For years, faculty have asked me to recommend a tool that would make it easy for them to conduct online video conferences with students. Every time I tried to answer this question, I felt like one of those announcers selling an experimental drug with dangerous side effects. “Do not use Connexium™ if your students are unable to install Java 10.2.9.3 on their computers. Do not operate on low-bandwidth connections or enable video sharing with more than two participants while using Connexium. Connexium is not a virtual whiteboard replacement and cannot be used to record meetings. Ask your instructional designer if Connexium is right for you.”
That all changed when I started using Zoom. Zoom provides the key features most faculty ask for with almost none of the unpleasant side effects that come with other tools I’ve tried. Here are a few examples.
- Minimal setup and installation – So far, we’ve found that students can join a meeting even if they’re in one of our computer labs or using a computer that doesn’t allow them to install desktop software. (Some of our students connect from locked-down computers at their workplaces, so this is an important feature.)
- Up to 50 participants per meeting – This is true even for free accounts. For larger meetings, it’s $54.99/month to upgrade to a limit of 100 participants.
- Android and iOS mobile apps – In my experience, these apps work very well and include the most important features available in the desktop version of Zoom.
- Screen sharing and remote control – All participants can share their screens and hosts can even take control of a participant’s machine if needed.
Above all, I like that Zoom just works. Granted, I haven’t conducted a very scientific study of exactly how often Zoom users run into technical difficulties, but I’ve tried a lot of tools over the years where 10 to 20% of users would encounter some sort of critical error—they can’t enter the meeting, their microphone isn’t recognized, they can’t type anything into the chat box, etc. Anyone who has relied on these tools for important, synchronous meetings knows how painful it can be when several people have trouble accessing or participating in a meeting. We’ve seen very few of these issues to date and most of them have been easy to work around. (The option to call in by phone is another great feature if students are able to join the meeting but have audio trouble.)
As much as I love Zoom, it isn’t perfect. It does have a few limitations that you’ll want to keep in mind as you shop around for your ideal video conferencing solution.
- Meetings are limited to 40 minutes for free accounts. Pro accounts have no meeting time limit and cost $14.99 per month.
- Zoom doesn’t allow for built-in surveys or quizzes. You could use a tool like Poll Anywhere and share the URL with students, but that would require students to navigate away from a meeting in a new window.
- You can’t divide students into groups and assign them to “breakout rooms.” Breakout rooms allow groups of students to collaborate privately and then rejoin the main meeting space to share what their group discussed. If this feature is essential for your meeting, you’ll need to use an alternative video conferencing tool such as Blackboard Collaborate, Adobe Connect, or WebEx.
It’s worth noting that I’m not alone in my Zoom adoration. At the Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) conference in March, Zoom was the tool of choice for many attendees. The conference brings together faculty and staff from institutions around the world to discuss online, global student collaborations in higher education and the role technology plays in facilitating them. Many of these collaborations involve students in countries where Internet access can be inconsistent and certain apps (such as Google Hangouts) are inaccessible due to government restrictions. These projects are extreme cases where the limits of a video conferencing tool are put to the test, and I consider it a ringing endorsement that Zoom came up again and again in COIL conference presentations and informal discussions.