means talking to a stranger, a daunting task, especially for those who struggle to make small talk to humans in person, let alone in a virtual setting.
With the unpredictability of COVID-19, who knows the next time college students will actually be learning inside a classroom. Some universities — like my own, the University of Pittsburgh — have announced they will likely continue the same course of action for the fall semester, one that involves some form of virtual learning.
One of the most unfortunate things about this situation includes the inability to engage in simple forms of human interaction: to talk before class starts, to hold the door open or to ask your seat neighbor for a stick of bubble gum. You can’t pass gum through a private Zoom chat; technology hasn’t gotten there yet. In a college environment where social interaction is half of the experience, these small and seemingly mundane acts are some of the things that form a community.
Breakout rooms won’t replace any of these things directly, but they can be a way to build some solidarity in a time when there’s very little to be found. Doing so, though, takes pushing through some of the awkwardness and being open to conversation. It might not be “normal,” but as of right now, it’s the best we’ve got.