To Zoom or not to Zoom


Zoom has been on a wild ride. As teachers scrambled to try to deliver instruction from there homes to student homes Zoom quickly became a favorite. It was easy, performed well, and had features that other services seemed to lack. Features like being able to mute students and for me a big one - breakout rooms. Now, these features weren't flawless as I mentioned in my last post but that's okay. Zoom wasn't designed to be a virtual classroom and has worked remarkably well given that it was designed as a tool for traditional business.

Soon though there was blowback.

Zoom has privacy issues.

Zoom is sharing your data with Facbook.

Zoom is insecure.

Zoombombing will destroy our kids.

And the love affair was over.

I quickly began noticing "Zoom shaming" on Twitter and Facbook. Public figures and even other teachers shaming teachers for wanting to continue with Zoom.

In NYC, the DOE quickly moved to ban the tool. Showing their usual level of respect for teachers, they announced this at the very end of the week and told them they had to figure out how to live without it by Monday morning. Oh, by the way, technically teachers are hourly employees. This came on top of them canceling spring break - a break that many teachers were counting on to both catch their breath and also to figure out this brave new world, after all they were given pretty much zero lead time and zero training and have been doing all this under the gun and yet still have done a yeoman's job of caring for their students.

But I digress. I don't really want to talk about the DOE and our government's shortcomings here. I want to specifically address Zoom.

Let's talk about the data sharing. Is that an issue? Sure. I don't know the extend of the data that they were sharing but users should have control over their data and information. Forget about regulations, just in terms of right and wrong this should all be transparent and teachers, students, and parents should be able to opt in or out and there should be no downside to opting out. What gets me though is that the DOE is all of a sudden concerned about student data!!! When did that happen. Seems hypocritical that now this is an issue as opposed to, well, sharing data with the college board, charter schools, and who knows how many other private entities.

Next up, zoombombing and the like. It seems that if you follow best practices - having students use names and using a conference password and waiting fooms that's taken care of.

Security? I keep hearing about Zoom's lack of encryption. I'm not an encryption expert but there is still transport level end to end encryption. It's just that Zoom isn't encrypting data at the endpoints. From what I understand this could still leave a conference open to man in the middle attacks but I'm really not sure how great the risk is. What I do know is I keep seeing posts and tweets by people who I'm fairly sure no next to nothing about either encryption or network security spouting off as experts.

The bottom line is that most teachers are going well above and beyond to do the best they can for their students. I'll also say that the DOE and politicians care for students as a whole but teachers care for them as individuals and that's important to remember. Teaching is already incredibly hard. Teaching a single class doesn't just involve standing and teaching for 40 minutes. It involves planning, then teaching, then reflecting. A synchronous tool like Zoom best approximates this. It might not be the best way to do things remotely but it's a quick way to connect with your students and to give them something both in terms of content and normalcy while figuring out how to do it better (hence the importance of that now erased spring break). If a teacher has to go async or only do chatting async they still have to do all the planning and reflecting but also might have to make videos without the benefit of feedback, copious handouts or who knows what. Maybe Zoom isn't the best tool but for many teachers it's the best tool for right now.

Teachers should be given access to all manner of tools and be trusted to make the appropriate decision given the circumstances. Does Zoom have issues? Sure. Might it violate policy or regulation? Sure but these are not normal circumstances.

When I was rounding up strays on 9/11, fleeing from Stuy as the towers fell, ultimately taking them to my apartment in Chelsea only to later deliver them home I'm sure I violated any number of DOE regulations. In the days and weeks that followed I'm sure I violated more as I attempted to work to connect students and families together and then to deliver the best instruction I could under trying circumstances. You know what - I bet those students and their parents didn't care that I violated any policies. Years later I heard from parents - parents of kids that I didn't even teach thanking me for what I did for them and their children. When you're in a crisis it's about the kids not about regulations. If Zoom is the best tool right now for a teacher and their kids, let them use Zoom. If there are issues, fix the issues or transition to something else but only by giving them the time so that the students aren't hurt by the process.

Trust teachers to do the right thing. A former teacher, friend and mentor of mine, Herb Greenhut once said that it was easy to solve the education problem: "Hire great teachers and get the F out of the way." We've got a lot of great teachers. The system should support them but if they aren't going to do that, at least "get the F out of the way."