Educators across the world have been thrust into an unprecedented situation because of efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Billions of students are now forced to learn online, mainly through a variety of video conferencing tools rife with security and operational issues.

The most popular of them all, Zoom, has faced the brunt of criticism due to its widespread use at 90,000 schools across 20 countries. The term “Zoom bombing” has suddenly become part of the lexicon as millions of educators and students descended on social media sites to complain about a variety of issues with the platform. The FBI even released a notice about security issues with Zoom and other video conferencing platforms due to “multiple reports of conferences being disrupted by pornographic and/or hate images and threatening language.”

In an unprecedented and hotly debated move, the New York City Department of Education banned the use of Zoom, writing in an internal memo on April 3 that teachers were no longer allowed to use the platform at all. New York City has the biggest public education system in the country, serving 1.1 million students.

On Sunday, Department of Education Chancellor Richard Carranza released a statement on Twitter saying that he has instructed all teachers to now use Google Meet and Microsoft Teams instead of Teams, writing that the city’s goal “is to get more classrooms video conferencing on a safe and secure platform.”

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“We know the transition away from Zoom will take time for many educators and we will support them. We know maintaining continuity of teaching means it won’t happen overnight. Less than 2 weeks ago, our heroic educators began transforming instruction for 1.1M kids, bringing the nation’s largest public school system online. They rose to this challenge with grace, and our whole city is grateful for how they’ve learned to teach and lead remotely,” Carranza wrote.

This decision set off a wave of criticism from technology experts and educators who acknowledged the security and privacy issues with Zoom but said so many of the problems were a function of how people were using it.

In response to the wave of criticism, Zoom’s CEO released a blog post discussing the issues people have had and a lengthy explainer on things teachers can do to protect classrooms. In a statement, Zoom also told TechRepublic that they are “in continued dialogue with NYC’s Department of Education about how Zoom can be of service during this time.”

TechRepublic spoke to a variety of experts about New York City’s decision and what effect it will have on educators in the country’s largest school system.

Educators question “knee-jerk” decision

Many educators and professors said the decision by the city to unilaterally ban Zoom was hasty and showed a lack of understanding of the deep-rooted issues many teachers are having with the platform.

One of the many complaints New York City teachers had stemmed from students sharing meeting passwords, leading to random students or people gaining access to classes and disrupting sessions with unruly comments or offensive language.

Monica Bulger, senior fellow with the Future of Privacy Forum, said that while this is an emergency situation and not the best case scenario for online learning, the issues families and schools are struggling with are not unexpected.

“It was a knee-jerk reaction to use Zoom and now it’s a knee-jerk reaction to ban it. Zoom is just a technology and the underlying problem is that it wasn’t vetted properly for school use—Zoom offers EDU accounts—and there was not sufficient training or support for teachers to ensure safety, privacy, and etiquette,” Bulger said.

“Zoom is not alone in having these kinds of security concerns, in fact a majority of apps do not account for the safety and well-being of children who use them. Whether we’re talking about Instagram, WhatsApp, Youtube, or Facebook, the majority of apps put the onus of responsibility for privacy and safety on the user. This moment shines a light on why this approach is broken. It serves business interests, but creates vulnerabilities for users, especially children and families.”

She added that moving from Zoom to Microsoft to Google does not address the underlying issues of a lack of vetting of education technologies and a lack of support and training for those who use them.

Steve Smith, chief information officer for Cambridge Public Schools and a founding member of the Massachusetts Student Privacy Alliance, also said the decision was an overreaction and a result of not truly understanding the issues.

“I equate this to folks that argue that we could not be using Google in our schools as they do not understand that GSuite for Edu has different agreements as well as various levels of protections that are in place through configurations,” he said.

He noted that in the FBI warning about “Zoom bombing,” they include a number of best practices that would help mitigate some of the issues teachers are facing, including making all meetings in Zoom private, requiring passwords, mandating waiting rooms to manage attendance, sharing teleconference or classroom links directly, changing screen sharing settings to “Host Only,” and ensuring everyone is using the most updated version of the platform.

Smith went on to explain that Zoom has additional protections designed specifically for K-12 schools but that it was up to states to provide teachers with training and mandate their own security measures to protect students.

“Until there is an actual audit or a particular application comes under extreme scrutiny, such as a breach or some other extraordinary circumstance, technical gaps are bound to exist. Not because of ill intent, but because there was no framework to audit against. The intense pressure being put on Zoom due to the COVID19 move to distance learning, one could say, is crowdsourcing this auditing pressure,” Smith said, adding that school districts that had a mature student data privacy program with well-vetted and approved applications and Data Privacy Agreements in place were much better positioned to transition to distance learning.

Issues with Zoom or all video platforms?

Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate with Comparitech, said this had more to do with a lack of training provided by New York City’s education department than anything specific to Zoom. He echoed Smith’s comments, saying many teachers were not configuring their Zoom settings correctly, allowing third parties to enter virtual classrooms.

But part of what made Zoom so popular in the first place was its ease of use, noted Chris Rothe, co-founder and chief product officer for Red Canary.

“Ultimately, the concerns raised with Zoom in the last few weeks are a great illustration of the balance of usability and security. From the start, Zoom was built to be a video conferencing platform that ‘just works.’ In order to get that ‘it just works’ user experience, they did some things that are questionable or just wrong from a security perspective,” Rothe said.

“You might ask why these issues are coming to light now rather than for the last 9 years while Zoom was growing like wildfire? This is a natural occurrence when an application all of a sudden gets a lot more usage, which leads to more eyes on it and more scrutiny. That leads to vulnerabilities and design flaws being identified at a faster rate.”

Concerns for parents

Researchers and privacy advocates have long identified the need for consistent vetting of the safety of technologies and apps that schools use, Bulger said, noting that the problem is that the majority of schools do not have the financial or human resources to conduct this vetting, train staff or stay abreast of constant changes to privacy policies of apps and tech platforms.

Parents are also being left in the lurch, trying to learn somewhat complicated educational technology with training that is “limited to non-existent for most districts,” Bulger said.

Vikki Katz, an associate professor in the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, said parents have had to rapidly adjust to suddenly being the directors of their children’s educations and deal with all of the stresses of learning new platforms.

Even parents who are adept at using technology are struggling to manage the massive learning curve needed for any new platform, and those who have little understanding of technology or have to work during the day are left scrambling to help their children with what little experience they have.

Katz reiterated that few could have seen a calamity of this size coming and that very few if any school districts could have prepared adequately for a shift this significant.

“No one saw this coming, and frankly, had any district had such a plan in place, they would likely have been criticized for unnecessary expenditures of resources. Teachers and administrators in NYC and across the country are working tirelessly to try to do this as well as they can, and missteps and backtracking in this rapidly changing, unexpected set of circumstances, is inevitable,” Katz said.

“What could have been done better beforehand relates to digital inequality: during the Obama Administration, schools nationwide were wired with broadband through the ConnectEd program. Efforts to ensure that every home had a quality broadband connection should have been the next priority.”

She noted that these problems are affecting disadvantaged students more than any because of the additional stress placed on parents who are not able to get access to consistent, quality access to the internet or well-functioning digital devices outside of schools.

Governments around the country could have, and should have, been more prepared on those fronts, she said, adding that every school-age child in America should have a home with broadband connectivity and a high-functioning laptop.

“Schools must prioritize having knowledgeable teachers virtually available to troubleshoot tech issues. This is the challenge schools are least likely to address, and it may be the most important of all. I led the first national survey of digital inequality in lower-income families, and it is clear that being ‘under-connected’ is not randomly distributed,” Katz said.

“The students who will have the hardest time learning online are those least likely to have a parent who can help them when they get stuck.”

Image: Zoom