Arts & Culture

Zoom Rooms: Make It or Break It

The first time I heard about Zoom was when classes went online. When the pandemic pushed people from offices and classrooms to their homes, platforms like Skype, Microsoft Teams, and Slack had the opportunity to dominate the communication market. But as it turns out, they were all overtaken by Zoom in the digital race. Along with a rather intuitive interface, Zoom offers a range of unique features that has made it almost synonymous with video conferencing in the last year. One feature that we, as students, are abundantly familiar with are breakout rooms. 

Breakout rooms act as a substitute for group discussions that regularly occur during in-person classes. In a time where our interactions with other people are very limited, they form a new and interesting part of our daily socialization. On its website, Zoom explains that “breaking into groups for smaller, focused discussions is a hallmark of the in-person meeting experience, and with Zoom’s Breakout Rooms feature, you can bring that same dynamic meeting structure to the digital space.” With features such as breakout rooms, Zoom is striving to create some semblance of normalcy in our lives. 

Philosophy Professor Erin Kelly explained that her intention with using breakout rooms goes beyond just discussing the class material. She said, “Students also don’t have a lot of contact with one another under the pandemic, so it seems like a good way to provide a small group format for students, to not only explore the ideas in the class, but also to get to know one another and relax a little bit more in the classroom.” 

Other departments share this view, as psychology Professor Holly Taylor spoke about the importance of breakout rooms in creating a sense of community to help overcome the isolation experienced by students during the pandemic. She said, “As an instructor, you want to build some community with your students. That connection, I think, is important for mental health, and mental health obviously has important implications for learning…you might not become friends with the people in your breakout room, but I think it is one good way to have students connect.” She also explained that, as her class is hybrid, breakout rooms make way for remote students to interact with the other students taking the course too.

According to a survey conducted by the Tufts Observer, for students, sentiments towards breakout rooms are highly polarized. While some people like the opportunity to speak with classmates without the professor around, others seem to wholeheartedly detest them. A handful of people dislike breakout rooms so much that they leave the Zoom meeting as soon as they see “The host is inviting you to join ‘Breakout Room: Breakout Room 1’” flash on their screen.

Discussing the positives of breakout rooms, Isabella Getgey, a junior in the dual degree program at the SMFA, wrote in the survey that “they’re a good place to socialize! I miss having in-person interactions with people in my classes, especially in SMFA classes, where your connection to the community comes directly from interacting with classmates.” Breakout rooms can fill the gap left by those personal interactions we had with the people sitting around us in an in-person class that cannot happen when there are over 30 tiles displayed on our screens. 

For some people, breakout rooms have also successfully replaced romantic pursuits that would have otherwise happened in person. An anonymous senior said, “For me, personally, it has been a bit easier on Zoom.” He explained that in a big class it’s more difficult to strike up a conversation with someone you’re interested in, whereas on Zoom you can just send them a private message in the chat. He went on to say that “when we get put into breakout rooms, they’re the first person I am looking out for to see if they’re in the same room as me…[we’ve] kinda bonded over how much we hate breakout rooms.” While he has had a positive experience pursuing his romantic interests with the help of breakout rooms, others have more awkward stories to tell. In the survey, an anonymous junior noted, “I keep getting into breakout rooms with my Tinder matches that I’ve ghosted or been ghosted by…sometimes 2 [T]inder matches in a breakout room…of 3.”

Zoom breakout rooms have the potential to be highly tense. Multiple people have shared stories where everybody has their cameras turned off and mics muted and not a soul speaks in the entirety of the breakout room. Sophomore Emma Sonnenblick shared a breakout room horror story, saying, “[A] girl turned off her camera and the other girl in the room and I didn’t think she was there because she didn’t talk the whole time. When we got back to the room she shared all of our answers.” 

People have also said that breakout rooms can be highly unproductive, especially when a professor assigns too much time for the task they give. In the survey, an anonymous student said, “One time we were in break out rooms to work on a group project the whole period (no prof) so my group mate rolled a blunt and started smoking.” Similarly, junior Jahansher Khan said, “They’re completely useless, at least in Comp Sci lab so many times the students already do the lab ahead of time (they’re not supposed to) or just do not help in the lab. Occasionally you get a really nice head who does the lab with you so it’s a hit or miss.” 

My personal experience with breakout rooms leans mostly towards the positive side. While the first few moments are often characterized by uncomfortable silent glances, once someone eventually speaks up the conversations are usually interesting. Just last week, I was in a breakout room that ran over time because we were having an engaging discussion reimagining the justice system with prison abolishment. In contrast, I have been put in one very intimidating breakout room of three people: me, my TA, and my professor. They were obviously waiting for me to speak up first and take lead on the discussion question, which I eventually ended up blabbering about because I was nervous. Needless to say, I spent the rest of the day ruminating on smarter things I could have said instead. 

Another unpleasant breakout room experience I’ve had was when two people (yes, they were white, and yes, they were men) completely dominated the conversation. It took me 10 minutes to get my first word in. This is not a one-off incident. It is much more difficult to break into a conversation on Zoom than in in-person classes. Professor Taylor explained, “If you look at research on turn taking and conversations, there are all sorts of non-verbal cues and linguistic cues that people give in conversations. And so when those non-verbals are missing in breakout rooms, it’s harder to know who should go next.” In in-person classes, someone can bring you into a conversation by looking at you, or you could indicate that you want to share something through gestures like leaning forward. Zoom does not allow for these intimacies, so it often either amplifies or diminishes the space we take up in the room. 

Professor Kelly optimizes the breakout room experience by trying to raise issues that people might have something to say about, both in a larger group setting and in breakout rooms: “I think in theory they could work in any class, but you might need to do a little bit more preparation in some courses as compared to others.” She explained this method could include different students taking responsibility to bring questions on the material to the group, diverging a little bit more from the class material, or assigning writing exercises. 

Breakout rooms are definitely an intriguing phenomenon born out of the pandemic. Everyone in your breakout room can get a full frontal view of your room and everything in the purview of your camera without knowing that you are sitting without pants on. You can also never predict how they are going to turn out. But clearly, if used productively, they can be valuable to students in terms of learning as well as socializing.