Of all the behaviors necessitated by the pandemic—wearing face masks, ordering takeout or groceries online, working from home—only one has taken over the lexicon, serving variously as a verb, adjective or noun: Zooming.
We Zoom for work, or with friends. We get on Zoom to talk to grandparents, or grandkids. We suffer from Zoom fatigue, and do our best to watch out for Zoombombing.
The concept has become especially embedded in education, ever since schools and universities closed this spring and the video call service became the lifeline tethering students to instructors. As early excitement about Zoom gave way to questions and concerns about privacy, security and unequal access, other companies seized the opportunity to elbow their way into the new competition for digital communication tools appropriate for preschoolers and college students alike.
But Zoom has held on. More than 100,000 schools in 25 countries are using the service, the company reports. And more than 35,000 people from 154 countries participated in its Zoom Academy for K-12 educators at the end of July.
That’s helped the company’s bottom line. During an earnings call at the end of August, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan announced that revenue grew 355 percent year over year in the second quarter, for a total of $664 million during the period. That news sent Zoom shares soaring as much as 40 percent, according to CNBC, which reported that the company is now larger than IBM, with a market cap of more than $129 billion.
There are signs that Zoom sees education as key to its continued success. The company says its education vertical is its largest, and the team has tripled in size this year.
To find out more about what the company has in store for students and instructors, schools and colleges, we set up an interview with Zoom … on Zoom, of course.
Here’s what we learned.
Zoom is hiring folks with years of experience in education technology.
EdSurge spoke with two new employees: Anne Keehn, global education lead, and Tain Barzso, product lead for education.
Keehn joined the company this summer from InStride, the for-profit spinoff from Arizona State University that helps companies offer their workers education benefits. Before that, she founded education advisory company Quantum Thinking, was an entrepreneur-in-residence and senior fellow at the Gates Foundation, and worked for Kaplan, Pearson, Ellucian, Blackboard and Oracle.
“I like early market. I like being able to grow and scale things,” Keehn says. “I love being able to see how technology is adopted in a way that has an impact on education.”
Barzso joined Zoom after several years as a leader in information and communications technology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He’s also worked at Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and Purdue University.
“It’s a very different experience to come to the creation side,” Barzso says. “It’s exhilarating to be with someone making a difference across the world. It’s high energy.”
Zoom is adapting in response to feedback from students and educators.
The company runs what Barzso calls a “continuous road show” to solicit feedback about how to improve the service for use in education. Employees also scan social media to see what’s working well and not so well for schools and colleges.
Requests from K-12 educators tend to focus on increasing teacher control over classes, Barzso says. Teachers want to be able to present their materials effectively, ensure the communication channel is secure, take attendance and know where students are and what they’re doing. In response, the company is considering an option that would allow a teacher to view all of his or her students but limit each student to only viewing the teacher.
In higher education, students and professors generally want more support for collaborative learning and deeper engagement with each other and the course material. That’s where Zoom’s breakout rooms, which enable small-group discussion, come in handy, Barzso says.
Across the board, educators want to improve the accessibility of Zoom for people who need accommodations. To address that, the company recently rolled out new features that allow users to reorder the gallery view and pin multiple video screens at once to better support sign language interpretation.
One of Zoom’s newer audio features came at the request of universities with strong music education programs. They wanted to enable faculty and students to “hear a piano from 2,000 miles away,” Barzso says. Accordingly, Zoom now allows users to change their sound settings to music mode, he explains, to “provide incredibly clear, incredibly rich sound across the spectrum.”
But the company has to balance education-friendly features with other design goals.
Since people use Zoom in health care, government work and financial services, plus their personal lives, the company has to try to balance the needs of many different users and industries. So just because a setting might benefit a teacher doesn’t mean it will necessarily be incorporated into the platform.
“We’re constantly thinking about how we can make that functionality able to connect in ways that serve the needs of education as well as the broader market,” Keehn says.
As it evolves, Zoom wants to preserve what the company considers to be its hallmarks: “that it has been reliable, easy to use and the features are intuitive,” Keehn explains. “Those are very much at the forefront of our design efforts.”
Educators are welcome to build on the Zoom platform to meet their needs.
Zoom has open LTI, API and SDK—an alphabet soup of acronyms that help product developers connect software. It means “we absolutely encourage integration with the platform,” Keehn says.
To that end, the Zoom app marketplace has dozens of programs that can enhance teaching and learning, such as Tutorbloc, which allows parents to book lessons with tutors, and Educal, which helps teachers post daily planners.
Screen fatigue is real.
Even Zoom employees don’t Zoom for eight hours a day, so neither should students or teachers. Although Keehn declined to weigh in on what’s an appropriate amount of screen time for virtual learning, she did say to “schedule some off-camera time.”
“We don’t recommend being on all day long,” Keehn says. “Take your breaks.”
Don’t expect more service outages.
On the first day of class for many schools and colleges, Zoom went down for about three hours. The problem was due to a software release bug that was quickly resolved, Keehn says.
“It never happened before, and we hope it never happens again,” she adds. “It was unfortunate, but we absolutely put all our resources right on it.”
To avoid similar problems in the future, the company plans to invest in data center infrastructure, it announced during its recent earnings call.
If you experience Zoombombing, the company says that may be on you, not Zoom.
Zoom has put a lot of security controls in place that allow instructors to make their virtual classrooms harder to hack, Barzso says. These include waiting rooms, mute controls and requirements that students log into learning management systems to authenticate their identities before joining class Zoom calls. The company also offers mini webinars about how to use these features.
Students pulling pranks are responsible for some of Zoom’s continued security problems, Keehn says: “It’s like letting the streaker into the school hall.”
Other issues may arise when educators don’t take the right steps or take advantage of the service’s security tools, she adds: “For the most part, it’s user error.”
Zoom is opening new research and development offices in partnership with Arizona State University and Carnegie Mellon University.
The company hopes to recruit engineers and computer scientists from the two institutions as well as work with researchers to study best practices for using the platform.
The company is thinking beyond the pandemic.
The kind of growth Zoom has experienced this year will be difficult to sustain. But the company doesn’t see itself as simply a communications tool for the current health crisis. In the earnings call, CEO Yuan teased a few ideas for incorporating new technologies into the platform to help it stay relevant in the future, such as artificial intelligence and augmented reality.
Zoom’s education vertical is betting that hybrid instruction will continue even after it’s safe for students to gather in person again.
“Even as students go back to the classroom, the world is open to them now,” Keehn says. “This blended model is going to be there forever.”