Question for you all: why are so many colleges and universities using Zoom, after two+ years of the pandemic?
Let me explain my question, then share what I’ve learned from research and conversations. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I’ve been working in ed tech for around thirty years, a fact which sometimes terrifies me. I’ve seen a lot of platforms and applications come and go.
In higher ed, I usually see many different platforms being offered by (or outsourced from) a given college or university. Within each type of computing service, I’ve seen all kinds of products and brands offered. For example, once the learning management system/virtual learning environment took off around 2000, I and others have tracked which ones different campuses adopt: Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas, etc. None have taken over the market, although BB came close for a time, and Canvas’ growth remains robust. For another example, once cloud computing became acceptable, colleges and universities have turned to Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Apple, and combinations thereof. Each decision interests me, and moreso over time.
So we come to videoconferencing. In early 2000 many campuses already hosted, or outsourced, a wide range of synchronous video tools. (I used Microsoft’s Netmeeting to teach parts of a class in 1999.) When I visited or worked with a given college or university or academically adjacent business or nonprofit I might have seen Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Blackboard Collaborate, FaceTime for the Macisti, WebEx, Skype, BigBlueButton, Shindig, BlueJeans, Zoom, etc. in use. Some places had dedicated rooms with hardware; others did not. Before the pandemic I hadn’t seen one of these tools dominate.
In my own professional work I used a wide range of these, depending on the setting and purpose. Shindig for the Future Trends Forum, Zoom for Georgetown classes and events, WebEx for some government clients, Teams with my son (because that’s what his university uses), Skype for one podcast, Discord for several groups. Everything else I could find for research.
Then once COVID hit, Zoom suddenly, well, zoomed to the top.
To be fair, Zoom’s triumph has not been complete. I see Microsoft-centric campuses using Teams, like my son’s University of Vermont. Google Meet is out there. Some general-purpose applications include their own videoconferencing, like Slack and Discord. Gamelike GatherTown exists. For some reason news media reports kept insisting that Facetime was popular in hospitals, despite lots of people not owning Macs and not everybody fondling an iPhone. And startups have appeared, sometimes from educational spaces, such as InSpace or Engageli.
But Zoom seems to have run the table. It’s what I see across the spectrum of geography and institutional type. Zoom is starting to become a generic term for videoconferencing, like Xerox for photocopy. It managed to get past, and thrive despite, zoombombing and Zoom fatigue.
Why is this? How did Zoom triumph, and how long will it stay on top?
I’ve been quietly asking this question since 2020, and the answers have been interesting. Over the past few weeks I’ve asked the question across social media, with the best results on Twitter, and wanted to share the results.
- Quality of service or stability. People report that Zoom “just works.” (thanks to Mathieu Plourde) It’s up more often, presents fewer glitches, than others.
- People were already familiar with it. This means campuses need to spend less time getting users up to speed.
- Enterprise choice. Central IT chose it for its own reasons, which might include others on this last. IT shops already tightly wedded to Microsoft or Google might have a harder time here. Speaking of which…
- Cost. Several people have remarked that Zoom was cheaper than competitors (for example). Also, that the 40 minute free trial was a good way to hook people.
- Marketing. Some have said that Zoom reached out to educators more effectively than others (for example).
- Ease of recording.
- Audio quality. Several podcasters have recommended this point (like so).
- Capacity. Folks have told me some other platforms hit size limits pretty quickly.
- Simplicity. Zoom has few features and works alone, without having to plug into other user functions (compare to Google).
- Better for people on lower bandwidth networks. (Mathieu Plourde, encore fois)
- Accessibility. Few are good at this, but Zoom beats others, according to P.F. Anderson and Jason Frank.
- Breakout rooms. Which leads to…
- Pedagogy. “Zoom helps me mimic what I do in the classroom most closely (group discussions, polls etc.),” reports Sharon Alker on Facebook. Linda Troost agrees on polling.
- Some special features. Matthew Bruckner likes that “it allowed me to share only part of my screen so I could still see my notes when using PowerPoint on a single screen.” Kimberly Sagarin approves of gallery view. Dedicated rooms for physical locations met with Miloš Topić’s approval.
Additionally, after COVID had begun, Zoom may have grown based on its success – i.e., some popularity being due to its popularity. Zoom may have become a friendly, or at least familiar, face during the worst times of the pandemic. It wasn’t an easy thing to switch away from. We could think of this as inertia or something most people were – are – too busy and/or tired to think about. We could deem it, as Janet Scannell does, status quo bias.
So why wouldn’t a college or university use Zoom?
Blackboard Collaborate offers one advantage, according to Dr. Z:
Since my colleges have Blackboard LMS, I use Blackboard Collaborate. My students are very grateful that all of the class information and work is in one place. I find it works just as good as Zoom and saves everyone a headache.
— The Very Curious Dr. Z, Ph.D. (@VeryCuriousDocZ) March 28, 2022
Microsoft Teams still has supporters. Jason Green offered one pro-Teams argument:
MS Teams is included in our Microsoft campus agreement, so we plan to shift most of our users there.
— Jason Green (@jasongreen) March 27, 2022
Cerstin Mahlow offered an interesting critique of Zoom from Europe:
Zoom will probably maybe not be a long-term solution here, mostly due to privacy issues: we‘re in Europe, but Zoom servers are not. That‘s different to MS Teams (European or even Swiss servers).
Apart from that I prefer Teams over Zoom although Zoom has some nice features …
— Cerstin Mahlow (@CerstinMahlow) March 27, 2022
One critique of Zoom on accessibility comes from Kit Englard:
Teams and Meet have significantly better caption options, zoom is really behind in this area still. It doesn’t say who is talking, and it doesn’t allow the user who needs the captions to turn them on, the host needs to, which means the host needs to know how.
— Kit Englard (@MathnSkating) March 28, 2022
Arindam Basu argued for using different tools for a very different pedagogical design:
I avoid Zoom for teaching if I can; I use other tools such as Mozilla Hubs and FrameVR; these tools work well for me and the students. Unfortunately, my colleagues complain if I do not use Zoom as many people with fixed mindset do not want to use tools they are not familiar with.
— Arindam Basu (@arinbasu) March 27, 2022
Some extra thoughts: I’m interested, if unsurprised, that the reasons for campuses to select Zoom are overwhelmingly not pedagogical. Price, bandwidth, integration with other tools, audio quality, enterprise concerns, etc. predominate.
I am also interested in how stable Zoom’s position has been. Several startups have appeared, with others on the way, and some giants have fought for the crown, but not have made even a serious showing. Two+ years is a long time in the tech world. It may be that Zoom’s initial success paved the way for further successes, making it look omnipresent (think: kleenex) and even inevitable.
Last point: it’s interesting that VR has not emerged as a major competitor to videoconferencing. While web3 has been rising, relatively few folks have been using it as a Zoom alternative. That struggle, between virtual and videoconference realities, lies ahead.
Thanks to the swarm of people who shared their thoughts with me, asynchronously: academic_happy, Gary Ackerman, Rocky Allinger, P.F. Anderson, Brian Baute, Jared Bendis, Michael Berman, Susan Blum, Ian Bogost, Michael David Cobb Bowman, Terry Bradley, Matthew Bruckner, Cassiciacum, Jon Chapman, Donald Clark, Cara Clarke, CSU_IDT, Dhamphyri, Zack Dowell, Chris Edwards, Jeanne Eicks, William de la Em, Kit Englrd, Ella Epshteyn, Kim Flintoff, Frameable Inc., Sarah Frick, Noah Glaser, Sara Goldrick-Rab, Jim Groom, Luke Hobson, Harold Jarche, Jeannette, Dennis Jerz, Robert Kelchen, Lydia Kitts, John Kline, Lisa Leutheuser, lmockford, Chris Lott, Dave Mazella, Robert McGuire, Gretchen McKay, Christine Mullins, Peter Naegele, Michael Palmer, Pat Parslow, Peeragogy, Jennifer Polk, professor Powell, Ravi Ravishankar, Howard Rheingold, Mike Richichi, Miguel Rodriguez, Jennifer Sader, Kimberly Sagarin, Mark Sample, Joe Saul, Janet Scannell, John Schinker, Anne-Marie Scott, Vicki Sells, Peggy Semingson, Peter Shea, Tony Sindelar, Holly Skillin, Peter Von Stackleberg, Heather Staines, Graham Stanley, Robert Brent Stansfield, George Station, Robin Sullivan, Kari Swanson, Steve Taylor, thecman, Miloš Topić, Matt Townsley, Linda Troost, Mark Vickers, Edward Vielmetti, Steve Weidner, Fridolin Wild, Ann Witbrock, xiousgeonz, Virginia Yonkers, the Very Curious Dr. Z.; the Instructional Designers in Education and Remaking the University Facebook groups, and more.
Thanks, too, to the AU newsletter for the kind link.