Higher Education and the pandemic: Zoom to the Rescue?

Will Zoom keep higher education running during the Covid-19 outbreak?

Zoom seems to be the answer from every university, as they announce a physical shutdown for the semester due to the coronavirus pandemic.

I understand why.

I am a big fan of the video conferencing and classroom solution called Zoom. For several years I have used it for remote guest speakers, to hold class when at a conference, and even to record short videos for class. As MBA Director at my university, I have promoted the use of Zoom to unite in-class and remote students in synchronous discussion sessions to engage both groups.

Zoom is easy to learn and use:

  • A prof with a Zoom app can send out links to students who don’t need any installs,
  • Recording functionality is built-in and can be set to be automatic
  • As shown below you can include PowerPoints and the instructor
  • During discussion you can show the instructor and multiple students
  • Groups can break out for semi-private discussions

When I first heard about the possibility of moving online my thought was: I will move my discussions to Zoom.

And then I realized that virtually all of my colleagues were thinking the same thing.

Two Concerns about the Zoom Solution

As a NYT article points out, live streams or taped videos online are not necessarily best practices for online education.

My first concern was that three 50-minute discussions/lectures or 150 minutes per week on Zoom were a lot. We limit the weekly synchronous time in our MBA courses to 85 minutes. I decided to take some of my class activities and lecturing offline and effectively convert to a hybrid course with 20-60 minutes of weekly Zoom discussion. First concern addressed!

My bigger concern is UX or should I say SX – the student experience. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, we have 20 million college students in the US. Universities are notorious for scheduling classes in a tight period of time, say 9-3 M-F. So assuming most professors choose to stream their discussions during their scheduled class time, it would be possible that during a time slot that is popular through all time zones, say 2 pm EDT on Wednesday, 10 million college students could be streaming.

Those of us in our mid-30s or older can probably remember when the Victoria’s Secret Fashion show “crashed the internet” when over 1.5 million people signed in for the streaming show at the same time. Certainly, in the past 20 years, Internet connectivity has improved dramatically. But bear in mind that the fashion show, like Netflix, was one-way streaming, the “angels” thankfully didn’t see or hear the viewers. It is an integral part of Zoom that everyone sees and hears everyone else; there is download- and upload-streaming for those potential 10 million college students.

And (as will be discussed in a future post) we also have a surge in remote workers who will be using bandwidth during those same hours. My son who has worked remotely full time for several years says that he has already noticed a downturn in connectivity, even though he has a premium business line and the college students haven’t kicked in yet.

The IT people I talked to about this issue said that any problem will likely be with the local Internet providers. Zoom is hosted by Amazon and should have the capacity; most colleges have upgraded their pipelines; but there is a risk of a poor experience from the local carriers offering retail service to our students. Students may not have purchased a quality connection; ISPs may not have planned for a surge.

What can we do?

One solution: A professor can consider offering courses asynchronously with exercises, readings, videos, and quizzes. Students can sign on when convenient and when the connections are better. This could be analogous to my undergraduate days when my now wife and I took punch cards to the computer center at 2 am so we didn’t have a wait. (No we didn’t ride a horse there!)

My plan:

  1. Offer the course in a hybrid manner with only 20-60 minutes of synchronous classwork and asynchronous content like the online quizzes, exercises, and videos.
  2. Monitor student experience – consider a shift to fully asynchronous if there are too many problems.

Let’s hope that our ISPs can deliver a good experience under this sudden demand, but we should be prepared in case they cannot.

Low bandwidth solutions should be considered. For example, a class discussion could be held as a Tweetchat on Twitter (simply converse by Tweets using a designated class #hashtag).

Again – I am a big fan of Zoom classes!

Resources and a Call to action!

My social media friend Matt Kushin has put together a nice summary of resources for instructors in his post, Teaching Online in the Age of COVID-19.

The Chronicle of Higher Education published and advice guide on How to be a better Online Teacher. They also sponsor a Facebook group. called “Higher ed and the coronavirus.”

Please share your favorite resources, concerns, and experiences – both during the planning and during the course offering.

I would love to hear from other professors and students dealing with the pandemic!




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