Disruption and Disconnect: Zoom and the State of Remote Learning

In the era of remote learning, Zoom provides a necessary educational service. Still, students and teachers raise concerns about classroom security and the effectiveness of learning remotely.

From college students to kindergarteners, many current students know of Zoom through school since teachers began using the video conferencing tool as a means of remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Zoom, a communications software company founded in 2011, was a video conferencing system fairly common in the workplace long before the platform’s sharp increase in popularity due to the coronavirus. In a post on Zoom’s blog, Eric Yuan, the company’s CEO, said that in December 2019, the maximum daily number of Zoom users was roughly 10 million people. Once schools and businesses began shutting down in response to the pandemic, those numbers exploded. In March 2020, Zoom reported 200 million daily meeting participants. 

In the same blog post, Yuan said that Zoom “was built primarily for enterprise customers — large institutions with full IT support.” Before COVID-19, Zoom’s primary customers were large corporations, agencies, and some universities, not the average worker or student. 

Now, it seems like everyone uses Zoom in some capacity, often for class. Yuan reported that since February, over 90,000 schools have started using Zoom, all while competitors like Google Hangouts and Skype struggle to stand out.

Zoom offers a useful service, but some students warn of disruptions. Thurgood Marshall College freshman Lance Freiman recalled a past chemistry lecture where “someone who had joined the lecture late was unmuted” and began unintentionally “talking into their microphone” and distracting the class. Freiman said the disruption went on for at least a few minutes before “the professor finally couldn’t ignore” and had to intervene, asking the entire class to mute. 

Freiman lamented the increased opportunity for classroom disruption, noting that these types of disruptions on Zoom “happen at least once in almost every class.” 

Roger Revelle College freshman Ritika Singh shared a similar sentiment and added that part of the problem with disruptions is “professors are not equipped to handle these situations” due to inexperience with the new technology. 

Dr. Brian Leigh, an assistant teaching professor in the chemistry and biochemistry department here at UC San Diego, disagreed with the notion that professors are unprepared to stop class interruptions on Zoom. “I rotate passwords and retain the ability to mute the room and have the option checked so that if I kick someone out they cannot return,” he said, and he added that such features are easy to find in Zoom’s settings. 

Many teachers at UCSD have started using Zoom to teach classes remotely, but there have been some exceptions. Singh noted that Zoom has not been used universally by teachers on campus. “Half of my classes have pre-recorded lectures and the other half are on Zoom,” she said. 

Dimensions of Culture, also called DOC, is a writing sequence taken by all Marshall students. DOC professors decided to use pre-recorded podcasts and written content this quarter rather than hosting lectures on Zoom. I reached out to Dr. Megan Strom, a DOC lecturer, who said that part of the decision to use podcasts instead of holding lectures on Zoom was due to “concerns about access to reliable Internet, changes in living arrangements, increased family and work responsibilities, and people living and learning in various time zones.” 

Access to technology is a potential concern for schools and students during this crisis. If a student does not have a working computer or reliable Internet at home, then they likely have no option but to fall behind as many libraries and other public resources are closed. Additionally, access to technology and the Internet is largely a matter of wealth, and low income students are less likely to be able to afford all the technology required for remote learning. The New York Times reports that schools with many low income students have had particularly high absence rates during the pandemic, likely due to issues with computer access. The switch to remote learning via the Internet allows many students to continue their education during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the switch also places others at a serious disadvantage with new obstacles to overcome.

Dr. Strom noted that the DOC program also considered privacy issues when deciding against using Zoom for lecture. “Particularly in the large lecture settings, we did not want students to be required to be on Zoom with so many other students without being able to ensure that all those present were enrolled in the class and respecting everyone’s privacy,” Dr. Strom said. 

In fact, Dr. Strom mentioned that she has “major concerns about the privacy issues associated with online learning tools including instances of Zoom bombing and other forms of harassment in digital interactions.”

The UCSD administration shares these concerns. In a campus notice from Brett Pollak, the director of Workplace Technology Services, and Michael Corn, the chief information security officer, the administration encouraged faculty to exercise “due diligence and caution using Zoom.” The notice warned of “Zoom bombing,” which it defines as “meeting hacking,” and stressed that Zoom bombing can go beyond harmless pranking. In fact, the notice warned that “the FBI has received multiple reports of conferences being disrupted by pornographic and/or hate images and threatening language” at other schools, and that UCSD has had similar reports. 

Some recorded examples from around the country of lighthearted Zoom pranks have gone viral, but many other cases have been much more serious, with some even resulting in student arrests. Some darker reports of Zoom bombing involve unwanted users spreading hate speech or explicit imagery, or even sharing personal details about other users. In early May, Zoom pledged to do more to prevent Zoom bombing in response to the recent uptick. Part of that response will involve investigating and banning perpetrators. Still, some school districts and companies have banned Zoom rather than contend with Zoom bombers. 

UCSD provided a list of “Zoom Meeting Safeguards” for faculty and staff, advising them on appropriate measures they can take to prevent class disruptions on Zoom. Tips such as “mute participants” or “turn off file transfer” guide teachers on how to control their virtual classrooms and protect them from “unwanted” and “unsolicited” content.

At the end of the provided list of safeguards, under the header “Keep Zooming Responsibly,” some postscript reminders highlight the importance of a basic respect for privacy on Zoom. These guidelines tell teachers to “always advise attendees that they are being recorded,” and take other measures to respect privacy, such as hiding attendees names when appropriate, and never recording Zoom meetings where protected health information is discussed. 

Dr. Leigh found that the main challenge of teaching a course using online learning tools like Zoom is the decrease in student engagement, not Zoom bombing or meeting security. Dr. Leigh said that in a normal week, his chemistry help rooms “would normally have around 100 people in it for two hours if this were in person.” This quarter, however, far fewer people are showing up; Dr. Leigh reported that on the day of our interview, only 11 people attended his Zoom help sessions. 

This lack of engagement shows that some students are really struggling with the switch to online learning. Singh has found Zoom useful given current circumstances, but overall a more uncomfortable learning experience than the usual lecture hall. “I find it hard to participate on Zoom because I feel very disconnected from my TA and my classmates,” Singh said, which “can often be a struggle since I am graded for my participation in many of these sections.”

The disconnect and lack of engagement in Singh and Dr. Leigh’s description of remote learning has been felt by schools around the country that are trying to cope with a struggling student body. Many universities have switched to some type of pass or fail grading system in response. At UCSD, the grading policy changed for Spring 2020 to allow students to opt in for pass or no-pass grading in any and all classes. 

With the world shut down and people staying inside, the current state of education, probably brought to you by Zoom, is unlike anything experienced before. Dr. Leigh, who teaches a lab course, said that his current students “are missing out on the experience of physically doing the work” and added that he hopes “it does not penalize them in the future.” Zoom may never be the perfect remote learning tool. As Dr. Leigh said, “There is no substitute for doing. We can only do the best we can.”

Graphic from Ink Drop / Shutterstock.com.