To Zoom or not to Zoom

I seem to be making a lot of decisions lately: to teach AP courses or not (not), to seek accreditation or not (seek; successfully we may add), and to use video or not for my class sessions (jury still out).

Our latest home page notes that Scholars Online education is grounded, rigorous, and thorough, and that by “grounded”, we mean that we welcome constructive innovation, but do not seek novelty for its own sake. We teach traditional subjects using time-tested methods.

In other words, we use technological solutions where they are appropriate, and we recognize that not all technology is useful in a given situation for discovering the truth.

Scholars Online will be experimenting with Zoom for some of its courses in 2020-2021, but retain our own chat for others. Math and language courses already use Skype or WizIQ and will be moving to Zoom where the teachers choose to use it. But we have some serious and perhaps not obvious concerns about moving all our courses to video format. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and here are some of my current observations, some based on my own experience, some relying on reports from others.

We’ve been using Zoom for our church services since lockdown began here in Washington in mid-March, and inevitably, we have also been taking this opportunity to evaluate its use for our Scholars Online courses. We’ve had a chance to identify both some interesting advantages and some worrying disadvantages. (I also used Webex and Skype business platforms for over a decade at work, so some of my observations are platform independent and apply to any video conferencing method).

But we’ll start with the most recent experiences with Zoom:

Last Sunday, the entire Zoom platform went down across the country. We all had to wait while Zoom tried to recover its servers not just for us, but for the rest of the USA. Most of our church members were unable to log into the church service until the last minute.

Zoom focuses on a single speaker, so two people cannot talk at once without it becoming confused. For our church services, we have a designated individual each Sunday presenting the congregational responses for our liturgy. Our Zoom-hosted coffee hour adult education discussions descend to audio beeps and video jerks when two people try to talk at the same time in response to a question.

Members using different platforms have different display options, which makes it hard for a person on a computer to help a person on a tablet find a particular option and set it so that everyone can hear properly.

Even in our reasonably well-wired urban region, our vicar and responder regularly slow down, glitch, and become unintelligible when they exceed their band width or internet traffic clogs up. It’s distracting to watch people talk and move as though they were under water, and again, hard to understand what they say, and they often don’t realize their presentation has been garbled until it is too late to go back and recover the lost moment.

So here are the issues I have in considering a move from the SO Chat software to Zoom in particular and video in general:

1. Zoom was designed to support business meetings and webinars, not group discussion sessions. Zoom would be fine if we were doing lecture demonstrations and calling on students one at a time, and for some courses (math, French), it may work well if the instructor has structured a class session that way. But for history, literature, and even science, where we depend on seminar-type discussions that allow students to participate freely, Zoom can be more of an impediment than an aid. In some critical ways, our text chat allows for more interactive discussion than Zoom does. It allows every member to present information on an equal footing, and when students are involved in the material, that dynamic can be pretty exciting. In chat, if five students talk “at the same time”, their remarks all make it into the chat window without confusion, and we can sort and address them individually. Everyone gets heard, and no one gets stepped on — there is no way to interrupt another student, and no need for the teacher to force students to be silent unless called on, except in extreme disciplinary situations. I may be particularly sensitive to this, since I have experienced being talked over in a video conference session so that my voice was never heard (and the meeting host never noticed that my silence was not voluntary). That can’t happen in our chat.

2. We have a number of families who have more than one student in class at the same time, where the noise from competing audio sessions can create chaos for students in the same room. This is an issue which has even been in the news lately as public schools moved online and parents had to deal with siblings using computers in the same room. But quiet is a necessary condition for reflection and the formulation of coherent expression. Our experience over the last two decades and especially feedback from our alumni who were at college or graduate school have made us realize that the silence of chat helps students engage with the material in ways audio input disrupts, and that constantly writing contributes to developing precise self-expression in ways off-the-cuff impulsive spoken responses cannot. If my own environment isn’t quiet during class, it won’t disrupt others in the class. In our chat, I can participate even if someone is running the washing machine in the same room, or there are booming announcements from the airport speaker while I wait to board a plane, or I am in a car on the road with five other voluble family members (and yes, those are all real examples). I may have to block the noise out, but my classmates do not, and I can still enter the discussion at will, without subjecting them to my own distracting environment.

3. Written text allows students to review what was just said, read it closely, and “listen” to it more carefully. In a video presentation, if a student comes in late,  or misses a minute, the material covered in that period is lost for the rest of the session. It may be captured in a movie uploaded to YouTube or another platform for later review, but it is no longer available during the discussion. This creates a huge temptation for the late student to simply skip the session altogether and catch the upload: that is, to become a passive viewer of a pre-recorded session instead of an active participant in the discussion. In our chat, if a student comes in late, the entire chat is available from its start up to the moment the student enters, and if one misses a point, he or she can scroll back and find exactly what was said. The student can come up to speed, and jump into the discussion, without requiring the teacher to interrupt the discussion and recap for that student.

4. We also know that many of our students have only low-bandwidth access, and (as mentioned) we have a number of families who have more than one student in class at the same time: bandwidth becomes a critical factor. We’ve seen that even Zoom, which is the cutting edge technology available to us, slows down, cuts out, and even shuts down when it is overloaded. With our chat, I don’t have to worry that another family member is also on line, teaching or taking a high-bandwidth course that will slow down my internet access. I can attend class pretty much from anywhere there is a wireless or data connection.

There are some other more subtle things that we’ve noticed both in Scholars Online chats, in using audio-visual meetings in business environments, and in reading recent news reports of teachers moving to online video methods that give us pause.

One is my experience with using an international software product, even as a very large company client. Using Zoom puts us at the mercy of a third party with many other (much bigger) customers who will influence its development. Zoom’s focus will be on meeting the requirements of the majority of its customers, especially the larger ones, at its own pace and on its own schedule. Zoom may chose to drop features that we depend on, or impose features, especially extra security, that prevent students from attending until they have received updated instructions, which puts a greater burden on teachers to stay current with a moving platform. They can choose to revise deployed applications at any moment for their own reasons. My most recent Zoom meeting was delayed for fifteen minutes because one important attendee had to download a required Zoom update before he could log in. With the Scholars Online chat, we control the server and the software, and while our dedicated server is supported by a third party, the NuOZ technicians built it for us to our specifications, and our infrastructure changes only when we understand and have agreed to recommended updates, and can coordinate changes to the MOODLE and our website and test them first. 

Another issue is hosting recordings for course sessions. Our chat logs remain on our dedicated server and are unavailable (short of court order) to anyone outside Scholars Online without our permission. We have built security that meets with both US and European requirements for personally identifiable information. But the capacity and software required to support streaming recorded Zoom sessions is too expensive for us; we will need to look at how to host these on YouTube, which means coming up with security and access controls (and maintaining them on a per-class basis as required by FERPA regulations) as well as putting information on a platform whose ultimate access by its many technicians we do not control. Access control on YouTube is a technical configuration issue with a solution, but it is an additional burden for our teachers and administrative staff, and will require students to have YouTube accounts that will track their access, and not just to Scholars Online resources. Some parents may be comfortable with this, but how will we handle a situation when we have a class where one student cannot have access to his class videos?

Less obvious, perhaps, but an important factor in preferring text to video is simply that text chat levels the playing field. My students don’t have to worry about whether they are dressed well or poorly, or how their house looks to others. This is not a trivial concern for students who feel already at a disadvantage, or that they will be judged by their appearance or their surroundings. We are starting to learn from the public school shift into online teaching that over a third of the students simply stopped coming to class because they lacked the technology or didn’t want others to see their home environment. Using a low-bandwidth text chat helps reduce economic and social distinctions and barriers for our students, and puts the focus where it belongs: on the discussion, in which everyone can participate.

So perhaps the most important factor is that text chat promotes class community in a way that video does not. I know that students sometimes feel uneasy when they cannot see the teacher or each other, because they use visual appearance, speech accent, and intonation to make judgments. But not being able to make certain kinds of distinctions about each other automatically (or at least not being constantly reminded visually of them) makes for a different kind of relationship. I’m not sure that we would have the same participation in chat if students could tell at a glance each other’s racial or ethnic background or age, or whether the teacher is frowning or smiling. Scholars Online collects no ethnic or racial information as part of the enrollment process. Unless our students make it a point in describing themselves in their MOODLE profiles, we don’t know whether they are white, African-American, Asian, Latino, or native American, and we’ve learned that names are not a reliable guide here, even for gender (information we do collect). Most of our classes have students with a two-three year age range; some have adult students. In chat, they are all more or less equal. I don’t think we could achieve anything close to the same level of equality of discussion if our younger students were constantly reminded that some of their fellow classmates are much older, or sometimes, if they could see the expression on my face as they venture a response!  But if I really want my students to learn to think for themselves, they have to be comfortable enough to venture the uncommon or unwelcome observation and speak the truth as they see it.

We realize that some students prefer visual presentation of material. We can and do use images, short movies, animations, and even interactive exercises during chat, since anything a browser supports, we can direct students to use during a chat session, and we can incorporate everything except complex simulations and whiteboard in chat itself. We’ve accepted suggestions from teachers and students to support different modes of mathematical symbol input and implemented these, and we even create our own graphics and videos to support course presentations (Scholars Online does have its own YouTube channel). This is an area where we can improve our chat presentation abilities, and we are working on it.

But we need to weigh the presentation and some personal connection advantages of video against what we will lose by moving to a video platform: a certain kind of focus on the material itself rather than the means of presentation, a level sense of community with others in the course that does not depend on identification with ethnic or economic or racial or age cohorts, and constant writing practice that requires disciplined thought from the students. We will continue to trust our teachers to make this choice for their own courses, and support them as best we can.

We’d love your feedback to help our teachers make this decision.

1 comment

  1. Another advantage of text chat is that users (both students and teachers) who feel uncomfortable interacting in groups may find it less daunting to formulate and discuss ideas without having to send and decode non-verbal signals (like facial expression or tone of voice).

    You mentioned how the lack of audio helps with concentration (no. 2); this is especially important for users who are easily overwhelmed by sensory data from audio and video.

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