We’ve been using Zoom at scale since March, and have learned how to use it well for everything from 1:1 meetings up to classes of 500+ students. Since we launched in March 2020, to prepare for the COVID Rapid Pivot to Remote Teaching™, we’ve hosted 304,776 meetings in our campus Zoom environment. We’ve held 379 webinars. We’ve created over 4 TB of recordings.
In that time, we’ve realized there are a few features that would make life simpler for instructors, especially in these large-enrolment classes.
So. Here are some ideas to improve the Zoom experience.
In meetings, people can’t see things that were posted in Chat before they got there. Which makes sense, kind of, I guess, but I’ve been in many meetings where someone gets designated to keep re-pasting an important link or instruction so newly-joining participants know what’s going on. Sometimes, you just don’t want this in the presentation or shared-screen content. You’re in a meeting where 25 people are in grid view so they can all see each other, but they’re also doing something in, say, Jamboard or OneNote or Google Docs or O365 and the link is pasted into the chat. Allow the hosts to pin chat entries to remain visible for newly-joined participants.
And/or allow participants to view chat history for the current meeting session, regardless of when they join.
But allow the host to clear the chat. Sometimes it needs to be flushed, especially in large meetings where the chat can get… frenetic.
And why does full screen view (on a mac at least) put the chat in a window that floats on top of the content, but windowed mode docks the chat to the side of the main Zoom window without obscuring any content? I mean. That just feels backward. In fullscreen, I get to pick which participants I don’t get to see in Gallery view, or which part of the presented content I don’t need to see if I want the chat visible. Or the Participants list. Dock those to the side rather than obscuring the meeting while in fullscreen mode.
Better presentation of video content
Lots of times, an instructor wants to show a video to the class. The way to do that in Zoom is to share your screen. Which basically sucks when playing video. The framerate and resolution of the already-compressed YouTube (or other) video is crushed as the presenter’s computer displays the video in whatever browser window (maybe full screen? maybe on a part of a web page with ads and other crud around it?) and compresses it before streaming it to the Zoom meeting. It comes out looking like a muddy Cinepak video. There has to be a better way to say “hey - let’s all watch this video” and have it stream at full quality to all participants.
Control the horizontal (and maybe the vertical)
In Adobe Connect Meeting (which we used as our campus platform for several years before switching to Zoom) the host can configure the layout of the screen. They can add “pods” with content and functionality that are visible to all participants. They can change the layout of the space during the meeting. Zoom doesn’t allow that, and hosts have no idea what participants are actually seeing. Are they in Gallery mode, with a grid of participants? Are they in Speaker mode, just seeing the person who is talking? Are they full-screen, or in a tiny window? Letting the host actually design their online learning space and set the presentation context is important.
Update: Stephen Downes makes a valid point re: letting people design their own experience. I still think it’s useful for an instructor to be able to set the “mode” for the session - is it an open discussion? Grid view. Presentation? Speaker view.
Break out the breakout rooms
There’s no way for a host to set up content for the breakout rooms. They can’t say “hey - I want each breakout room to work on this document” from Zoom. They can create a bunch of Googly docs and send links to each student and let the students figure out who’s going to share the content in each breakout room. It’s clunky. Something that lets the instructor set up content to be used within each breakout room is important. Even if it’s just letting the instructor set the URL for collaboration in each breakout room.
And, after the breakout rooms end, they can’t easily present back on what they did. An instructor could be able to say “Breakout room 1 was working on the molecular structure of benzene” and then display the content from breakout room 1 to the class. This will be much more complicated than I’ve made it sound, but something to let groups easily share what they did is important.
Panic (don’t panic) Button
What we’ve seen, again and again, is that hosts lacking these tools results in harassment, bullying, and racism. And results in a learning environment where participants don’t feel safe, where hosts feel under attack, and learning can be much more challenging than it needs to be.
Say you’re an instructor in a first year course with 300 students. They’re mostly awesome and wanting to learn. But, some are bored and figure they’ll share the meeting ID and password on a Discord channel to see if someone wants to come troll the class for laughs. Or a student decides they’re really bored and decides to connect from a second or third device using different accounts to hide their identity and route through VPNs to hide their location so they can troll the class themselves. Instructors can do everything right, and it takes just one bored person to violate the trust.
Internet troll culture seems to be right at home in Zoom. So, these less-awesome people do things like grief the class by shouting obscenities into their microphone, or sharing their screen to display porn or other high-shock-value content, or they have an app or adapter so they can stream similar triggering content through their “webcam”.
Remember how the host has no idea what the participants each see during a session? They may not even realize that someone is streaming porn through their webcam. They may not know that people are stuffing the chat with obscene text. And when they do realize, because they don’t see what the participants see, they may take awhile to figure out how to a) stop it and b) reset things to bring the class back after going off the rails.
A “panic” button would help. A lot. With one click:
- Take a screenshot (and, if the session is being recorded, save a flag at the timestamp)
- Turn off all video
- Mute all audio
- Stop all content sharing
- Turn off the chat. Clear the chat if needed (after saving a copy)
- Notify the account owner - for an institutional account, send the screenshot, chat log, and metadata about the meeting including the Quality of Service report so IT’s security team can intervene. For cases where horrific content has been shared and laws clearly violated, loop in the Zoom security team to pull logs so the jerks can be stopped. Currently, it’s basically just anonymous laughs, leaving behind participants who are genuinely traumatized by this garbage.
Maybe there are a couple of levels of this. It might start with a “STOP IT!” button that just does numbers 1-5. Maybe it asks the host if they think it’s a serious incident that needs to be documented, in which case it moves on to number 6.
Rebuilding safety and trust
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need tools to manage internet trolls in our online learning spaces. But, the internet is a thing and while most people are awesome, there are enough non-awesome people that make this stuff necessary. Currently, instructors and students don’t feel safe in Zoom. Things can be going well, and then out of nowhere comes the trolls with their stupid attempts to shock people to laugh at their reactions.
All of the encryption and security features are useless because they’re designed for a different threat model.
The call is coming from inside the house. It doesn’t matter how good the lock is.
So, to build trust, you need to build a safe environment. Which means providing effective tools for instructors (and all hosts) to quickly stop this garbage when it happens, and to help the rest of the class to recover and get back to learning.