Support the use of Zoom by APS teachers.

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A request to the APS School Board

Since Arlington County schools will begin the 2020/21 school year remotely, we must make the virtual school experience as positive and robust as possible for our students, teachers and families.  

The foundation of any good virtual program rests on the video conferencing platform(s) used. From our experience this past spring, Microsoft Teams was not an accessible or user-friendly solution for successful remote learning.  We would like to bring your attention to the issues many of us had with Microsoft Teams and implore you to make a change.  

It is our hope that Arlington can provide a successful remote learning experience by providing the ability for staff, students, and teachers to use Zoom.  Virtual Virginia and Edmentum both utilize Zoom as their synchronous learning video conferencing platform-- We urge APS to follow in the footsteps of their partners who specialize in online learning.  

Accessibility 

For a truly equitable online learning system to exist the video platform needs to be simple and accessible for every student and for every class.  Though it is an excellent start, "accessibility" is more than giving families internet and devices.  It is also providing a system that is easy to access.  Getting onto their online class meetings should be as easy as walking into a school building.  If it is not, then it is an inequitable, non-accessible system.

We have heard story after story from both teachers and families of students not able to access class meetings on Teams (despite setting everything up as directed and in many cases having made it onto calls without issue in the past).  Getting on the class calls easily is the most basic requirement in making a synchronous program viable.  

In contrast, Zoom is easy to get on and, other than personal internet issues, the overwhelming feedback is that it is extremely rare for a participant to not be able to access their meeting or class.   

 

Audio & Video Quality

Most Arlington students will be learning at home with siblings who are also logged onto online classes & parents who are working from home. It can be difficult or impossible to have a quiet spot without distracting background sounds coming into your call.

Zoom is able to remove many of these background noises through noise cancellation and it does an excellent job on I-pads and chrome books, not just computers. Teams recently added a noise cancellation feature but we have found this new Teams feature inferior to the one Zoom offers. Background noise can ruin the learning experience for everyone but especially those students with attention, hearing, or other learning differences.  

Zoom video and audio quality is superior to Teams, especially when multiple people in the same household are all on separate calls. This is especially true for families with the least expensive or subsidized Internet connection, or an older wifi router.  Even families that have the fastest internet connections available to them and newest wifi routers report having trouble getting sustained video and audio connections with Teams.  Zoom is more optimized in low bandwidth situations.  

 

Usability and Familiarity

The popularity of Zoom exploded as soon as the stay-at-home orders began. Many of us had never heard of Zoom before March, but have since become experts at it.  Zoom is an intuitive platform which made it easy for us to pick it up almost instantly.  In contrast, teachers and students used Teams for several months in the spring and many still had difficulty using it by the end of the school year.

While APS banned teachers from using Zoom for APS business, parents immediately started hosting virtual playdates and class meetings on Zoom. Students quickly figured out the user interface.   

Zoom is now used for the majority of online courses, tutoring sessions (many with APS teachers), and camps our county's children are attending. Play dates, happy hours, and parent meetings are happening on Zoom.  Virtual Virginia and other online programs, which APS is utilizing as part of its plan, uses Zoom for their synchronous delivery of content.  

Students and teachers will be coming into Fall 2020 already familiar with Zoom.  Time is short and instead of having to learn a complicated video conferencing system, with Zoom most teachers will be able to move right to learning best practices and techniques for how to effectively teach their students online.  

With Teams, even features that should be easy for teachers to figure out were not:

-- I want the students to all see each other, not just whoever is talking or four or six people at a time.  My class has 20+ students.
-- I always want my students to see my face, even if I’m not the one talking.
-- I want to mute certain students, and not let them unmute themselves.
-- I want to break up the students into smaller groups for discussion, and then bring everybody back into the main chat.
-- I want to show a video with sound, and have it just work.
-- I want to share a learning game, and let the students take turns controlling it.

These are just some of the things teachers struggled with on Teams, but would and likely have already mastered on Zoom.

Microsoft has admitted the shortcomings in Teams and promised updates for this fall. Even with these updates, parents, teachers, and students will still be starting school this fall deeply familiar with Zoom, and the majority of us will have not had any experience with the yet-to-be-released version of Teams.  

 

Security and Software Integration

Many of us have heard that there were security issues on Zoom back in March. Zoom has taken this problem seriously, hiring the head of security from Facebook, and has made significant changes to improve security, such as requiring passwords to all meetings. This is why businesses did not abandon Zoom, hospitals and doctors offices have been using Zoom for tele-health and why many companies have switched to Zoom.  New York City Public Schools, who made the news in March when they temporarily banned Zoom due to security concerns, began allowing teachers to use Zoom again in May after security updates.  

In addition, Zoom integrates with existing login/security systems such as Microsoft and Google, as well as tools APS already uses, including Teams and Canvas.

 

Examples of the experiences reported by students, families & teachers:

We have heard story after story of the stress and emotional toll that the experience of using Teams caused in the spring.  

Some examples of the experiences reported: 

-- "I woke up each morning with a knot in my stomach wondering if I was going to be able to get my children onto their Team meetings that day."

-- "I was able to get on one day & the next day I wasn't.  I did everything the same but I was no longer able to get on to my class call.  I was left out of my class completely because my teacher couldn't help me since she was already on the call."  

-- "My child cried every time there was a Teams meeting-- he couldn't see his classmates, didn't know who was talking & no one could see him (even the teacher).  He has been in Zoom camps all summer and it is a completely different experience."  

-- "My child had to say his name every time he spoke because otherwise no one knew who was talking since they could not see each other.  Many times he just had to say his name over and over in order to be heard."

-- "The teacher (no fault of her own) was unable to control the class because she couldn’t see most of the students and the video and sound quality were poor.  We have never had that experience on a Zoom call."   

-- “My son’s teacher is doing tutoring on Teams and every day there is a technical issue.  My other son has been tutoring on Zoom, also with a former teacher, and there haven’t been any technical issues at all” 

 

Conclusion

We’ve learned a lot from our experiences this spring, and we hope we can use them to make online synchronous education successful for all students, easy to use for all teachers, and welcome by parents. Because of its superior usability, audio/visual quality and our community's familiarity with the user-friendly product, it is our recommendation that APS enables Zoom for all remote teacher/student interactions.  This change will be the foundation of building a successful synchronous program for Arlington County students.