Reflections After Three Weeks of Zoom

This world is our new normal. We are not going back.

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On March 12, I posted my tentative thoughts on teaching with Zoom. The following week, I shared my thirty-minute webinar on using Zoom. That video has more than 11,000 views.

I have now been using Zoom for more than three weeks. On the whole, the experience has been more positive than I expected. My students have been remarkably agile and flexible. They have quickly accommodated to the online learning environment, as best as they can. Attendance is roughly the same as it was for in-person classes.  And my general sense is that students are well-prepared for class. The majority of students are not directly affected by COVID-19. Some of them told me they now have more free time to devote to studies, with fewer distractions.

So far, the biggest frustration has been bandwidth. I have a premium internet package from Comcast with very high upload/download speeds. During off-peak times, my throughput is blazing fast. However, during my 2:00-3:30 p.m. class, my connection drops about two or three times. Fortunately, Zoom handles disconnects quite well. Usually, before my signal drops, Zoom displays a message that says "connection unstable." At that point, I will usually say "my connection is dropping." Last week, a student was answering a question when my signal dropped, and she heard silence in response. She thought I was deliberately staying quiet! I felt quite bad, but explained after what happened. A few times, I was actually kicked out of my own Zoom room. I had to re-enter. All of the students were waiting, and they understood.

Students are also kicked out of the room; sometimes when they are on call. There is little I can do to help. Students may not have access to reliable broadband. Also, the wifi hotspots on their phones may be spotty. To address this problem, I simulcast my lectures on YouTube. (I use the Mevo Start camera.) If a student is knocked off, she can quickly catch the time she missed online. But my strong preference is they participate live.

I have not had issues with "Zoombombing." I activated the "Waiting Room" feature. I manually admit every student into the classroom. Occasionally, I noticed that students with names I did not recognize were seeking attendance. I denied their entry. I recognize that interlopers can spoof the name of a student in my class to fool me. That level of chicanery requires more coordination. Even then, I do not allow students to share their screens. And I "spotlight" the person speaking. In other words, I control what people are looking at. At worst, a tiny window in the gallery mode will display inappropriate content for a few moments before I expel that user.

What about zoombombers who start talking without permission? I can immediately see if someone unmutes their microphone. I can quickly mute them, and expel them from the room. Policing zoombombers takes more effort, but it is feasible.

There is one cost to the waiting room. If a student disconnects (perhaps due to poor wireless connections), he has to be readmitted. In other words, with the waiting room activated, the professor has to constantly be on guard to ensure that registered students are not locked out.

Zoom does require a level of multi-tasking that may uncomfortable, or unfamiliar for some professors and students. I recognize this reality will be difficult to adjust to.

In time, we will all become more acclimated to Zoom. I suspect this form of distant communication will not dissipate when the current crisis ends. Universities will demand more classes to be taught virtually, even by full-time tenured faculty. Conferences that required expensive travel will be replaced by virtual conferences. And social gatherings will continue online.

This world is our new normal. We are not going back.

NEXT: Moot Court in a Time of Coronavirus

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  1. Zoom will improve too. So will net access. Where there is demand, there will be people looking to fill it. (I like to think of this as the true market failures, markets existing only because there are market failures, and correcting those failures as the true utility of markets.)

    The net is not quite up to snuff, just yet; it will be soon. 5 years ago, this would not have been possible. 5 years from now, it will be as simple as cell phones are now, and the prior tech (landlines and in-class physical meetings) will seem as quaint as those 100 foot extension cords which butlers used to drag around mansions in 1930s movies.

    1. there will be people looking to fill it.

      Not when both democratic and republican politicians at all levels block competition within their markets. I’m lucky as I have multiple providers and thus have fiber run to my home with internet speeds at 1Gbps. But literally twenty miles away they just have a single provider and all they can get is cable internet up to 200Mbps. Only through competition will things improve. And that requires getting rid of the current head of the FCC.

      5 years from now, it will be as simple as cell phones are now

      Consumer internet predates consumer mobile phones by a good decade. Its easier than cell phones are now and has been for a while. What you are finally seeing is cell and mobile technologies finally catching up to wired internet.

      1. The cable monopolies have proven their typical monopoly worth by markets finding other solutions: satellite, cell phone tethering and hot spots, terrestrial broadband radio. Markets always work around failures, whether natural or man-made.

  2. We rated Zoom a high risk and banned it from being used. But I suppose for classroom teaching which is generally public anyways its an ok use case.

    But if you are a company – block it.

    1. Skype for business, instead? Better security?

      1. Anything but Skype for business. Microsoft is trying to kill it and replace it with Teams. I have had to use Skype for Business for years on occasion and *every single time* people are late because it randomly decides to give them problems. It has been the single least reliable communications software I’ve ever used. It gives an experience that would have been bad 15 years ago.

  3. One of the improvements I expect Zoom to quickly implement (given its massive popularity in schools during the crisis) is to add a “whitelist” function to teachers.

    If Josh could whitelist, in advance of a lecture, the known email login addresses for each of his students, then they–having already been whitelisted in advance–could bypass that waiting room (ie, rejoin the class much more quickly, and also give the teacher one less thing he needs to monitor), if/when they are disconnected due to poor signal strength.

    I don’t know how prevalent it is for a-holes to spoof a student, but that would have to be separately addressed…either via some other technological workaround or by a teacher manually handling each of those situations.

  4. If I recall correctly Zoom will let you employ a phone to connect to the audio for your meeting. Then if you get lose your internet, you still get to keep the audio. Phones are more reliable than internet.

    1. If you do use your phone for audio, then you appear as two connected individuals — one a screen image and one a phone icon. There are some sorts of meetings where that’s just fine, but for running a class and controlling mutes, unmutes, etc., it would be a mess.

      1. I’m guessing you’ve not really used it much because Zoom has addressed that for at least 18 months already. You get a code you key in and it associates your phone with your internet presence. It works very well to address the problem you mention. It’s almost like they noticed and thought about it at some point it something.

  5. “This world is our new normal. We are not going back.”

    We will go back. As soon as possible.

    (That comment is as curious as it is dubious: Most movement conservatives ardently pine for going back — to the ‘good old days’ that never existed — even when it makes no sense.)

  6. My prediction: We’re going back. Maybe there will be more distance learning in higher ed but that was already increasing before this crisis, I’d guess, and there is real economic pressure for it. In many other situations, video chat works fine in a pinch but is simply not a substitute for personal contact. For one example, I’m a lawyer at a big company, and I and our leadership strongly prefer in-office presence. Among other reasons, it’s easier to do our jobs with the ability to knock on doors or grab people in the hallway.

    It’s also totally possible people will simply forget the pandemic and just go back to normalcy.

    1. I think people will be craving normalcy after this, but I also think this will have proven that it can work under certain circumstances. Work from home will become more and more acceptable and this is a significant reason why. I too prefer the ability to knock on my colleagues’ doors (much to their chagrin), but this can and does work too.

  7. Reading Blackman’s description, I conclude that Zoom is a not-yet-mature technology, and that until the utility and security improve, running a Zoom session is probably a two-person job. You need both a moderator and a producer, with the latter taking care of technical complications stemming from unpredictable user behavior, and also from attempts by malicious outsiders to interfere.

    1. I think it’s a matter of needing to investigate the settings. I’ve used Zoom for well over a year in such situations without trouble because I know what settings to use.

      Granted, when running webinars, I have a coworker monitor things, but that’s mostly for questions or unusual problems that pop up.

      But it’s at least as mature as any of its competit

      1. …at least as mature as any of its competitors, if not more capable.

  8. I’m curious why you aren’t using the password feature for your sessions. Although passwords can be passed along, using them would discourage outsiders from casually reading joining. You can also change passwords regularly and send them out via email or text 30 minutes before the session. You can also disable screen annotations and sharing for anyone but the host. So these issues people run into seem to be more a matter of unfamiliarity with how to control the experience than limitations with Zoom.

  9. You need a moderator, Prof. Blackman, perhaps a teaching assistant or even just a reliable student already in the class.

    Multi-tasking is great, but burdening yourself, mid-performance, with such details as who should be allowed to reconnect is, respectfully, below your pay grade.

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