Opinion //

In defence of Zoom

The online calling app we love to hate has allowed university life to continue with some sense of normalcy.

zoom call Photo: Blake Oliver.

COVID-19 has visited many terrible things upon the world: death and despair; poverty and prejudice; this and countless other half-baked thought pieces. Zoom, however, is not among the endless list of COVID-conjured ills. Instead, it is a flawed messiah for our times — sent forth mysteriously from the godless and impenetrable depths of Silicon Valley. It has revealed to us the nature of our past sins and provided (tech) support in a time of need. Zoom — despite being a poor imitation of the real thing — has maintained our privileged connection to education and exposed the folly of our prior voluntary social distancing from university. For this, we should be grateful. 

From the prevailing pre-COVID attitude of students that attendance at university was little more than a necessary inconvenience, it would be reasonable to assume that a waiver of attendance requirements and a move online would be happily welcomed. While student activities such as theatresports withered and Manning closed, we stayed home and listened to lectures as it suited our own very important schedules. Zoom permits the extension of this ideal to previously impossible decadence: dissections at the dinner table, psychology in the bedroom. And yet, there remains something essential missing.

University, it has been revealed, is not merely a utilitarian locus for the transmission of information from one brain to another. It is also, importantly, a place dependent on social interaction. Students and tutors can bristle, tensions can rise in debate. Alliances are forged and friendships formed. Eyes can be rolled and snide comments made.

By contrast, the Zoom tutorial is a ghoulish place. With its peep show aesthetic and disembodied voices, the tutor teaches out into an ether populated only by golems and mature age students who haven’t figured out how to disable their cameras. Before COVID, this and other universities were keen to trumpet technology’s education revolution, with OLEs as the vanguard of a seemingly inevitable digital creep.

However, Zoom’s failings have shown that technology, as it stands, is no replacement for face-to-face education and its inimitable abstractions. For all its dreadful broader consequences, the disruption wrought by COVID may have revealed to students and university administration the folly of a resilement from face-to-face education, in terms of social value, educational purpose and academic outcomes. 

While its faults are many, it is nonetheless worth considering where we would be without Zoom. That we can have a discussion as to the worthiness of virtual tutorials is in itself remarkable. While it may be a poor simulation of the real thing, to be able to have virtual tutorials and lectures in which questions can be asked and discussions had in real time is, in a time of strict isolation, critical to the uninterrupted continuation of studies.

Campus is effectively closed and we are confined to our homes, and yet classes can continue on something approaching a normal schedule, transcending closed borders and lockdown orders. Whatever the mysterious technological wizardry is that has allowed the maintenance of our privileged connection to education, it is worthy of appreciation. Default criticism of Zoom as “abhorrent” and “pretty shit” is misplaced. In a global pandemic which defies all adjectives, criticising a tool which permits education to continue relatively uninterrupted is like criticising the pastry selection at the free hotel breakfast: rather missing the point.

Likewise, allegations that Zoom could serve as a Trojan Horse for the University to “splurge on consultants, administrative buildings and their own salaries” seem unreasonable. In trying to maintain teaching and examination with academic integrity, the University is stuck between a pandemic and a hard place. While Zoom, like most things in a global pandemic, is undesirable, any technology which can allow for education to continue should be used to its full extent, just as Sydney University has done. In a time of need, Zoom has, despite its many and well-publicised faults, enabled education to continue largely unabated despite a nationwide lockdown, and for this we should be thankful. 

Zoom has many faults which are worthy of critique — privacy issues, lag times and security flaws. But it is these same flaws which have allowed students and, hopefully, universities, to see that an internet connection does not an education make. Nonetheless, in the time of COVID, Zoom is worthy of appreciation for enabling the essential business of education to continue in spite of mandatory social distancing in an unprecedented global pandemic.

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