Another dot in the blogosphere?

Zoom foibles

Posted on: October 11, 2020

On Wednesday I said I would try out Zoom’s latest feature, Breakout Rooms.

Unlike the randomised groups that an instructor can already create in Zoom, Breakout Rooms allows an instructor to create and name “rooms” or “spaces” that students enter on their own. The easiest way to think about this is stations in a classroom that students choose to visit.

I tried this tool out and here are my thoughts and critiques.

Issue 1
I had to be the host of the meeting to do this. The host has the administrative capacity in a Zoom classroom and is the only one who can see the Breakout Rooms function. That is, if an even higher authority, the systems administrator, enables Breakout Rooms in their dashboard.

I saw this function during my trial run because a systems administrator already made me host of a session. But I did not see this when I was co-host on the actual day I needed to use it. The systems administrator had to make me the host before I could see the Breakout Rooms function appear on my tool bar.

Why is this important? Depending on an institution’s setup, the instructor might not be a host. This might be an unusual circumstance, but it does happen, particularly with folks who are new to the game or less trusting of their users.

In any case, my purpose for using Breakout Rooms was to allow students to more choose rooms to enter based on assigned topics. In other words, I was using homogenous grouping as a strategy. If I had used the random assignment function, I would have created heterogeneous groups and students would not be empowered to make a choice.

Issue 2
When I created Breakout Rooms for the first online activity, Zoom remembered these rooms even after I had closed them. This meant that I had to manually delete them one by one. This is not the case with randomised groups.

Later when I needed to assign students randomly to different groups, the requirement to delete the existing rooms first was a hassle that created a delay. Only after every room was gone was I able to activate the random assignment.

For me, this was an example of Zoom struggling to enable basic classroom strategies. It made something intuitive and seamless in class become clunky and undesirable online.

Issue 3
Here is another example of poor user interface and interaction design.

Students drop out of the online sessions all the time and attempt to come back in. They might drop out due to bad connections, frozen video, or a host of other reasons. Most system administrators require students to enter a waiting room first, so they are stuck in limbo before an instructor lets them into the the online classroom manually.

Zoom provides alerts of waiting students as audio pings, but the notifications are not brought to the frontmost layer. As a result, students might wait a long time because they are get lost in the layers of windows open on a desktop. This is like a student knocking on a locked classroom door wishing to be let in, but there are all sorts of barriers like boards, bookshelves, desks, and people in the way.

When something unexpected happens, I do not panic and I tend to troubleshoot quickly. I am the type of person that people throw laptops and phones at when they do not work. I am also a student and teacher of user interfaces and experiences, so when I say that Zoom is a woeful classroom replacement if you want to do anything more than talk, take me seriously.

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