Teaching and Learning

Making Zoom a More Collaborative Place

Like most faculty at BMCC, I was a newbie to synchronous online teaching when classes suddenly went remote last March and had little idea how to “Zoomify” my Spanish classes. For sure, Zoom allows learning to take place in real time, with the live back-and-forth that is so essential to acquiring speaking and listening skills in a foreign language, but many of the collaborative learning activities I’d created for my F2F basic Spanish classes were literally grounded in the physical space of the classroom.

Not only that, but Zoom’s basic functions, by design, place the host (or teacher) entirely at the center. It was easy enough for me to screenshare PowerPoints showing grammar lessons—but I had never taught that way in F2F classes. I could also use the Zoom whiteboard as a substitute chalkboard—but I couldn’t ask students to write on the board, as I did in my physical classroom, since it was tricky and somewhat clunky to have students contributing to the digital board as well. I could toss out oral questions in Spanish to the class, but because of Zoom’s problems with handling many voices at once, it was usually best if I called on students one at a time after they raised their hand. How teacher-centered can you get? It all seemed like a step backward in terms of my teaching practice. A further concern was that my classes met twice a week on Zoom for 100 minutes each; that’s a lot of time to spend with students in a basic language classroom if you, the instructor, are always at the center.

Fast-forward to the present. Thanks to the hive mind of the Internet, YouTube, and my BMCC colleagues, I’ve learned a few ways to push back against the virtual “wall” of Zoom so that more student-to-student exchanges can occur. In this post I’ll describe an activity I frequently use in my Zoom classes that approximates F2F small group work. It involves two elements—Zoom’s breakout rooms + a task presented on a shared Google Slide presentation—and takes advantage of the fact that each slide in the Google presentation is automatically numbered, making it easy to “pair” the slide with the breakout room of the same number.

For example, in this activity, Spanish 106 students worked in breakout rooms to complete sentences using reflexive verbs in Spanish. A “word bank” at the bottom of the Google Slide offered possible answers. Breakout room 1 worked on Google Slide 1, breakout room 2 worked on Google Slide 2, etc.

Screensharing the same slide to the entire class of 20+ students would have allowed no more than a few students to participate. With this activity, all students can potentially contribute to the Google slide inside each breakout room.

Google Slide activities can also make use of the digital tools readily available in the online mode. In this task, for example, students searched for links and photos related to Gabriel García Márquez’s birthplace:


You can also click on the Grid View of Google Slides to see at a glance how the groups are progressing, without having to enter the breakout rooms.


It’s fairly easy to acquire the basics of Google Slides.[1] Here’s a short video (3:42) I made showing how learning activity #1 was put together. For advanced tutorials on how to use Google Slides’ vast array of tools, just google “how to use Google Slides.”

Basics of creating Google slides for breakout rooms

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Before sending students to the breakout rooms, I screenshare the activity and do an example or two with them. I then copy the link to the Google Slides in the chat window, making sure I’ve changed the “Share” settings to “Anyone on the Internet with this link can edit.” After I give students the link, I watch the colorful avatars appear on Google Slides, a sign that students are arriving. I then create and open the breakout rooms, usually with three students per room, and instruct students to go to the slide that matches the number of their breakout room (I reiterate this in a broadcasted message once the students are in their breakout rooms). While students are working on the activity, I try to visit each breakout room, just as I would small groups in a F2F class. After the groups have finished (or the majority of them), we go back to the main room and I screenshare one of the Google Slides to review it as a group.

That’s the activity in a nutshell. I’d like to end, however, by acknowledging that using breakout rooms in an instructional mode, with or without Google Slides, is somewhat of an advanced “move” on Zoom. I don’t want to downplay the challenges. It’s not a given that you can easily substitute breakout rooms in your Zoom classes for F2F small group work. As always on Zoom, you have to contend with a new set of issues that arise simply because you’re in this virtual space. For example, because you can’t overhear what’s happening in each group, you have to enter and exit the breakout rooms one by one to engage with students and make sure everyone is on track. Each room has to establish its own dynamic—there’s no sense of what the other groups are doing, unlike in a F2F classroom, where students can pick up on the vibes in the room. Students using smartphones often don’t have complete functionality on Google Slides unless they download the app. In short, there will be new digital-space-related challenges when you use breakout rooms, and you have to be prepared for them. I’ve been using breakout rooms since the fall semester, and I’m still working on my game.

My overall impression, however, is that despite the bumps on the road for everyone, most students like to work together in that shared space. Over the course of the semester, as Google Slides via breakout rooms become more routine for you and the students, they can turn into the main way to foster student-to-student interactions in your classroom. By using them, you’ll not only be working toward a learning outcome, but you’ll also be creating a more collaborative and communal spirit in that strange new teaching space we’ve been inhabiting for the past year on Zoom.

Prof. Carson’s Google website with selected Google Slide activities from SPN105, SPN106 and SPN211W classes can be found here.

[1] First, open your BMCC Google Drive account, which has unlimited storage. It has Google Docs, Google Slides, Google Forms, Google Sheets and more. Click on this link to a webpage set up by E-learning for more information about opening your BMCC Google account, or contact E-learning directly at elearning@bmcc.cuny.edu.


13 Responses to Making Zoom a More Collaborative Place

  1. Kathleen Offenholley March 19, 2021 at 6:40 pm #

    What a great post, Margaret! I love the creative use of Google slides. I also have to say, I have the same frustration you have with breakout rooms.

    • Margaret Carson March 25, 2021 at 7:54 am #

      Thank, Kathleen! On my wishlist for the next big update of Zoom would be an easier way to enter and exit breakout rooms. If only there were some way to drag-and-drop your way around, rather than having to click click click. When I’m in a hurry to visit more breakout rooms, I’ve clicked on the button to end the session by mistake. Zoom is also a big test of fine motor skills.

  2. Tom Harbison March 22, 2021 at 12:23 pm #

    Thank you, Margaret, for sharing all of this! I appreciate how clearly you’ve described these constraints of Zoom and demonstrated them with examples from your class. And I agree with Kathleen — I love the use of Google Slides as a way to peak into the breakout rooms, overcoming the challenge with Zoom alone where you either have to be all in or out of each room.

    • Margaret Carson March 25, 2021 at 8:21 am #

      Thanks, Tom! I’m sure the grid view on Google Slides was not designed or intended for teachers using breakout rooms in their classes, but it comes close to being able in a F2F class to get a sense of how all the small groups are doing, w/o needing to interrupt them to ask.

  3. John Beaumont March 22, 2021 at 1:03 pm #

    Hi Margaret. Thanks so much for sharing your insights and discoveries about how to build community and engage students even if cameras are off. It’s so important that we figure this out, not only for student success but for our own professional peace of mind in the virtual classroom. Thanks again for your work on this!

    • Margaret Carson March 25, 2021 at 8:55 am #

      Thanks, John! As of a year ago, hardly anyone was teaching via Zoom or other videoconference platforms and there wasn’t much out there on how to adapt your teaching to the constraints of this mode (much less if you’re teaching languages). It’s a “missing chapter” we’re all contributing to….

  4. Sadiqa Wahhaj March 22, 2021 at 3:11 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this post Professor! Very innovative way to bring in more student collaboration in the virtual classroom.

  5. Melissa March 22, 2021 at 6:37 pm #

    Thank you for sharing, I use the breakout rooms and now I will incorporate Google slide.

    • Margaret Carson March 25, 2021 at 8:58 am #

      Thanks, Melissa! I just did a mid-semester survey and most of the students said they think it’s beneficial to their learning…

  6. Chris VINSONHALER March 22, 2021 at 9:43 pm #

    This is a wonderful technique, Margaret. Thank you for sharing! I can’t wait to use it.

    • Margaret Carson March 25, 2021 at 8:59 am #

      Thanks, Chris, hope it goes well!

  7. Sahana (Shahana) Sen March 24, 2021 at 12:55 pm #

    Thank you, Margaret. The use of separate Google slides for each group is a nice idea. Thanks for going over the issues that may arise with Breakout Rooms – its helpful to think through these in advance. I use breakout rooms for students to work on their term projects. Any tips on creating different roles for students so that more than one or two are active? TIA

    • Margaret Carson March 25, 2021 at 10:26 am #

      Hi Sahana,
      Thanks for reading my post! My breakout rooms are not for long-term projects but mostly for activities that are completed in 5-7 minutes, to practice some new topic I’ve just presented in Spanish. I usually create groups of 3 students per room, and don’t assign any roles, such as the designated “Scribe.” Typically, the student who screenshares takes the lead in moving the activity along. I didn’t talk about this in the article, but it helps to keep things focused if one student screenshares the Google Slide within the breakout room. There can be glitches with this so it’s not always possible. At this point of the semester, though, about half the rooms will do this on their own. When I go into a breakout room and see that someone is screensharing, I know that the room is “active”. But it’s common to go into a breakout room and see that everyone is on mute and not much is happening on that breakout room’s Google Slide. It’s like a small group situation in a F2F class. You have to intervene more directly to keep all members of the group on task.

      A few small suggestions. Create a space for students to write their names on the Google Slide. I create a text box at the top of the slide for this. In a small way this might make students more invested.

      Also I’ve done activities where every student in the group has to produce something for the slide. For example, students in my spn106 class had to each contribute to this Google Slide activity asking them to name their favorite food and then upload an image.

      Maybe you can create some variation of this to use in your class. Basically, the idea is that each student in the group has to “deliver” something to the Google slide–an image or a link to a website, or something else. I don’t always center the breakout room around an activity like this one. But when I do, I think there’s more chance each student will do something, because there’s a space for them on the Slide that needs to be filled.

      That might be a way to use a shared Google Slide to draw out the students who aren’t as active. But I also remind myself constantly that this whole online Zoom experience against the backdrop of the pandemic has changed expectations I may have previously had about student performance when I was teaching F2F. If the group project is a high-stakes activity, maybe ask the less active students if they had a minute to talk after class to see what was going on from their perspective? Students must also be suffering from Zoom fatigue, or it may be something else you’d want to keep in mind?

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