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Teachers' Essential Guide to Zoom

How are teachers using Zoom? Is it safe for students? Learn more about this popular distance learning tool.

Erin Wilkey Oh | April 27, 2020

This piece was co-authored by Caroline Knorr.

When school campuses around the world closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the video-conferencing tool Zoom became a household name practically overnight. Launched in 2013 to connect remote office workers, Zoom is now one of the go-to platforms for online learning. Zoom's simple setup, ability to accommodate 100 participants at once, and low cost make it a popular option for distance learning programs. But Zoom has faced some significant privacy and security challenges, which leave schools and teachers wondering whether it's the right tool for teaching and learning. If you're considering using Zoom with your students, read on to learn more about its key features and how to use the tool as safely as possible.

What is Zoom?
How does Zoom work?
Do my students need a Zoom account to use it for class?
What is Zoombombing?
What are the safest settings for Zoom meetings?
What can students do in Zoom?
How can teachers use Zoom?
What are Zoom virtual backgrounds?
Should I be worried about Zoom's privacy?

What is Zoom?

Zoom is a video-chatting tool similar to Skype and Google Hangouts. You can use it to hold online classes, visit virtually with friends and relatives, and even join remote events like birthday parties. For teachers, the free version of Zoom provides a suite of useful features, including the ability to host meetings with up to 100 participants, and to allow students to wordlessly signal to the teacher that they have a question, brainstorm on a virtual whiteboard, and collaborate on projects by annotating documents on other students' screens. Plus Zoom has removed the 40-minute meeting limit on free accounts for K-12 educators

However, an upgraded version of Zoom -- ideally managed by your school or district technology team -- will provide additional options and control, including the ability to record, an admin dashboard, managed domains, single sign-on, and more. With any new edtech tool, it's important that you consult your school or district administrator before jumping in. In addition, you'll need to make sure parents give consent for using Zoom and that they are fully aware of how it's going to be used and what protections you have in place for students.

How does Zoom work?

You can use almost any device, including a smartphone (so long as it has a camera) to download the Zoom app from the company's Download Center, iTunes, or Google Play. You can schedule a meeting using the app or when logged in to the web client. You enter the topic, date, time, and other info, then click "schedule" to create your meeting. Send the 11-digit meeting ID and/or the link to join the meeting with your students. 

Before a session, it's always a good idea to open the Zoom software and test your webcam and microphone to make sure they're working to avoid technical surprises once you're live. You can also test your internet connection by joining a test meeting (if your Wi-Fi connection is unstable, you can improve video performance by connecting directly to your ethernet). Get more tips on setting expectations and prepping students for Zoom classes.

Do my students need a Zoom account to use it for class?

Typically, kids don't need a Zoom account if they're just joining a class scheduled by the teacher (only meeting hosts need an account). However, teachers can restrict the session to "authorized attendees," which requires participants either to log in to Zoom or enter a password in order to join the class. Restricting participants is a handy safety and security measure that prevents uninvited guests from gaining access. Be aware that students under the age of 16 are not supposed to create their own Zoom accounts per Zoom's terms of use. It's best to talk with your school or district technology leaders to determine the best process for students to access your Zoom meetings. 

What is Zoombombing?

Zoombombing is when someone hijacks a session by displaying inappropriate material using their video camera or share-screen function. The ease with which you can join a Zoom meeting has exposed some security weaknesses in the Zoom software, including the ability for trolls to "crash the party" with an ill-gotten meeting ID (they're not hard to find). And in the unprecedented shift to online learning during the coronavirus pandemic, it didn't take long for student pranksters to discover the loophole created by the ability to share anything on their screens (including porn) to disrupt classes. These and other privacy and security issues led to bans on Zoom for schools, including the New York City Department of Education and the Berkeley Unified School District in California. Following these issues, Zoom released a series of privacy and security measures to address them.

What are the safest settings for Zoom meetings?

Zoom was originally intended to be used in business settings, where most folks try their best to act professionally. Kids, not so much. That's why it's really important for both teachers and students to know the best settings and features to use to boost learning and minimize disruption. Teachers can prevent Zoombombing, for example, by requiring participants to register for the meeting or use a password, and by disabling screen sharing. Here are a few key settings for keeping the peace in class.

  • Random meeting ID. Though you can use the same meeting ID for every class, Zoom recommends teachers use random meeting IDs (which is an option when they're creating the invitation). It's less convenient, but it's more secure.

  • Meeting password. These are turned on by default for education users. When a participant manually enters a meeting ID, they are prompted to enter the password.

  • Mute. Participants can -- and should -- mute themselves when they're not speaking. Teachers can also mute students individually or all at once, and can set up the meeting to automatically mute all participants upon entering.

  • Chat. The teacher can control whether students can chat publicly and privately during a meeting.

  • Disable video. As a participant, you can join the meeting with audio only and then turn on the video once you're ready. Teachers can also disable an individual participant's video.

  • Nonverbal feedback. These optional little icons let students raise their hands, give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and even let the teacher know they need a break, all without interrupting the class. 

  • Lock the meeting. Remember when your stickler-for-punctuality algebra teacher used to lock the classroom door after the bell rang? Teachers can lock a Zoom meeting so no one else can enter until the teacher personally approves them.

  • Waiting rooms. This is like a lobby or a velvet rope at a club: Participants are held in a virtual room, and the teacher admits them one by one to make sure no outsiders gain access. 

  • Turn off file transfer. Students can share memes, GIFs, and even quiz answers through the chat -- unless the teacher disables this feature.

What can students do in Zoom?

Besides just voice-chatting, Zoom gives students plenty of tools to interact with each other and the teacher, work together, and even break off into smaller groups -- just as if they were sitting with each other in a classroom. But if teachers don't need these capabilities for class, or if they're causing problems, they can all be turned off. With a little preparation -- setting some norms and frontloading key digital citizenship skills -- you and your students can enjoy the benefits of Zoom's interactive features. Here's just a sampling of what you can do if these features are enabled:

  • Share screen. This allows the entire class to view one person's computer screen. Students can even annotate a document on another student's computer. Teachers can restrict this so only the teacher's screen can be shared. Teachers can also disable the annotation feature so students can't annotate.

  • Whiteboard. This is a brainstorming tool that lets students toss ideas around, such as for a group project.

  • Breakout rooms. The teacher can divide students up into smaller groups, then bring the entire class back together. Teachers can pre-assign the groups before class, assign them manually during the meeting, or have Zoom randomly break students into groups. (Get more information on breakout rooms here.)

  • Raise hand, clap, disagree, speed up, slow down. These are icons students can use to let the teacher know they have a question or comment, react to something, or ask the teacher to talk faster or slower.

  • Chat with the group. Students can send a message to the entire class.

  • Private chat. Just like passing notes, students can send direct, personal messages to other kids in the class. The teacher can't view private chats between students. The teacher can disable this feature for students.

How can teachers use Zoom?

Teachers are using Zoom in different ways, depending on their skills, their students' needs, and direction from their districts. Here are a few specific ways teachers can use Zoom for distance learning:

  • Record and share lessons. Because many students do not have reliable internet at home or are sharing devices with other family members, asynchronous lessons -- where students can view prerecorded lessons on their own schedules -- make distance learning more equitable. You can use the recording feature in Zoom to create video lessons, then share the videos with students to watch later.

  • Teach live lessons. For schools and districts that have solved the technology access issue, synchronous -- or live -- lessons are an option. Teachers set up a regular class time on Zoom and guide students through remote learning activities. 

  • Flip the classroom. With the "flipped" classroom model, teachers assign students new material to learn on their own (videos, reading assignments, etc.), then use class time to help clarify the new information and put it to use. Use your live Zoom classes to answer questions about what students learned, and lead them in activities to apply their new knowledge.

  • Office hours. Some teachers are scheduling regular "office hours," which allow students to drop in and chat informally with teachers and peers.

  • Circle time, story time, or show-and-tell days. For pre-K and elementary school students, teachers are using Zoom to provide continuity and community. Little ones can't really hang with video conferencing for too long, but they do enjoy a chance to see their friends, listen to a story, and show off their toys, pets, baby sisters, and the like.

Zoom offers lots of information for teachers, including step-by-step guides, webinars, video tutorials, and more. See a collection of Zoom's most helpful resources for teachers on Wide Open School.

What are Zoom virtual backgrounds?

Instead of your messy bedroom, you can make it look like you're calling in from the set of Inside Out, Tiger King, or a world in Minecraft. That's right: You can change your background to literally anything you wish, including video. (This feature doesn't always work perfectly for everyone, as the growing collection of internet Zoom fails attests. Get step-by-step instructions on setting up virtual backgrounds.) Teachers can turn off this feature if it becomes distracting or students misuse it.

Should I be worried about Zoom's privacy?

In addition to the security problems, Zoom has struggled with privacy issues. The company maintains it doesn't sell user data and protects personal information collected from kids under 13. However, there are still privacy issue areas where Zoom falls short, including its limited, but still targeted, use of advertising and third-party tracking that may affect students in K–12. (Ads don't appear on Zoom itself but on other sites kids visit after using it.) The safest way to protect kids' data from being tracked and collected is for kids to use one account, such as their school email, just for Zoom. That's because educational accounts are part of school subscriptions that come with stronger privacy protections. Read more about what Zoom's privacy policy updates mean for educators.