Why has higher education decided on Zoom?

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.

Zoom Bingo

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.

ZOOOM

  1. 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.
  2. People were already familiar with it.  This means campuses need to spend less time getting users up to speed.
  3. 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…
  4. 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.
  5. Marketing.  Some have said that Zoom reached out to educators more effectively than others (for example).
  6. Ease of recording.
  7. Audio quality.  Several podcasters have recommended this point (like so).
  8. Capacity. Folks have told me some other platforms hit size limits pretty quickly.
  9. Simplicity. Zoom has few features and works alone, without having to plug into other user functions (compare to Google).
  10. Better for people on lower bandwidth networks. (Mathieu Plourde, encore fois)
  11. Accessibility. Few are good at this, but Zoom beats others, according to P.F. Anderson and Jason Frank.
  12. Breakout rooms.  Which leads to…
  13. 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.
  14. 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:

 

Microsoft Teams still has supporters.  Jason Green offered one pro-Teams argument:

 

Cerstin Mahlow offered an interesting critique of Zoom from Europe:

One critique of Zoom on accessibility comes from Kit Englard:

Arindam Basu argued for using different tools for a very different pedagogical design:

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.

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32 Responses to Why has higher education decided on Zoom?

  1. Tom Haymes says:

    I think over the last two years, I’ve maybe had two Zoom failures that weren’t my fault. It’s hard enough to get your students to show up for class. If the platform fails for just about any reason, you’re going to lose significant numbers of students. I used Zoom early on because it had the lowest barriers to entry for my bandwidth-challenged, technology-challenged, and technophobic (in some cases) students. Furthermore, it was rock solid in terms of uptime.

    It’s not perfect but it worked better than the other options I had at the time (WebEx and Teams). Just last Friday I failed spectacularly to connect to WebEx for a presentation from my Mac, but had Zoom up and running in seconds, shared a link, and moved a good portion of the meeting over to it with no complaining.

    I discovered after some research that there was a known bug in WebEx with M1 Macs that kept them from connecting that has been known for at least six months and has never been addressed by the company. That’s not acceptable in my book. The other option, Teams, was an enormous resource hog on my older Intel-based Mac and I could never figure out why.

    My own issues aside, I have no idea what my students are using to connect to class. The hardware/software hurdles they have to overcome to create a website (one of my key assignments) are harder than the ones they face when connecting to Zoom. That’s a win in my book.

    Zoom has generally scaled into what I’ve wanted it to do as my online portfolio of activities has evolved. Screen sharing works well with Keynote, Miro, Draw.io, etc. I even ran a YouTube video on it for the first time a few weeks ago (not because I was afraid but because I rarely go the “filmstrip” route in my classes).

    As I discuss in my latest book, I have little patience for technology that gets in the way of what I’m trying to do, whether that be teaching, writing, or photography. If a technology doesn’t “augment” me (to steal from Engelbart) or my students, I’m going to avoid it.

    I tried using many of the other platforms over the years. They all failed this essential test. Zoom allows me to do things I can’t even do in physical classes and I almost never find myself fighting it (it does have a few annoying quirks but none are dealbreakers). My college didn’t have Zoom, so I paid for my own subscription. $15 a month was a small price to pay not to have to worry about being able to connect with my students.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      It sounds like WebEx and Teams really fall behind in basic quality of service.

      • Tom Haymes says:

        It’s partially that. Teams is better than WebEx when it comes to uptime and ease-of-use but both are derivatives of a corporate mentality that is more focused on hierarchy and security than participation and inclusiveness. Zoom leans in the other direction. As a result, the Spaces it creates are flatter and more interactive. I think those qualities are essential for effective pedagogy as well as active meetings. I have avoided both platforms for those reasons alone.

        Now, as a result, I’ve only used WebEx and Teams when I have to so my uptime experience with them is based on limited experience (although I’ve certainly heard my colleagues complain about WebEx being down at various times).

        I can say that Zoom is as close to a light switch as I’ve seen an app (certainly one that depends on network connections) come. I’ve always had to fiddle with Teams or WebEx to get them to work right. For instance, I remember having trouble with WebEx not allowing me into the chat unless I logged in a particular way.

        However, to me, I always return to that feel of the Space. Zoom more closely approximates how I ran my classroom pre-pandemic (I taught in an Active Learning Classroom) where I eschewed lecture for interactive working sessions with my students. It’s easier to get there in Zoom than the other platforms.

        The same is true when I run brainstorming sessions with ShapingEDU and elsewhere. I run those much like I run my classes (but with more enthusiastic participants) and I have been able to build a fluid repertoire of tools because Zoom largely gets out of the way and lets me collaborate and facilitate with relative ease. That’s the money shot to me there.

        BTW, I wrote a piece about this on eCampus News last year: https://www.ecampusnews.com/2021/05/03/the-4-stages-of-zoom-enlightenment/

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          I hear you about the hierarchy within Webex. Never felt the same in Teams.

          Zoom doesn’t display the hierarchy – but it’s there, with the host.

          • Tom Haymes says:

            I don’t know a platform that doesn’t have some sort of hierarchy in that sense. Someone has to convene any group unless they are serving free beer (and even then the brewer is still the convener). In Zoom, it’s trivial to make someone else the host and to share most functionality with just about anyone in the group. Sure, you can act like a god, but the platform doesn’t push you that way.

            I find Teams to be almost as hierarchical (albeit with limited experience) as WebEx. I have been crossed up several times with weird permissions issues that kept me from participating fully in the conversation as a participant. I know that was a setup issue but you have to lower the barriers to entry for the host too. Zoom gives you options as a host to lock things down more but the default position is fairly open and inclusive.

  2. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

    Bryan, You raise an important question — Why Zoom? — but then skip past the institutional analysis to — gasp! — focus on neo-liberal “consumer preferences.”
    But this is not how the diffusion of innovation works — right?

    “Rogers proposes that five main elements influence the spread of a new idea: the innovation itself, adopters, communication channels, time, and a social system. This process relies heavily on social capital. The innovation must be widely adopted in order to self-sustain. Within the rate of adoption, there is a point at which an innovation reaches critical mass.”

    Clearly, there are structural elements that *dominate* consumer preferences — for ex., mimetic isomorphism among similarly placed IT administrators and their shared technological biases.
    Borg-level school IT, for ex., does not take individual preferences into account; so you are left having to demonstrate and prove that faculty preferences scale-up to the level of institutional decision-making. But, even in a garbage-can decision making world, sampling at the lowest level (sorry…) doesn’t amount to much. Sorry again …

    • Glen McGhee says:

      Brookings has this to say:
      “Zoom has benefited from an enormous network effect.”
      [[Exactly — but the next statement is a nonsequitur, without explanation or analysis — ]] “The time people have invested learning how to use Zoom and the licenses companies and universities have signed to make it their main platform for real-time video interactions create strong incentives against adopting an alternative. Just as most people wouldn’t want to purchase and carry two mobile phones, each connected to a different cellular network in case one of the networks goes down, organizations aren’t going to want to pay for licenses to non-Zoom videoconferencing platforms that they may rarely or never need. And people who have spent hours getting used to Zoom don’t want to start over on another platform. In combination, these factors mean that we aren’t likely to shake our dependence on Zoom anytime soon.”
      https://www.brookings.edu/blog/techtank/2020/08/27/zoom-is-now-critical-infrastructure-thats-a-concern/

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        I know Rogers’ theory very well, Glen.
        With this query I wanted to capture individual decisions at a time when they are still relatively fresh in memory, while having been concretized over some time.
        Diffusion analysis is for another time.

        • Glen McGhee says:

          Of course, Bryan, you “wanted to capture individual decisions at a time when they are still relatively fresh in memory”. In corporate decision-making, faculty opinions don’t amount to much. That’s the basis of my appeal to the garbage-can model of decision-making, shaped in academia, as I learned here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garbage_can_model

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          The Brookings line sounds like a copy and paste error. Instead of network effect they must have been thinking of first mover advantage.

  3. Glen McGhee says:

    A quick search turned up this study of Zoom and the role of “techno-governance” which used “descriptive institutional analysis frameworks [31,58] to structure our governance inquiries. This approach recognizes and builds upon a conceptualization of technology governance as an assemblage of laws, norms, markets, and architecture [30,35,39].”

    But this is only one paper. Where is the rest of them? Missing ….
    https://www.usenix.org/system/files/soups2021-cohney.pdf

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Interesting paper.
      Very true about the divergent needs of stakeholders.
      Look at how Zoom towers over the others!

      • Glen McGhee says:

        True, and the important question that you raise is, how did it get there? I’m certain that it will be the topic of a doctoral dissertation in the future. What discipline? What methodologies can be proposed for answering the question? What level of analysis, what data?

  4. Joe says:

    Except for Office, I still have a near-irrational fear of Microsoft. I should like their latest OS, but old fears die hard.

    I dread that non-innovative colossus of the 90s rising again. I know, that’s irrational. But no way I’ll use Teams. Zoom or GTFO.

    • Joe – I, too, have been snakebitten by MS’s blatant neglect of Mac users, and their Office 365 product back in 2016 or so was an utter mess. It was so bad we didn’t even bother telling our college’s students that they had free access to it.

      But I am here to say that they cleaned up their act and I use Teams every single day for project work, communication, and video chat. And as much as I really hate to admit it, the damn thing actually works! The entire Sharepoint, OneDrive, cloud based Word and Excel (all integrated), and video chat integrated into Outlook really actually makes my work life easier. I have uploaded all of the archival stuff from my hard drives (I do media production) and cleaned out my computer’s hard drive as well. All in the cloud and easily shared.

      I feel your pain, Joe. Decades of second-class status as a Mac user. But I have to break one off here for Microsoft on this one. Teams is a darn good product. God, I hate saying that…

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        Steve, yours is an important story. Thank you for sharing what is a very dramatic arc.

        Joe, I would love to Teams as reliable as Word, PPT, etc.

  5. One other detail worth noting. There was a moment when both Adobe and Blackboard (and perhaps others) were using video conferencing systems that required updated Java on all participants’ computers, which was a real pain point.

    And then in 2015, I discovered some new browser-based system called Appear.in based on the opensource WebRTC (Realtime Communication) API. No Java! I tried it in my online courses and all I had to do was share my account link. Instantly, everyone was on video chat, with screenshare. Nothing to download, nothing to update, and it was completely free.

    Until it wasn’t. Appear.in became a for-fee subscription along with an API service to use as a plugin with other systems, i.e. adding realtime chat to H5P via plugin. And then they were hit with a trademark infringement and who knows where they are today.

    But Appear.in was the turning point, however brief. Browser-based systems showed what was possible beyond clumsy Java systems, and Teams is as legacy of that. And, as the article says, we all migrated to Zoom because “it just worked.”

    • Glen McGhee says:

      I remember when Adobe had a video conferencing system, but I did not know that it required updated Java on all participants’ computers. Interesting.
      Any idea when Zoom passed beyond its tipping point (i.e., critical mass)?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good point about Java. What a barrier for a good number of users.

    • Chad Bergeron says:

      I remember Adobe’s solution. It was, like many of their offerings, an acquired product, and one that was secondary to the product they actually wanted. So it languished. They could have had more market but they left it to Skype and Bluejeans and GotoMeeting.

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  7. I agree with all of this. We adopted Zoom as a campus platform in March of 2020, after having some instructors and researchers using it successfully for awhile on a smaller scale. We got a campus environment spun up in about 24 hours, integrated with campus authentication and our LMS (D2L). It just worked. It wasn’t cheap, but considering the entire university was running on it 24/7/365 for 2 years, it was well worth the cost. There were some road bumps (ZOOMBOMBING! EVERYTHING IS ZOOOOOMBOMBING! Can’t unmute your mic? ZOOOOOOMBOMBING! etc., and the rogue Mac installer a couple of years ago that had an illicit web server running to make it easier to join meetings). But they’ve been steadily improving the features (the new breakout room features are really good), and security has been addressed.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I’m very impressed Zoom got past Zoombombing, as that hit all kinds of registers.

    • Chad Bergeron says:

      And importantly, from where I sit, Zoom pushed to improve rapidly. They weren’t ready to be core infrastructure, and the warts appeared early (security issues, concerns over affiliations with China, zoombombing, end-to-end encryption, etc) but they rolled out meaningful changes rapidly, adding new security features, losing the security risk of sharing files over chat, improving LMS integration (sorry Blackboard Collaborate, you’re not the only integrated offering), even adding prosocial features like animated backgrounds and emoji reactions. They appear to have understood that if they didn’t listen to the customers they already had very quickly that another offering could take their place. As discussed, there wasn’t a shortage of options, and dozens more have been invented in the past two years.

  8. Eric LePage says:

    For our institution, a big factor not mentioned above was the number of student video webcam feeds that an instructor can see at once. We had Bb Collaborate, as well as a license of MS Teams, and instructors were frustrated with the limited number of student video webcam feeds they could see at once, which wasn’t an issue in Zoom (given our average class size). They wanted to see all of their students’ faces on one screen during their class sessions. There were certainly other factors, as mentioned above, but this was a major concern they expressed. We quickly pivoted to Zoom after conducting a campus survey early in the pandemic.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Eric, how do Collaborate and Teams restrict this, set a ceiling of some number?

      Zoom and Shindig set up “rooms”, overflow screens, kind of.

      • Eric LePage says:

        I recall Collaborate could only display up to 4 students webcam feeds at one time (at least back in 2020). Teams was also very limited initially (maybe 4-6 student webcam feeds?) but has improved since then. Meanwhile Zoom was able to display upwards of 25 student webcam feeds at once, which aligned with our class sizes. It was a difference maker for our faculty.

        • Antonio says:

          In our institutions we had Collaborate and move to Zoom for the same reason. With Zoom faculty can see more students at once. This allows having more feedback from students’ faces and during monitoring exams helps that faculty have the sensation of a more control of what students are doing.

        • Glen McGhee says:

          Ok, but didn’t Adobe have dozens of webcams possible?
          I remember seeing a large panel of participants once using Adobe.

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  10. Dr Julie Lindsay says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Bryan – very timely in our pseudo post-pandemic state. Our institution relies on Zoom – and yes the reason is largely economical but also largely inertia-based. It takes time, energy, motivation and an actual innovation process to replace something as intitutionalised as Zoom. So, regardless of how pedagogically inept it may be for learning, it remains.
    I am leading a pilot of Engageli (you mentioned this) and academics are getting excited about this tool and the HyFlex learning possibilities it provides that Zoom does not. Baby steps so far that could lead to something bigger and better in terms of how we approach online learning and engage learners. Given that about 70% of our students are totally online, this is a key piece in our academic strategy moving forward. Watch this space.

  11. Antonio Ruiz says:

    Thinking about your comment “I’m interested, if unsurprised, that the reasons for campuses to select Zoom are overwhelmingly not pedagogical.” My question would be: What are the different pedagogical features that a videoconferencing tool should have and whether there is a tool that satisfies them.

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