Schools Ditch Zoom Amid Concerns Over Online Learning Security

Apr 6, 2020
Originally published on April 7, 2020 10:00 am

Updated at 5:25 p.m. ET

School leaders in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas have announced they're discontinuing their use of the Zoom videoconferencing service for distance learning because of security, privacy, harassment and other concerns. And individual schools in Los Angeles and elsewhere are also switching to alternatives, like Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and WebEx.

As NPR reported last week, the FBI issued a warning about incidents of school Zoom meetings being disrupted. There have been reports of racist and pornographic imagery being shown to young children. Some intrusions may originate with students pranking their classmates, but Gizmodo reported there are also organized "Zoombombing" campaigns online.

Zoom has soared in popularity as people around the world shelter in place to protect from the spreading coronavirus. Partly this is because Zoom meetings can be set up to be accessed from anywhere by anyone with just a web link — no account or software download required. But this ease of use also makes it easier for intruders to show up.

While not designed as an education technology product, the company had advertised itself for use by K-12 schools during coronavirus-related school closures, making premium features available to educators for free.

In a statement to NPR, Zoom referred educators to an updated set of security tips and said it had updated the default settings for its education-based users to give more control to teachers and other meeting hosts.

"Zoom is committed to providing educators with the tools and resources they need on a safe and secure platform, and we are in continued dialogue with various school districts about how Zoom can be of service during this time."

For students, parents and teachers, the abandonment of Zoom means once again having to learn the ins and outs of a new videoconferencing system. Some are asking whether it wouldn't be better to keep Zoom and simply use the privacy and security controls that were always available.

Amelia Vance, a student privacy expert with the nonprofit Future of Privacy Forum, recommends that schools stick with platforms designed for education, such as Google's G Suite for Education.

Still, considering that Zoom was not designed as an education technology product, she says, "I don't know that Zoom is any worse, and it may in many ways be better than a lot of the platforms out there, especially when it comes to security, accessibility and certainly when it comes to ease of use."

But, she says, Zoom could have anticipated these privacy issues. "And now Zoom has the very difficult task of attempting to regain trust."

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So many children around the country are now using computers to connect to their classrooms, but that just got a little more complicated. Large school districts, including New York City, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., have announced that they are dropping the use of the Zoom video conferencing service. Anya Kamenetz of the NPR education team has been following this and joins us. And just to mention here before we start the conversation, Zoom is a sponsor of NPR. And, Anya, can you just start by explaining this decision by school districts?

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Sure. So in just the last few weeks as all these schools rushed to go online, Zoom became a really popular option for classroom meetings because, you know, people found it really easy to use. You can set up the video conferences so that anyone can get in without downloading software or using a password. But, of course, that ease of use also can be a security problem. The FBI issued a warning last week that school Zoom meetings were being disrupted with racist and pornographic harassment. There are reports online of organized, quote, "Zoom-bombing" campaigns, some of them specifically targeting little children.

GREENE: Oh, wow. What is the company saying about these concerns?

KAMENETZ: So first, it's worth noting that Zoom was not designed from the ground up for use in schools, unlike some other platforms. Zoom did change its default security settings for all its education clients. In a statement to NPR, they said they're continuing to reach out to schools and districts to make sure they understand how to use the platform safely. And the CEO, Eric Yuan, told CNN that he's working with New York City schools to try to address these security concerns.


ERIC YUAN: Make sure Zoom-bombing will not happen again. We are still in the process of working together with them.

GREENE: OK. So the company says they're working to fix this, but for the moment, I mean, teachers - I just think about it - have become so dependent on this kind of technology with students at home. They've had to adjust to this so quickly. Are there other options for schools, for families and parents?

KAMENETZ: Well, there are other options. But, you know, there's some really strong feelings here, David, because, of course, the privacy and harassment concerns are very real. On the other hand, you know, parents and teachers just barely settled into distance learning, and now they're being asked to learn a whole new platform in just a couple of days. I have to say where I live, in New York City, where I have a daughter in public school, especially people are upset because they also just learned that spring break's entirely canceled. So teachers and families have no extra time to get up to speed. And then, you know, if you want to zoom out a little bit - no pun intended...

GREENE: Right.

KAMENETZ: ...There are some people who feel like this whole conversation is actually pretty misguided because we have so many students out there who still are not able to connect to distance learning. They don't have the equipment. They don't have the connectivity or maybe even an adult at home to help them. So then rather than have this conversation about the right software platform, these advocates say maybe we should be focusing on getting students supplies that they need and maybe creating lessons that can reach all of the students out there, including those who may just have, like, nothing more than a parent's smartphone to borrow.

GREENE: What a moment. And so many decisions to make for so many parents, including you.

KAMENETZ: Yes, absolutely.

GREENE: NPR's Anya Kamenetz, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.