The Zoom classroom: Pedagogy and privacy

Interrogating the deficiencies of the online classroom.

After weeks of uncertainty as to whether campus would remain open, the University announced that all face-to-face classes would cease, coming into effect last Monday, two days after Honi broke the news that a first-year student had tested positive for the coronavirus. A week in, with the switch from the physical classroom to the virtual one, it is clear that the higher education sector is undergoing its biggest transformation in years.

As the novelty of being able to wake up ten minutes before class, attend in pyjamas and change screen backgrounds like a 12-year-old on Photobooth wears off, it is important to interrogate what this digital transformation means.

Most classes have been going ahead on Zoom, a video conference and online meeting space. Previously a platform of choice for both multinational corporations and fledgling activist collectives, Zoom is now being used by universities worldwide as calls become digital classrooms. As of Wednesday, the University told Honi that the University’s Zoom has hosted 378,107 users this semester. According to the University, “feedback shows that it is working well.”

However, the students and staff Honi spoke to paint an altogether different and more complex picture. All staff and an overwhelming majority of students Honi spoke to preferred face-to-face classes. 

Students find Zoom classes harder to concentrate in, less enjoyable, and slow sometimes to the point of awkward. There is consensus that people are contributing less than in comparable face-to-face classes, and more select people are dominating the discussion. For example, one male law student who noticed a boys club culture (encouraged by the tutor) in his class, which is roughly split even along gendered lines, noted that this problem had become worse online. Many students are also having accessibility issues, either with their own internet connections or Zoom itself, due to the exceedingly high traffic. One student told Honi her Zoom “crashed several times in half an hour.” 

Of course, there are students with more positive experiences. These generally include: those with smaller classes (such as honours cohorts), those with mobility issues and people who live far away from campus who now don’t have to spend hours commuting. Nonetheless, it is clear that the student experience is considerably worse for the vast majority of the student body than it was the week before.

Yet, there is a group who’ve had to adapt far more than students. Staff are seemingly finding the shift even worse than students thus far. Staff told Honi that they were provided with little training on online teaching, with the exception of sending online materials to read over. Unlike universities like the University of Technology Sydney, they were not given a week break from classes to transition online. Further, one staff member said that administrative hours (which are usually used for meetings) for Graduate Teaching Assistants were cut in their department this year, and were only added back as a result of the additional workload because of the COVID-19 crisis. They note that four hours does not make up for the time needed to keep up with the everchanging coronavirus information, and the flow-on adjustments that need to be made to teaching.

According to our lecturers and tutors, Zoom classes are no genuine alternative for in person face-to-face classes. Ultimately, this is not just because of technological concerns, but because of the intrinsic social dynamics that being together in a building on campus brings. In bedrooms, instead of classrooms our educational experience becomes atomised. As one Senior Lecturer put it, “since the purpose of education is the collective benefit of society, it should be a collective experience.” Staff have also noticed less students willing to contribute to discussion.

Yet, one aspect of Zoom which has been somewhat overlooked — likely because a lot of people aren’t aware of it — is its potential use for surveillance and breaches of privacy. With the University having an institutional account used by staff, the University as a Zoom administrator has immediate access to view “a snapshot in real time” of whatever is occuring, analytics capability of ranking users based on various categories, data which shows where and how people are logging onto Zoom, access to view any meeting going on under the organisation’s license, and seemingly the ability to log directly into any meeting (in this case, class) going on. With a range of administrative tools to surveil and categorise users, the online classroom begins to resemble a digital panopticon.

When Honi put these Zoom features to staff, most were largely unaware of the specific tools institutional Zoom accounts have. However, there was a widespread belief that the implications of managerial surveillance are genuine, and could be used to harvest data, performance manage or enforce student attendance with an iron fist.

Zoom analytics aren’t even all that accurate. As one casual tutor told Honi, “Given that I, the tutor, was given the lowest ‘attentiveness’ score in the whole class by Zoom for a tutorial that I taught last week should tell you enough to distrust such crude analytics. Having said this, I’m under no false impressions that higher-ups actually believe such measures are valid. They’ll only lean on them when they want to get their way and punish staff that aren’t in their favour.”

When the University announced that all classes would move online, Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence told the Sydney Morning Herald, “we’ve put a lot of effort and thought into how to do it. I think this is a tremendous opportunity. This could be an interesting pedagogical experiment.” But staff have been left without the support they need to make an effective transition, harming student learning in the process. Alarmingly, this crisis thus represents “a tremendous opportunity” for the University to shift more classes online and reduce teaching and learning costs, while splurging on consultants, administrative buildings and their own salaries.

Ultimately, if there is one positive to be gleaned from this crisis, it is rising consciousness amongst students and staff. More than ever throughout my time on campus, we are thinking critically about how the University functions, who this benefits and how to change this. It is absolutely essential that we keep this up post pandemic.

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