In December 2019, 10 million people took part in Zoom video meetings every day. By the end of May 2020 more than 300 million people were engaging online via Zoom, and a good chunk of those users were students and teachers.
The Coronavirus pandemic has forced change at an unprecedented pace in all industries, but none more so than education. Following social lockdowns in almost every country, schools have swarmed to online services to support distance learning.
The Grandad’s of the internet age, Microsoft and Google have provided and expanded their maturing distance learning tools, but the situation has also allowed for a few newcomers to sneak in the backdoor and steal some of the old guard’s thunder. None more so than the now household name, Zoom.
Things may be uncertain, but one thing is guaranteed: the age of distance learning is here to stay.
What on earth is Zoom?
For those of us whose job it is to manage technology in schools, recent events have put a laser sharp focus on the services we provide and put IT departments under greater pressure than ever before.
While there are some negatives, current events have also caused two extremely positive things to occur:
- A worldwide community of educators and students have been forced to engage with the technology and consider long-term IT strategy.
- The crisis has focused resources and provided a stronger mandate than ever for the use of innovative technologies in schools.
If there is any silver lining to the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s that when we come out of the other side of it, schools will have a body of teachers, staff, and students who are more skilled than ever in using educational technology.
We’re building an upskilled educational workforce jolted five years into the future, unlike anything we could otherwise have achieved.
A further outcome of this shift to distance learning is the sudden expansion in user base of online learning and video meeting platforms. When the crisis hit, the user base of Microsoft Teams expanded tenfold overnight, jumping to 75 million registered users so quickly that Microsoft had to shift its infrastructure to deal with demand.
Google also reacted by accelerating the integration of its Google Meet app into Google Classroom and added new features to support online learning.
But perhaps the biggest winner is relative newcomer, Zoom.
Where did Zoom come from?
Zoom has spread through the psyche of students and teachers like a viral Tweet.
I’m sure that every IT admin across the world has had similar demands: “Can you install Zoom?”, “Can I use Zoom for my class?”, and “Can we hold this meeting over Zoom?”
But what I find most interesting about Zoom isn’t the technical aspects of the app, rather, it’s how did Zoom so suddenly leap to the forefront of our social consciousness? How did the name “Zoom” replace “Skype” in every news broadcast?
Overnight Zoom has become the Hoover of video meetings. How did that happen?
That’s not how it works!
If you’re new to working in technology, it can be difficult to appreciate what Zoom represents.
Just two months ago, asking your IT team to install Zoom was the equivalent of going to your mechanic and asking for your circular tires to be replaced with oval ones. Your mechanic would rightly say, “No, that’s not how it works. Have you seen these round ones? They work perfectly fine.”
You could argue all you like that the experience of riding with oval tires is a much more exciting experience, but the mechanic still won’t be convinced.
As an IT admin, I first became peripherally aware of Zoom twelve months ago as it was the only way to communicate reliably with one of our international schools. At the time Zoom was nothing more than another request for some strange application that needed to be reviewed, and I remember clearly thinking that the software looked extremely conspicuous.
We often see applications like this, but they are usually hosted on domains like “putinfiles.ru” or “deffinatelysecure.cn” and I wrongly dropped “Zoom.us” into the same category.
But there was a moment, not long after, that I realised that I had missed something, and that Zoom was something to take seriously: My 75-year-old mother suggested holding a Zoom call.
How did an elderly lady, for whom the entire internet consists of two apps — Facebook and Facebook Messenger — suddenly know about Zoom?! What on Earth was going?
How did Zoom become a serious competitor to Microsoft and Google?
Zoom was launched in 2013, and a strong focus on ease-of-use and reliability lead to aggressive early growth in its userbase. In 2017, Zoom was valued at $1 billion, before finally becoming profitable in 2019.
Sudden shifts in consumer technology trends are difficult to spot, and even more difficult to manage when they inevitably blend into education. Zoom caught many out, myself included, but looking back just a few months there is one comparison I can recall where a consumer technology forced change in schools at a blistering pace.
When Apple’s new tablet came along, I remember being interested, even excited to get hold of one, but overnight demand from educators flowed and suddenly we had “iPad schools”, “Apple Educators”, and conferences held in swanky hotels to “reflect experiences”. There was also some drinking, I seem to remember.
Like the release of the original iPad, Zoom is objectively weaker than the competition. The app doesn’t handle bandwidth well, has a treasure chest of serious security and safeguarding issues, and doesn’t have a community of IT administrators readily trained to support it.
But Zoom does have two things going for it which make it desirable to consumers — which happens to include the people within our school communities:
- It’s easy to install.
- It’s stupidly easy to work.
When the iPad was released in 2011, educators were, much to the bemusement of those of us responsible for managing them, enamoured with the device. It looked great, it was fast and responsive, and it just worked. Many IT departments struggled to understand why people would want to use one. “It can’t access Windows file shares”, “There’s no way to switch users”, and “It doesn’t run Microsoft Office”.
But none of that mattered because it was easy to use and just worked. The same is true of Zoom.
A week before lockdown, if you had handed me Zoom and said “evaluate this”, I would have thrown it out as a huge security and student safeguarding risk. By the company’s own admission, a series of security blunders have plagued Zoom, and these normal times, it simply would not have passed muster for use in most schools.
Zoombombing and other safeguarding issues became such a concern that the FBI were forced to issue a public warning about the “hijacking” of online classrooms. These issues were so serious that on the 6th of April, New York City public schools moved to ban Zoom meetings, and other US school systems did the same, although New York lifted the ban in early May.
Since then there have been incidents of hacked Zoom installers, unscheduled downtime, and hacked graduation ceremonies, to name but a few. The list is endless, and at any other time would result in a service being completely withdrawn from use. But these are not normal times and Zoom has been responding in a positive fashion, releasing a string of updates that address many of the issues raised.
On 20th of May, just as schools are planning to reopen, Zoom released a 90-day security plan.
It may have been a baptism of fire for the company, and you can easily argue that these updates should have been baked into the service from the start, but we may come out of this with a more secure platform for our schools.
Should your school be using Zoom?
In any normal circumstances I would say, no. Despite the proactive response from the company and the speedy release of security updates, there are far more mature alternatives out there. That’s not a comment on Zoom’s feature set or reliability, it’s simply an objective fact that for many Zoom has not met an acceptable standard of security to allow schools to meet their safeguarding duty of care.
Looking to the positives, however, Zoom’s popularity has forced the digital behemoths, Google and Microsoft, to release Zoom-like updates to their core products and adjust their licensing to be reflective of Zoom’s feature set. All good news for schools.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, there is also another crucial factor here which should not be overlooked. I worry that some schools have used Zoom as a convenient band aid for poorly implemented or limited long-term strategic planning. Any school following the development of IT over the last five years could have been prepared for distance learning, if not explicitly in terms of curriculum, at least technically. Hopefully, this will spur many schools to rethink their long-term IT planning.
While it’s clearly not a great idea to run with every app suggestion or recommendation, we should always leverage the engagement of teachers and students to encourage the use of technology. Whatever the reason for its popularity, like an anti-body, Zoom is here to stay. The best outcome of all of this is that schools have yet another low cost, secure learning platform from which to choose.
Do you use Zoom? How have you overcome any security concerns? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.