Who’s Zoomin’ Who?

Image of 45 record of song Who's Zooming Who by Aretha Franklin

Not one of Aretha’s best, but felt appropo

I am a bit behind on all the COVID pivot stuff that has been happening in higher education as I was off on a personal leave from work. Of course, it was impossible to completely ignore, but COVID and the higher education response was more like a dim buzz in the background of my life over the past few weeks.

One thing that was hard to miss, however, was the overnight success of the synchronous video platform Zoom and how it seemed to explode into higher education consciousness. It felt like almost every conversation, every blog post, every social media post I did see included educators discovering Zoom as institution after institution announced they were moving classes online. Which seemed interesting to me that such a relatively new entrant into the educational video conferencing marketplace could rise to such a level of notoriety in such a short period of time ahead of many established incumbents in the field. It wasn’t Collaborate, BlueJeans, Big Blue Button, Adobe Connect or a host of others that captured the zeitgeist. It was Zoom that seemed to become the overnight sensation.

Yesterday as I began resuming my normal work duties, I wanted to probe this “Why Zoom” question a bit as I think there may be some lessons in here that would be useful for educational technologist around the diffusion and adoption of education technologies. To be clear, I am not so much interested in technical superiority (real or perceived) of one platform over the other, although some conversations did hint at that. My interest is more to try to understand how Zoom seemed to go viral and in a very short period of time reach almost brand ubiquity levels of usage and acceptance. So I posted on Twitter

Below is a breakdown and some analysis of responses I received.

1) Incumbency

There were a number of tweets In response similar to Trent’s. We already had a license so that is what we went with. Which makes total sense. If your institution has already made the investment, then why move to something else?

But yet, I had this sneaking suspicion that there were many instructors who were jumping onto Zoom despite their own institution having licensed other synchronous tools. Indeed, I wasn’t the only one alone in thinking this.


Which highlights some potential issues that educational technologists can learn from. There was some speculation in the Twitter convo that institutions simply do not do a very good job of internally promoting the tools and, just as importantly, the intended purpose of those tools. Some commented that learning technologies can get licensed by a specific department or program and never be known outside that department or program, which is likely more common in larger institutions than smaller ones. There is also the possibility that instructors have given the institutional tool a go and made a conscious effort not to use it for whatever reason, perhaps not liking the user experience.

If you feel your institution could be in any of these camps where you suddenly see a lot of your instructors using or asking about Zoom, it would likely do some good after this time of crisis blows over to spend some time digging into why that happened, and examine your own internal efforts to make it known that you offer and support tools that do what Zoom does.

2) It traverses the work/home/school/social boundaries

There were a few responses like this one from Lucas that spoke about how Zoom seems to be a tool that has a lot of verticals. By that I mean it is used by a wide variety of groups, from families to educational institutions, corporations, small and medium size businesses, non-profits – Zoom seems to have a foothold in all these areas. At the same time that higher education was moving online, so too were a lot of people starting to work at home at organizations that had never had scalable desktop virtual conferencing before. This likely created a a happy confluence that Zoom could capitalize on.

I think there is a lesson in here for education technologists on how technology diffusion happens that is similar to what many of us experienced when mobile devices first began to pop up in our institutions. The drive for mobile adoption did not come from the institutions. It came from the students, staff and faculty, and the institutions needed to react to these consumer devices suddenly showing up in our institutions. I think something similar occurred with Zoom where instructors brought it in via its use in personal contexts.

Like wine o’clock (a usage I can heartily endorse these days).

Stephanie’s tweet also highlights another reason why Zoom Zoom’d the way it did….

3) The freemium model is different

For many video conferencing applications that do offer a freemium tier, that tier is usually capped at the number of users that can use it in any given sessions. Your session can be for as long as you like, but usually only with 2-4 users. The Zoom freemium model flipped it so that you could have dozens of users in it, but were limited to 40 minute sessions. This is brilliant. It gave educators the one thing they needed above all else in a freemium session – more people.

4) Aggressive Marketing

There were a few comments that revolved around the marketing practices of Zoom and how it seems to have an aggressive online marketing campaign that is probably being influenced by data gathered from their online partners. If an educator starts Googling terms like “video learning platform” or “online video for teaching”, there is a good chance that Zoom is targeting them with online ad’s. Start seeing these ad’s online more and more and feeling the pressure of needing to find something to solve an immediate problem, then Zoom is the answer. Zoom marketing, informed by metadata gathered by someones activity on Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc has probably identified that person as an educator to Zoom and therefore someone who ad’s should be targeted to.

5) Technical advantage

There were quite a few responses that said Zoom worked, and worked well, and that has led to it becoming the go to tool. Which may be true, although I have used numerous video conferencing platforms and find not a heck of a lot of difference between the quality and utility of Zoom compared to others. They all do the same job, or at least similar enough that I don’t see a huge difference that would warrant the oversized embrace of Zoom. And, well, Zoombombing has laid bare at least one pretty major flaw.

If there is a technical superiority compared to other (what I will call legacy) tools it is likely because Zoom is fairly young and has likely benefited from that as many older apps are often hampered by the technology of the time they were born. So, if there is a technical advantage to Zoom, it is likely partially due to the fact that it is not burden by technological legacy and benefits from modern development practices and technologies.

There were a few of “it just works” kind of comments. But as Mike Caulfield notes, “it just works” has an insidious side.


Which leads nicely into the final point. I could not in good conscious write a blog post about Zoom without talking about privacy. Follow this thread….

Ian Linkletter also spoke a bit about how he perceives the culture of Zoom, the company

Indeed, Zoom appears to be of the “move fast and break things” mindset and has some serious work to do on the privacy front. But to be honest, I can’t say with any certainty that any other platform is better or worse than Zoom in this regard, with the exception of open source systems like Big Blue Button that you can host on-prem yourself. Having complete control of the application is one of the best ways to can protect user data and ensure that it does not become marketing data. As Doc Searls notes

Zoom is in the advertising business, and in the worst end of it: the one that lives off harvested personal data. What makes this extra creepy is that Zoom is in a position to gather plenty of personal data, some of it very intimate (for example with a shrink talking to a patient) without anyone in the conversation knowing about it. (Unless, of course, they see an ad somewhere that looks like it was informed by a private conversation on Zoom.)

We are living through a truly unprecedented event. So unprecedented that our provincial government has temporarily relaxed privacy laws (PDF) in our province to give higher education institutions (and others) more flexibility to meet the needs of their students, staff and faculty. However, let’s make sure that the technologies we use right now to bridge us to better days don’t simply become the default tools out of convenience or inertia.

Thanks all for contributing to the convo on Twitter. Twitter has felt a lot like the old days of Twitter these past few weeks, and I am seeing a lot of great sharing, support and conversations. It feels like the best of what Twitter and a PLN is.

If you have made it this far, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Zoom. Feel free to drop a comment.

* although I don’t think what is happening right now can be or should be considered online learning or distance education, or any other established term used to describe learning that is not done face to face. This is emergency teaching and learning in a time of unprecedented crisis. We are in a period of reactive teaching and learning, which is the opposite of online learning. Online learning is planned, deliberate and thoughtful in the sense that online courses often take months or even years to develop, not days or weeks. So, let’s not call what is happening right now online learning. Nor should we be rushing to do anything silly like use this as the time or circumstance to evaluate the effectiveness of online or distance learning. Because what is happening now is not online or distance learning.


More needs to be done to support teaching online in Canada

I am reading with interest the latest research report done by the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association into the state of online learning in Canada. This annual report is quickly becoming a must read for those interested in online teaching & learning in Canada as it is one of the few research reports that captures the national picture on what is happening in the Canadian post-secondary system (which, for international readers, is largely a provincial responsibility).

Dr. Tony Bates has provided some highlights & analysis, and a couple of the bullet points popped out at me around faculty development, capacity building, and the biggest barriers institutions still face when it comes to developing online courses and programs. Tony notes that;

79% of institutions reported inadequate training for faculty as one of the main barriers to online learning, up from earlier years; the issue of faculty support and training for teaching online is significant and needs to be addressed in the development of strategic plans for expanding and improving online offerings;

As someone who has worked in online learning for almost 20 years now, I find this number staggering, and a sobering wake up call that, whatever systematic measures that have been putting in place to support online teaching and learning, they don’t seem to be adequate to meet the burgeoning needs of the post-secondary system as online courses and programs scale up across the country.

I think about the capacity building work that has happened here in the British Columbia system that go back to the late 1990’s with (then) C2T2 and (later) the organization I work for now BCcampus, who began capacity building initiatives into online learning around 2003-04 with the Online Program Development Fund. The OPDF project included open licensing within it, but did not begin life as an “open education” project per se. Indeed, the entire concept of open education and OER’s were still relatively nascent concepts at the time. But there was a systematic need to build the capacity within the system to develop and deliver online courses and programs, and for a decade OPDF worked to build the skills needed within the system to deliver online courses and programs. Today, BCcampus still supports the development of online teaching & learning skills through the FLO (Facilitating Learning Online) program.

I’m not sure why we are in a situation where there is a massive skills gap among instructors to teach online. Maybe there is a feeling that we have “been there done that” with online learning, and that sense of urgency that was felt in those early days of online learning to skill up instructors through systematic investments like OPDF has waned. Or perhaps we are turning our collective attention to other pressing issues within the post-secondary system. Accessibility, inclusiveness, affordability, breaking down systematic barriers to learning in general, let alone online learning. The kinds of things that online learning was supposed to help ameliorate.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that, with 3/4 of all institutions in Canada offering online courses & programs, this modality of teaching isn’t going away and those who teach this way need to be well supported.

Tony also notes that, not only is training in online learning a barrier, but there is also a lack of any kind of formal requirement for instructors who teach online to be required to take any training or PD around teaching online.

also for the first time, institutions were asked about their policy for professional development and training of faculty. The results showed that although just more than half the institutions provide voluntary professional development or orientation for teaching online, faculty are rarely required to take part in training or professional development for teaching online.

Now, it is easy to isolate this as an online teaching issue only, but I think the same could be said for post-secondary teaching in ANY modality; face-to-face, online, blended, hybrid, whatever. Remove the word online from the end of that sentence and I think it is still a true statement. So, while the problem is acutely highlighted in the context of online learning, this is the same for online or face to face learning.

The key difference imo is that often instructors can muddle along quite adequately teaching in a face to face environment because they have had decades of experience learning in that specific environment. Many teach the way they have been taught. But that is often not the case with online learning. Indeed, I have seen instructors thrown into online courses with no more support than an introduction to the LMS training session and expected to thrive when they themselves have very little practical experience with being a learner in an online environment themselves. So, while I think there needs to be continued investment in training on teaching & learning for ALL post-secondary instructors, the need feels particularly acute for those who teach online.


Untrackable Learning

Footprint in sand

I was up early today following along with the #altc hashtag (has it already been a year?) when a tweet from Donna Lanclos caught my eye.

As I followed the thread back to Anne-Marie Scott’s comment about the “hidden learning environment”, it got me thinking about the unseen spaces that learners often set up independent of their classes, hidden away from their instructor and their institution.

To echo Anne-Marie’s point, these hidden spaces are out of reach of institutional data analytics, which is important to remember if you use data analytics to try and quantitatively measure what is happening in your asynchronous discussion forums (which, as a quick Google Scholar search can attest to, is something commonly done in online courses). While the data can give you some insight, it is definitely only one small piece of information and is by no means a full or holistic view of all the activity that may be happening within your course. The data can only tell you what it can see, and much of the learning and interaction that is happening in your course may be happening outside your view.

I see this first hand, in both the graduate level online course where I teach and in the k-12 level with my own kids. In my graduate level course, for example, learners this term have a separate Slack team where they connect and collaborate. It was set up by the learners themselves, and exists independent of both the institution and me. In my high school daughters case, much of the convo about school with her peers happens over Instagram or text message, although last year my daughter was becoming quite infamous among her peers for her Quizlet making abilities and was often asked to share her Quizlet’s with others to help them study (which is a separate blog post that is waiting to be written).

Three quick points about hidden learning environments.

First, these types of informal learning spaces are nothing new. Students forming study groups have existed long before online learning. But, like everything else, the internet has made the creation of these types of independent learning communities much easier.

Second, as educators, we should see the development of these kinds of informal learning communities by our students as something positive. We want to develop lifelong learners who can proactively establish their own learning networks, and, just as importantly, be available as a resource to their peers. Indeed, as I (and others) have written before, in network learning the ability to both be a resource and draw upon others as a resource in a reciprocal manner is important. For me, one of the most encouraging findings that came out of MOOC-mania was just how important these types of self-organizing study groups are to student success.

Third, these are safe spaces for learners, away from the eyes of their instructor. Places where they connect with their peers as peers, and it is important they remain as such. Having their instructor in the environment changes the dynamic of those environments completely. It isn’t their space anymore, no matter how much you may frame yourself as a guide on the side or co-learner. You are still their instructor and those unspoken power dynamics do exist. So, it is important that students have these spaces away from us. But we need to be mindful that they do exist and are likely a rich source of learning for your students, in both online and face to face courses.


Why I want to try Mattermost for classroom discussions

I am preparing to teach another course in digital facilitation for Royal Roads, and this time around I want to try using Mattermost, an open source Slack-like application, as the main focal point for interactions.

I am going to do a direct replacement here for this first time around, replacing the Moodle discussion forums that would normally be used with Mattermost.

The OpenETC has an instance of Mattermost up and running and I’ll be documenting the technical processes I am going through setting up a course team in Mattermost on the OpenETC site as a contribution to the co-op. As a co-operative, the OpenETC relies on users of their services to help create documentation and use cases for their technologies as part of using the tech, so I want to contribute something back in the form of help documents and such that might be useful for other instructors in the future. I’ll post that over at the OpenETC site.

I have also been following Ian Linkletter and UBC’s use of Mattermost in a teaching & learning context.

I want to use Mattermost instead of the discussion boards in Moodle for a few reasons.

More Free Flowing Conversations

Conversations in Mattermost seem to flow more naturally than forum posts. I’ve noticed that posts in discussion forums tend to be more formal and rigid. For example, one of the things I have noticed that students often do in discussion forums is include full citations within their discussion posts. I mean, I get why that happens and I suppose that is a good academic habit to develop. But it also is distracting from the natural back and forth that a discussion is supposed to be.

I think there is something about the design of discussion forums that encourages students to write more formally than is necessary. Students tend to pour over, rewrite, and polish a discussion post like it is a final paper, and then post. I would much rather a free flowing conversation, and I think that a shift to a technology like Mattermost can help with that as I have noticed conversations in tools like Mattermost, Slack, RocketChat and Teams tend to be more free flowing and spontaneous – more like an actual discussion, which is what I am looking for.

Real time capabilities

In addition to being asynchronous, it is also a synchronous tool so students can have real time chats in it. Conversation is instantaneous and has the potential to be spontaneous. If I am in Mattermost, students can see that and we can strike up a convo in real time. The way the Moodle discussion boards are set up at my institution, posts don’t get posted to a discussion forum for 30 minutes, which is meant to give time for editing and reflective thoughts. But isn’t really a good spontaneous real time chat tool. And yeah, I know Moodle has a chat feature, but I have never seen it used.

Better support for emoticons, gifs and memes

While it may seem silly, I do think that these are legitimate tools of expression that can go a long way in helping learners build their social presence within an online class. And a little thumbs up from me on a post sends a signal that I have seen their post, and that I am there. Of course, the thumbs up doesn’t replace conversation, but it does have its place.

This is especially important in this course where I seem to disappear for four weeks when they take over being the facilitators. This is by design as I want them to be the ones establishing a teaching presence and not me. So having something like a simple thumbs up from me on a conversation post that a learner is facilitating can be a subtle, yet powerful reminder that I am still there and have a teaching presence within the course without having to be so obviously involved in the activities they have designed and are presenting to the other learners.

Also, I want students to be able to fully express themselves, and if that means posting an appropriate meme or an emoticon in response to a discussion that fits the context of the conversation, then I want to support that. Mattermost makes that simple process easier.

It is how conversation is happening these days

Tools like Mattermost is how conversation are happening on the web these days. Slack, RocketChat, Teams – whatever the tool, these tools blur the lines between synchronous and asynchronous communication in a way that discussion forums cannot. This is a Digital Facilitation course, and I want to make sure these learners are able to experience the multitudes of ways in which facilitation and conversation is occurring these days, and how a shift in technology can change the dynamics of a conversation. The tools we choose do influence the ways in which we communicate, and hopefully a switch to Mattermost from discussion forums will allow them to experience how.


Online educators’ recommendations for teaching online

Using both Chickering & Gamson's Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, and the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework from Garrison, Anderson & Archer, Dunlap and Lowenthal set about to crowdsource a series of best practice recommendations for teaching online from seasoned online educators.

Model for Online Courses Giulia Forsythe CC-BY-NC-SA

What they have come up with is an excellent primer for any would be online educator that builds on the theoretical CoI model with some pragmatic and practical suggestions on how to develop a CoI borne out of years of experience by seasoned and practiced online educators.

The crowdsourcing that Dunlap and Lowenthal undertook was a bit more involved than simply asking on Twitter for recommendations. Dunlap and Lowenthal conducted their crowdsourcing over the course of 2 years, and included a healthy does of face to face crowdsourcing at 7 different professional education conferences to come up with a robust list of best practices. 

When they did their analysis, they discovered 4 prominent themes emerging from the recommendations by the online educators.

  1. Supporting student success (example suggestion: Model what you want from students (e.g., model how to share and interact in a discussion forum, provide exemplars of projects and other assignments, and engage in think-alouds that illustrate how to read and take notes from primary sources).
  2. Providing clarity and relevance through content structure and presentation (example suggestion: Make everything explicit; say more than you think you need to say.)
  3. Establishing presence to encourage a supportive learning community (example suggestion: Use video to introduce yourself to the class as the instructor. Ask students to do the same.)
  4. Being better prepared and more agile as an educator. (example suggestion: Sometimes you have to leave the LMS and find other technologies that help you better achieve your instructional goals.)

Around these 4 themes, Dunlap and Lowenthal then list the specific strategies and approaches that were suggested to them. If you have never taught an online course before, this is a very good paper filled with practical, classroom tested advice that will provide a good starting point for your journey.

Source: Online educators’ recommendations for teaching online: Crowdsourcing in action, Joanna C. Dunlap & Patrick Lowenthal, Open Praxis, Dec 6, 2017