Who’s Zoomin’ Who?

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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.


tscarson April 1, 2020

Great article Clint. Thanks for putting into words what I was feeling. As someone who is new to the world of EdTech I was a little uncertain how to engage in the conversation. I must confess that I am somewhat uninitiated with other service providers yet I can’t help but think that some are embracing a platform out of a sense of desperation. I wonder what the long term implications might look like. Thanks again.

Clint Lalonde April 2, 2020

This is a bit of a crazy time and I am sure mistakes will be made as we all try to react to whatever this new normal is. My hope is that institutions and those with the power to make decisions in this time do not lock themselves into long term anything right now. As for Zoom, I do feel for the platform. The incredible uptake of ANY platform at the scale that Zoom has experienced in the past few weeks would likely have revealed similar issues and privacy problems. It is heartening to see that Zoom is making strides to be responsive at this time (see the CEO blog post https://blog.zoom.us/wordpress/2020/04/01/a-message-to-our-users/). Thanks for the comment.

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Chris Lott (@fncll) April 7, 2020

The handwringing about Zoom’s functionality and basic security (both the encryption and what it takes to have secure meetings) seems excessive to me and involves not a little social signaling to one’s communities that is essentially noise in mine. I’m not so sure, though, about the privacy concerns w/r/t student data…so far I find their updates in that area mildly reassuring.

Clint Lalonde April 7, 2020

They are doing a good job at getting their messaging out, and the fact that they are transitioning their entire development team to focus on security is a good sign. They have been responsive to the problems and criticisms that have surfaced. I think that ANY system that exploded with millions of new users overnight would likely have had similar issues exposed.

For me, as an educational technologist, one of the most interesting aspects of the rush to Zoom has been how many institutions that were using other platforms found themselves under immense pressure from their user base to adopt Zoom, and how many of them are doing just that. As someone who has run institutional pilots and sandboxes on EdTech, and understands just how long an analysis and procurement process can take, to see how many institutions have gone from 0 to rolling out Zoom in a matter of weeks is astonishing to me, especially when a number of those institutions have been supporting platforms that do essentially the same thing as Zoom for years.

D'Arcy Norman April 7, 2020

BUT IT’S NOT ENCRYPTED! (let me call my CIO on this unencrypted phone to express my outrage!) etc.

BUT ANYONE CAN JOIN (if I share the link with them – also I want it to be easy to share the link with people because setting up passwords etc. is super hard and I’ll complain just as loudly if I have to do any of that myself)

It’s exhausting. People read the stuff in NYTimes etc and HAVE TO RESPOND because omg it’s obviously scary and opinions MUST be shared. And there goes the last 2 weeks of my life, dealing with meetings to address this stream of bs.

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