Almost eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, Zoom has emerged as a staple of online learning among colleges across the country, with more than 700 colleges and universities now using the video communications platform.
The San Jose-based company, which is Yahoo Finance’s Company of the Year, was in some ways prepared the unprecedented shift from on-campus to online learning.
“Universities and the higher education space were some of the earliest adopters of Zoom,” the company’s chief marketing officer Janine Pelosi told Yahoo Finance.
Pelosi added that in March, as COVID-19 cases started to surge in the U.S., the company poured resources into educating customers about how to use Zoom, rather than on sales and marketing.
“This was about enabling our customers and users for Zoom,” she explained. “This was needed — this is critical infrastructure at this point.”
How professors are using Zoom
Being familiar with the technology made the transition to wholly online learning easier for some professors, though it still brought its challenges.
“I was very familiar with Zoom coming into this, because in my program we have used Zoom ... for years now, because we're a hybrid program,” Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington told Yahoo Finance. “Thankfully, because of that prior experience, it wasn't too radical of a transition,” said McClure, who teaches mostly graduate students at his university.
Part of the pivot to fully remote, however, involved mastery of the technology.
McClure said he’s been using tools on Zoom, like breakout rooms for smaller-group discussions and polls and quizzes to make the classes feel more energetic.
Some Zoom features also made it easier for non-English speakers to participate.
“I liked the idea that you automatically get a transcript of the class with a video when you record it,” Daniel Friedrich, associate professor of curriculum at Teachers College, Columbia University, told Yahoo Finance. “For students that are non-English speakers, or [learning it] as a second language, it’s very useful to have sort of a transcript up here automatically when they watch the recording.”
Jeff Cornell, a theater professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said learning how to teach his drama students online was an adjustment, but they adapted.
“After a few little format and technical things were learned … [Zoom] was actually quite flexible,” he said. “Now, things that were lost were movement, right? Body language … yet I could still make an entrance into the scene ... I could be quite close to you. So there's ways that we can even explore space in this media.”
Cornell also uses breakout rooms to help students practice in smaller groups.
“If I'm assigning scenes, all my scene partners are in different rooms and they're working privately, and then I can go and drop into all those little breakout rooms and see how they're doing,” he explained. And the ability to record and play back their pieces was exceptionally useful, he said.
In some ways, virtual learning amid the pandemic also forged closer connections.
“I've seen a different mindset where faculty and students have been more flexible and accepting, because everyone knows that we're all going through a variety of challenges,” Jenna Sheffield, assistant provost for curriculum innovation at the University of New Haven, told Yahoo Finance.
“There's something about Zooming with your professor when they've got their kid climbing all over them or something along those lines, that sort of humanizes that.”
And the same situation happens with the students, she added. “It's one thing for students to tell you, ‘Oh, I'm having wifi problems’, but it’s another thing when you're experiencing it, because they're cutting out on you.”
“It's enabled a different kind of relationship and empathy between faculty and students,” Sheffield said. “And I hope that carries over” post-pandemic, she added.
‘Starting from scratch’
But for many students and faculty, the struggle to pivot was real. Though no fault of Zoom’s, this entire year of remote learning has been a setback for many.
Back home in Montgomery, Alabama, Spelman College student Bethany Griffin found it easy to pivot to online learning, but the fact that it’s been months since she stepped foot on campus has started to weigh on her.
“The worst part for me is because Spelman is very small and very intimate, so our class discussions are very engaging and we're able to see someone you might have multiple classes with,” the 21-year-old political science major said.
Participating in class discussions was also challenging, because it didn’t feel as collaborative, she added. And one of her classes had so much work, since the semester had been cut short, that her focus “shifted from me actually being engaged in the class and trying to learn, to just trying to make sure that the assignments are done and I get a grade,” Griffin explained.
The transition had also been tough on faculty, Sheffield said. “We weren’t a university that had a whole lot of online instruction before, so some people were really starting from scratch.”
‘This year has been rough’
“Honestly, this year has been rough,” 25-year-old grad school student Aamirr Bailey-Fenderson told Yahoo Finance. His university, Rutgers in Camden, New Jersey, had opted for virtual learning this fall to avoid bringing the students back and risking a COVID-19 outbreak.
But that totally “changed the end of my college experience,” Bailey-Fenderson said. He is currently finishing up his last year pursuing a dual Masters degree in criminal justice and public administration.
“As someone who learns by seeing it done in front of him, having virtual classes and asynchronous learning has been difficult to say the least,” he said. “Learning on Zoom has been terrible, it’s harder to pay attention while being home and not in class. Factors at home can affect how I am focused on class and homework, especially without having a work space.”
Griffin said she delayed her Spelman graduation by a semester so that she didn’t have to spend her final semester fully online.
“I was concerned about me wanting to go to law school, and the process of transitioning from virtual undergrad to a virtual law school kind of threw me off,” she explained.
The issue of access
Internet access and technology issues have also been a hurdle. Many students without stable wifi at home were left out. For instance, according to one report by Education Trust-West, the spring shift to online was “extremely disruptive” for college students of color and those from lower-income households: 13% of students of color, and 14% of students from lower-income households in California lacked internet access.
The pandemic has exacerbated other problems for students. Some are struggling with layoffs, evictions, and mental health issues, Josh Martin, spokesperson for Quinsigamond Community College (QCC) in Massachusetts, told Yahoo Finance.
Schools like QCC have had to go above and beyond to just keep students engaged: Martin said that they had identified 570 students in danger of failing, and aggressively reached out to them over a two-week period to reduce that number to 130.
He says the school is “still working with the remaining students to ensure that they receive the help they need to successfully finish their semesters.”
I’ve been kicked out of my mental health policy class on zoom over 10 times since 8:30. I pay lots of money to get kicked off of zoom each week because my dorm WiFi sucks for zoom. I hate zoom university.
— anxious coquito bb (@bbmrprincess) September 17, 2020
‘Zoom fatigue is real’
And it’s not just students who are struggling to stay connected and motivated.
“Zoom fatigue is real,” Sheffield said. “There's no time to decompress. Usually you might be walking 10 minutes from one meeting to the next and you can be preparing or thinking about what you're going into, but now it's you click out of one zoom meeting and you click into the next one.”
Aarthi Swaminathan is a reporter for Yahoo Finance, covering education. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @aarthiswami.
Reggie Wade is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @ReggieWade.