I'm continuing a look at less common web conferencing functionality. Today we examine the concept of breakout rooms or breakout sessions.
You might not be familiar with the terminology as applied to web conferencing, but there's a good chance you have experienced the functional equivalent in a live setting at some point in your schooling or career.
A group leader or instructor tells the audience to subdivide into smaller teams to work on a problem, do an exercise, or brainstorm on ideas. Each group operates independently from the others and the instructor or leader might stroll from one team to the next to see how things are coming along, answer questions, or provide advice. When the groups finish their assignment, everyone comes back together and shares the results, leading to an opportunity for full-room discussion, introspection, or learning.
The goal of a breakout functionality in a web collaboration product is to emulate this kind of in-person exercise within the virtual environment. You typically find it included in products targeted at training and education, since that is the most common use case. So for instance, Webex Training Center includes breakouts, but you won't find it implemented in Webex Meetings or Webex Events. Adobe Connect includes breakout functionality because they have always targeted education and training as a featured solution area. You will find the feature mentioned on the ON24 web page dealing with their Virtual Learning Environment, but not their page dealing with Demand Generation.
What might distinguish one vendor's implementation from another? Here are some things you can ask about if this functionality is important to you:
- What options are available for breaking the audience into subgroups? Can attendees self-select in order to stay with friends or departmental colleagues? Can the software automatically subdivide and balance the audience into roughly same-size groups? Can the host choose to subdivide based on the desired group size or the desired number of groups?
- Can people move from one group to another? Do they request the host to move them, or can they do it for themselves?
- Can the host choose to open all microphones within each group so attendees can speak with each other while doing their exercise?
- Does the software create a group chat for typed interactions between the group members?
- Does the software allow groups to use a whiteboard or brainstorming tool to collect thoughts among members?
- Can the host virtually "visit" the groups, seeing their chat, joining their audio, or seeing their assets such as whiteboards or brainstorming tools?
- Can a group signal the host to request a "visit" if they have a question or need assistance?
- Is there a way for each group to signal the host when they have completed their exercise and are ready to rejoin the communal session?
- Can the host set a countdown timer visible to all groups to show how much time is left for the exercise?
- Can each group designate a spokesperson to present their results so the host knows whom to call on?
- If the software allows separate whiteboards or brainstorming tools for each group, can they be displayed in the communal session if the host or the group spokesperson desires?
This is a type of functionality that is unimportant in most presentation-based webinars or webcasts that concentrate on delivering information from one or a few presenters out to a primarily passive audience. So it's not surprising that applications such as sales, marketing, and corporate communications don't place much emphasis on it.
The pity is that it has a definite use case in quite a few collaborative team meeting applications, but most of the "quick 'n easy" web meeting screen share products don't include it… As you can see from the implementation options I listed, it just adds too much of a learning curve and too much intricacy to simplified web conferencing solutions.