A Panopticon for your Zoom Breakout Rooms

Have you ever wanted to clone yourself in the classroom? Zoom’s breakout rooms are a game-changing feature for leveraging small group work in remote teaching. But, they’re not set up for hosts (instructors) to quickly monitor what’s happening in all the rooms simultaneously. You can fix that, with this workaround that places a clone of yourself in each room.

The Use Case

Zoom, like most teleconferencing platforms, was built for teleconferencing. Everyone can see everyone, and generally only one person talks at a time. That’s fine for teaching a small, intimate seminar or discussion course, but even 10- or 15-student classes can make discussions unwieldy. Enter the breakout rooms feature.

Using breakout rooms, a host can split a meeting into a number of smaller sub-meetings. To its credit, Zoom makes the setup process virtually effortless, so it’s easy to do mid-meeting. However, once participants are in their breakout rooms, the host is left by themselves in a purgatory-like state of isolation in the meeting’s main room.

Actual photograph of a Zoom host after their breakout rooms have launched.

So how does a host stay active in the meeting when participants are in breakout rooms? By joining each room, one at a time. It’s a laborious process: even with only 4-5 breakout rooms I find it takes 50% longer for me to visit every room than I plan. A not-insignificant portion of that time is spent merely in the lag between leaving one breakout room (please wait…), then arriving back in the main room, then joining the next breakout room (please wait…).

What if you could just see and interact with all the rooms at once?

This is how we manage group work in a busy classroom, after all. We can talk to one group while keeping an eye on the others, we can quickly respond when a group wants our attention, and we can tell instinctively when the groups are generally ready to wrap up. None of those things are easy, or indeed possible, when slowly visiting one group at a time.

So! Without further ado, here is the workaround that I’ve used to make this happen. The basic idea is this: You join your own Zoom meeting multiple times, all from the same computer, and then place one of “you” into each breakout room. Simple, right?

The Breakout Panopticon: Setup Steps

Take these steps just once, before your first panopticon session, and they should be ready for all future sessions.

A. Enable “Join from your Browser” on your Zoom account. You can and should still use the Zoom app to connect your “main” self, the host of the meeting, but each of your clones will be connecting within a web browser window. Not every Zoom feature is available to participants who connect in their browsers, but your clones won’t miss any important ones.

To enable Join from your Browser: In your zoom.us My Account, under the Settings tab, find and enable the option:

This option is found under the “In Meeting (Advanced)” section of the Settings tab.

B. Disable “Only authenticated users” for Web client connections on your Zoom account. You (probably) don’t have multiple registered Zoom accounts of your own to play with, so your clones will need to be unauthenticated. You’ll be prompted to enter a display name for each of the “yous” when you connect. You only need to disable this option for Web client participants. (If you rely on students connecting through authenticated accounts, the other Only authenticated users can join meetings setting may be left enabled; they appear to be independent of one another.)

To disable Only authenticated users can join meetings from Web client: In your zoom.us My Account, under the Settings tab, find and disable the option:

This option is found under the “Security” section of the Settings tab.

That’s all the setup you need before your first panopticon.

The Breakout Panopticon: Before your Meeting

Leave a few extra minutes for these steps when setting up for your panopticon meeting. This is also a place where having a large and/or multiple monitor setup is helpful.

1. Launch your Zoom meeting from your “main” account.
Use the Zoom app and your registered Zoom account.
This is the “real” you, the one that hosts/controls the meeting.

2. Launch a web browser in incognito/private mode.
Google Chrome’s incognito mode (Shift-Ctrl-N) or
Firefox’s Private mode (Shift-Ctrl-P) are good options.
Incognito mode is the secret sauce for this recipe:
Without it, your different “yous” won’t have different identities.

3. Open separate tabs (or, better, windows), one per breakout.
Ensure all your new tabs/windows are likewise incognito/private.
Tabs are the preferred option if you don’t have tons of screen space.

4. In each tab/window, paste the URL of your meeting’s “Join” link.
Fetch this from the ( i ) button in the upper-left of your main Zoom screen, if needed. For your convenience, ensure the link includes the meeting password (it should have a portion that looks like ?pw= followed by a bunch of stuff.)

5. In each tab/window, select the “Join from your browser” option.
Do not select the “Open Zoom Meetings” or “launch meeting” button!
Zoom tries to persuade you to use the app instead – don’t fall for it. You’re already using the app to power your true self, the host of the meeting.

Cancel the popup’s request, then select the bottom-most option, “join from your browser.”

6. In each tab/window, name your clone, and complete the ReCaptcha.
I like to call my clones things like “Dr. S in Group 1,” “Dr. S in Group 2,” etc.
Then, select all pictures with palm trees in them, or whatever, to complete the ReCaptcha necessary to join. Honestly… this is probably the most frustrating part of the setup process. You’ll be a master of image recognition by the end!

7. in each tab/window, “Join with computer audio” but turn off mic/camera.
Each of your clones is a participant in your main meeting for now. So mute them all to avoid creating loud audio feedback in your main meeting room! Be sure you finish the Join with Audio process now: you may be prompted by the browser for control of your microphone. You should see a muted mic (and not headphones) in each window when you’re ready.

Success! Each of your clones is now a silent participant in the meeting, lying in wait for the breakouts to begin. Just remember to subtract them from the participant count, if you’re monitoring that list for attendance purposes.

The Breakout Panopticon: During the Meeting

The setup process has not been particularly fun so far. That all changes when your breakout rooms begin during your meeting.

8. Launch breakout rooms, with one of your clones in each.
Since your clone will be counted by Zoom as a participant, remember to add 1 to your usual group size when forming groups to leave room. (Ex: To have 4 students in each group, plan for groups of 5.) Use the “Move to” option to distribute your clones.

This is where clone names like “Dr. S in Group 1” come in handy.

9. During breakout rooms, disable your main-room host audio/video.
This frees up your camera and microphone to interact with the breakout groups.

10. Enjoy watching all your groups work!
As a full participant in the breakout rooms, your clones will see whatever the group in that room is seeing, including participants’ audio and video, and screen sharing.

You can interact with each breakout group in your clones’ browser windows, using any of the available tools, including chat, screen sharing, audio, and video.

Note: Your camera can be used in only one room at a time — as yet, I don’t believe that simulcasting your video into multiple rooms is possible. (I’ll revise this post if I discover a way.) But you can multicast your microphone to be what I called the “voice of God” in multiple rooms at once!

This can be very noisy in the beginning since you’ll be able to hear the audio from all your groups at once! You can either revel in the liveliness of your groups’ simultaneous discussions, or you can unplug one room at a time by choosing to “Leave Computer Audio” from the microphone options menu in each clone’s meeting. Edit: Or better yet, simply ask the browser to mute the tab. Thanks to Tom Mahoney for this suggestion!

Unplug from a breakout room’s audio by “Leaving computer audio.” You’ll need to re-join computer audio through this same process if you want to hear and speak to a room later.

When it’s time to reconvene in the main room, end the breakout rooms as normal using your meeting host controls. (Be sure you re-enable your camera and microphone in the main room if you’ll be using them again in the main room.)

That’s it!

Until Zoom makes this a regular feature of their app, this workaround can give you a 360-degree view of the activities in each of your meeting breakout rooms.

As a final note, this process can be taxing on your internet bandwidth. (It’s the equivalent of having multiple people participating in simultaneous Zoom meetings on your same internet connection.) So if there is a weak link in using this technique, if you experience poor performance, or — worst case — if your main-room host audio and video suffer quality issues, this is likely the reason. This may also be one of the obstacles to Zoom implementing this function natively. I’m not aware of a workaround for this: it would be nice if Zoom permitted Web client connections to select bandwidth-throttling options.

Grow Up, Branch Out: Quantitative Literacy for the 21st Century

This interactive video and set of resources was developed to support a faculty workshop offered by the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education in 2019. Special thanks to Robert Awkward, DHE’s Director of Learning Outcomes Assessment, for organizing and providing financial and logistical support for these workshops; and to Mary-Ann Winkelmes, Director of Teaching and Learning at Brandeis University, for co-facilitating the workshops by engaging participants in designing transparent assignments. Continue reading “Grow Up, Branch Out: Quantitative Literacy for the 21st Century”

The Visual Syllabus (2019 National IBL Conference Poster)

“If my teaching is ‘different,’ my syllabi should be too.”

About three years ago, concomitant with my wholesale switch to standards-based grading, I also set aside the well-worn course syllabus template that I’d used for all my courses and set out, from a blank page, to design a syllabus my students would find worth reading. The result is a colorful, four-page visual syllabus that is now the key artifact of my teaching. Continue reading “The Visual Syllabus (2019 National IBL Conference Poster)”

Teaching on Twitch II: My Rig

I’ve made this much longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.
– Blaise Pascal

Since I started making instructional videos for the open web about 7 years ago, and especially since I started live streaming problem-solving sessions and office hours via Twitch, I’ve been meaning to give a run-down on the hows of the particular kind of video capture I do. (For some examples of the videos my streaming and capture produce, see my YouTube group theory playlist from this semester.)

This is a quick snapshot of my setup to highlight some of the amazing hardware and software that make my videos and my streaming possible.

My home office desk, set up for a live streaming abstract algebra problem session. Click for an enlarged view.

On My Desk (Hardware):

  1. PC. I’ve been a Mac user since graduate school, but crossed back over to PC for my home office this year because I wanted something easier to customize and upgrade. I prioritized graphics card power, RAM, and a speedy solid-state hard drive, and for less than half the price of my work-issued MacBook Pro, this handles real-time video compositing far, far better. Plus, plenty of screen real estate is super helpful for streaming.
  2. A “nice” microphone. Most important part of any educational video setup. Mine’s a Behringer B-2 Pro, connected via a Shure XLR-to-USB audio capture. This very microphone may or may not also have been part of the production of the Klein Four’s double-platinum 2005 album, Musical Fruitcake.
  3. An “okay” webcam. Not pictured here – it’s mounted above my monitor – is the ubiquitous Logitech HD Pro C920, one of the best values in a 1080p webcam I’ve seen. Since we’re using the separate microphone, all we need the webcam to do is feed video – not audio.
  4. iPad Pro. An iPad has been the one constant in my setup since day one, because it is a great platform for hand-written whiteboard work and it runs the killer app Doceri (see below) for the purpose. I started on an iPad 2 (long ago!) so fancy Apple Pencil support isn’t necessary – though it is nice.
  5. Personal green screen. ( http://thewebaround.com ) I don’t always use it, but this nifty tool lets me key out (delete) the background behind me so I can float neatly over my screen, just like a TV meteorologist. See this live stream for an example of the effect.
  6. Mechanical keyboard. Optional. There’s an open conjecture that any keyboard will suffice. But ask me about mine. (Plural.)
A view of my PC desktop during a streaming session. Click here for a full view.

On My Desktop (Software):

This is where I’ve stirred together the most different tools over the years, and where the difference between recording for asynchronous viewing and sharing for live streaming is the biggest.

  1. Doceri interactive whiteboard app ( http://doceri.com ). Capturing & streaming. Hands down, the top of my list. Doceri is the one tool that I’ve run with the most in transforming my teaching. As you can see in the two pictures above, Doceri is an app on my iPad, connected via Wi-Fi to the PC that’s mirroring its display and feeding that display into a live stream. And mirroring whiteboard work onto a PC is only a fraction of what Doceri can do. It can also capture videos natively on its iPad app and share them to a variety of destinations including direct to YouTube, which I use to capture parts of my lectures during face-to-face classes. It can also, when connected via Wi-Fi to a PC, control that PC remotely from the app. Seriously – this app was worth every one of the few pennies I spent for it seven years ago. They’re not paying me to say that. But I wouldn’t turn them down if they wanted to.
  2. OBS Open Broadcasting Software ( http://obsproject.com ). Streaming only, though it’s capable of capture too. OBS is the Grand Central Station into which all my hardware and software feed, which composites the video and audio and pushes out a live stream. OBS is the software of choice for what I believe is a clear majority of streamers – most of whom stream video gameplay to places like Twitch, though it can also be connected to other live video services such as Periscope, Instagram Video, and Facebook Live. Because it’s open-source software, it comes with no cost and no developer support, but because it’s so widely used there is a large community of users who support one another’s technical questions in places like the OBS subreddit.
  3. Screencast-O-Matic ( http://screencast-o-matic.com ). Capture only. When I’m capturing a simpler video with only whiteboard and webcam, Screencast-O-Matic is a more lightweight and user-friendly alternative to OBS. Because of its ease of use and ability to quickly composite webcam and screen capture videos, this is a popular tool with many instructors of online and hybrid courses.
  4. Streaming canvas elements. (I got mine from the free site TwitchOverlay.) Streaming only. This package of image files includes things like the screen and textbox backgrounds, webcam frames, and other visual elements that inhabit my streaming canvas. Getting these all set up just so took a little bit of work, but once I had the basics down in OBS I could just duplicate that “scene” and tweak it to vary what’s being displayed (whiteboard, web browser, both, just webcam, etc.).
  5. Text editor. Streaming only. The “agenda” list of topics on my streaming canvas is read from a text file so that I can update it in real-time from a simple text editor.
  6. Live chat platform. Streaming only. If you’re streaming to a platform where your students can already log in and chat (e.g., using Facebook Live and they all are on Facebook) this is a given. But most of my students lack the Twitch account needed to engage in live stream chat natively through the platform. So instead, I monitor our course’s Slack channel that we already use as a learning management tool during live streams for student questions.
  7. Maine coon mix cat. Sleeping on the blanket in the background. Again, optional equipment but I don’t trust being catless on the internet.
  8. Social media presences. Streaming & capture. This goes without saying, but the more connected you are via social media and the web, the more open, searchable, and accessible your content can be. My accounts on Twitch (to host a public stream), YouTube (to catch and curate all my videos, including archives of live streams), Twitter (to share with the wider #AcademicTwitter and #MTBoS audiences), IFTTT (an automation tool that does things like send automatic tweets and Slack messages to students when I go live), and this very blog, add up – I hope – to give access to my stuff to whomever is interested. Including my students, yes, but by no means limited to them.

At least, that’s how I do it right now. Questions? Want to try some of this out for yourself? Looking for one single tool to test out to move your teaching into the video realm? ( Doceri. ) Hit me up here or on Twitter.

Supplemental Instruction: Resources and Links

For majors in mathematics and the sciences, success in their college degree plans is particularly impacted by their experiences in their first year. STEM majors who have a negative first contact with required STEM courses are at disproportionate risk of abandoning their major — or abandoning college altogether. So a little assistance in that first year goes a long way toward keeping students on track to successful completion of their degree. Supplemental instruction, and peer-cooperative learning programs like it, have proven to be an effective form of such assistance. Continue reading “Supplemental Instruction: Resources and Links”

Gone TPSE-Turvy, Part 2: Sacred Cows

Mistrust the “must.”

That’s the word that characterizes so many aspects of the math major curriculum that it ought to be the subject of its own course. That course would probably be a required prerequisite of every other course in the program.

Every “must” in a curriculum erects barriers for students. Some of those ramparts are worth manning. Some are not. All of them restrain the flexibility of our programs and narrow the pipeline of potential talent in them. To get where TPSE envisions math programs are going, some of our “musts” will need to become “shoulds,” or even “coulds.” Continue reading “Gone TPSE-Turvy, Part 2: Sacred Cows”