Updated: May 8, 2020
Video conferencing software Zoom has been drawing a lot of negative attention internationally and locally for its privacy and security issues. One of the most worrying issues for its use as a live lesson platform is 'Zoombombing', when uninvited participants disrupt a meeting/ lesson.
Many professors across the United States (US) have experienced the 'Zoombombing Pandemic'. Experts there recommend the professors familiarise themselves with Zoom settings first.
In Singapore, there was a chilling case of two 'Zoombombers' who showed pornographic images during a Home-based Learning (HBL) Geography lesson to a class of Secondary one students. In response to the incident, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has announced on 9th April 2020 that MOE teachers are to suspend the use of Zoom until security issues are ironed out. [Updated on 13th April 2020: MOE will progressively allow teachers to resume use of Zoom.]
Due to the disturbing incident, many parents and educators in Singapore are wondering if Zoom lessons are still safe. According to an article published by Yahoo, a male secondary school teacher when interviewed, mentioned that "many teachers may not be as well-versed in ensuring that Zoom meetings are secure'. This is a lesson for educators who want to jump on the Zoom wagon - invest the time to be well-versed in the security features before holding lessons on a new platform.
According to a Straits Times article, Mr Bryan Tan, a lawyer from Pinsent Masons which specialises in technology law and data protection, said, "Zoom has a lot of security protection settings but users are not aware of them or are not inclined to use them." This is clearly a user issue and a sign of knowledge gap that we need to close as educators. A tool is useless to a craftsman who does not know how to use it.
An article on Fortune.com quoted a cybersecurity expert, Roy Zur, "Zoom is generally doing a good job on security and that the bulk of Zoombombings are most likely due to lax user practices rather than bugs". To ensure a safe learning environment for students, as educators, we must be stringent in our security measures.
Adopting a new platform is always daunting. Therefore we would like to share some tips on security features and measures with fellow educators who are just embarking on this journey. Hopefully this will help other fellow educators navigate uncharted waters to create safe and effective online classrooms for students.
1) Never publish meeting IDs, passwords and direct links on your website or social media.
This is a no-brainer that needs no explanation. Shockingly, there are those who are taking the easy way out.
2) Do not use your Personal Meeting ID.
Imagine giving keys to your house to everyone for one special party. Everyone will have access to your house days after. Reserve your Personal Meeting ID for the few you trust just like how you will only give your family members keys to your house. Therefore, use a generated meeting ID and require a password for all lessons. Ensure your password is unique and unpredictable. A password that contains your name may be easy for your customers to remember but just as easy for a hacker to predict.
3) Enable the Virtual Waiting Room feature.
Since 5th April 2020, Zoom has enabled the virtual waiting room by default to curb 'Zoombombing'. That serves as an additional set of gates to your online classroom. Yes, it is troublesome and time-consuming to manually admit each student into the meeting room. That just means you will have to start admitting students 5-10 minutes before the start of a lesson. However, do NOT ever sacrifice security for convenience. Never disable the waiting room function as it will help you to sieve out potential 'Zoombombers'.
4) Verify the identity of each participant.
Students are usually using their parents' Zoom accounts. Do not laugh when the display name for your student, John, is Jane (his mother's name). In cases like this, ensure you verify the identity and insist on seeing the child's face immediately once admitted. In addition, teach your students how to type in the correct display name for future lessons.
5) Be ready to use the remove button anytime.
If you are not able to verify the identity of the participant straight away, be ready to send the participant back to the waiting room until you can make further verifications. If it is confirmed that it is an uninvited guest, use the "remove" button immediately. Once removed, the suspicious guest will no longer be able to rejoin the Zoom meeting. You do not have to worry about repeatedly removing a stalker.
6) Take back control by disabling these crucial features.
One big advantage of Zoom is the amount of control it gives to the host IF the host knows how to use its tools. Again, never take the shortcut of enabling these user functions for all students just because you feel it is inconvenient. The following functions should be disabled for your participants at ALL times and only enabled for specific participants when needed:
I. Screen Share
The 'Zoombombers' who shared lewd images in the HBL class mentioned earlier used the Screen Share feature. This can be easily avoided by disabling the Screen Share button for participants and only allowing the host to Screen Share.
II. File transfer
Disable this so that your students will not be able to transfer undesired files to each other.
Students love the engagement that comes with the use of the annotation tool. Unfortunately, in the US, there have been cases of attendees randomly scribbling vulgarities with it. You will still able to engage your students by getting them to annotate. Just only use it when needed.
IV. Join before Host
This feature must be disabled as someone can sneak in before you and hijack your meetings.
7) Always plug in an extra monitor or laptop.
Even with budget constraints, do not make do with only one laptop for Zoom lessons - it is a recipe for disaster. Whenever a teacher uses the Screen Share function for PowerPoint slides, there will be a limit to the number of students' faces the teacher can view on one laptop. At Writers' Guild, all teachers use at least two screens and some even use three screens. The laptop screen is the "mother" screen for controls while the other screen is dedicated to show the full grid of all the students' faces. For any effective classroom lesson, whether in a physical or online context, the teacher needs to be able to see ALL students at ALL times.
That is one limitation of Google Hangout because it is limited to 10 most active onscreen participants. If you have a typical MOE class of 30-40 students, you will always miss out the responses of most students. Zoom, on the other hand, can show 49 onscreen participants in a grid. Are we really going to squeeze that many into an online class? This brings me to the next point.
8) Limit your online class size.
The beauty of Zoom lessons lies in its social interaction element. Many parents have given me the feedback that their children prefer group Zoom classes to 1-1 online classes. Eventhough Zoom allows for 49 onscreen, how many can you truly visually monitor as a teacher? Therefore, interactive online lessons are not as effective for large classes. As an ex-MOE teacher, I am confident of monitoring all 40 students in a physical classroom but I cannot say the same when I am behind a screen during an online classroom. We want the electrifying energy that comes with the group dynamics of a bigger class size while balancing the beautiful individual connections of a smaller class size.
9) There are no short cuts. Only hard work.
Zoom has become explosively popular because of its functionality and video quality. Thesmartlocal.com has ranked Zoom as the top video calling platform as the "tiny touches truly makes Zoom a conducive learning alternative." As with any other platforms in the world, it is impossible for Zoom to be truly secure. A smooth delivery of an online class requires numerous hours of preparation. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I hope the sharing and implementation of the tips above will useful for other fellow educators in creating a safer online learning environment.