What Happens if Zoom Goes Down?

A five-hour disruption raises hackles and questions about contingency planning for technical problems in the age of social distancing. Said one university administrator, "2020 is a year of whatever can go wrong, has."

August 25, 2020
 
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Zoom went down Monday morning -- the first day of classes at many colleges across the country.

News of the outage of the popular web conference platform made the rounds on Twitter, among both frustrated students and faculty members. The platform is one of the most widely used for synchronous online courses, which is the main mode of instruction for many institutions this fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The frenzy over the disruption lasted only about five hours. The outage was first reported on Zoom's website at 8:51 a.m. Eastern time. By 1:10 p.m., the issue was resolved.

Still, some faculty canceled classes because of the outage or switched to different platforms

A company spokesperson did not explain what caused the outage, but provided the following statement: “We have resolved an issue that caused some users to be unable to start and join Zoom Meetings and Webinars or manage aspects of their account on the Zoom website. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience.”

The issue, which seemed to be concentrated on the East Coast and in parts of the Midwest, was small in comparison to other events in the spring. But it did raise questions about what contingency plans colleges have to address such technical difficulties in the age of "Zoom University."

At some colleges, there's a clear plan, although they're still getting systems set up.

Tulane University in New Orleans uses Microsoft Teams and plans to pivot to that platform during outages, said Noel Wong, chief information officer and vice president of information technology at the university.

But Wong said the university won't be ready to deploy the program to students for two months, which meant it wasn't ready as a backup on Monday, when 100 percent of courses were online due to an impending hurricane. The university will also have to provide formalized training so that all faculty know how to use the software, he said.

Most courses at Temple University in Pennsylvania are online, and this led to some disruption on the first day of class Monday when professors couldn't access Zoom. The university is counting on its flexibility, honed during the spring when the institution switched to remote instruction due to the pandemic, to get through any technical snafus, said Ray Betzner, assistant vice president of university communications.

What happened Monday is what typically happens during a bad snowstorm, Betzner said. Classes were shifted to accommodate the conditions.

Temple's Center for the Advancement of Teaching also taught faculty how to be flexible when teaching online, he said.

"If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it's how to be flexible," he said. "That's something that's become a hallmark."

While most faculty are using Zoom to teach online, the university has internal systems for them to post recorded lectures so they can teach asynchronously. This could be an alternative for when problems such as outages arise, Betzner said.

But the university does not have a clear contingency plan for technical outages.

"I think we would have to talk about what alternatives would be available, especially in an environment where the majority of courses are taught online," he said. "That would be a challenge."

Zoom has had its own challenges and other controversies as more colleges, businesses and individuals have started using the platform in the age of social distancing. It faced scrutiny over Zoombombing, a practice in which people disrupt meetings with profane or racist remarks. Some have raised concerns about privacy issues with the tool. And the platform was the subject of dozens of blog posts and articles about Zoom fatigue, the idea that interacting with people through a screen can be more exhausting than interacting in person.

At the University of Dayton in Ohio, some faculty members turned to Google Meet when Zoom went out, said Thomas Skill, chief information office and associate provost.

But that's not the official university plan, he said. Faculty chose to do that on their own, and Dayton didn't push that alternative because some faculty may not know how to use Google Meet.

Some faculty also used email or posted to the institution's learning management site, he said.

Dayton has several strategies "on the shelf" for these challenges, Skill said, but there isn't an official, written contingency plan. It's a Google Apps campus, which means the university could pivot to using Google Meet if Zoom went down for a substantial period of time. The e-learning team would send instructions to faculty on how to use the new platform.

"We’re in a constant state of fluid movement here, where we’re inventing every day," Skill said. "The biggest struggle for us is not so much the technology, but getting everybody to use that technology in a relatively successful way."

Sinclair Community College made contingency plans for disruptions, said Cathy Petersen, chief of public information at the Ohio college. About 85 percent of its courses are online for the fall.

"As soon as Sinclair became aware of the issue, our Information Technology staff quickly initiated a workaround solution," Petersen said in an emailed response. "Fortunately, the impact to faculty and students was limited, not only because of the timely response of IT, but due to the fact that not every student had class this morning and not all classes are using Zoom."

The contingency plan includes using other online meeting platforms, like Microsoft Teams or Virtual Classroom, or pre-produced materials, or a combination, Petersen said. (Note: This article was updated to include information about what other services faculty members at Sinclair can access.)

There's also the potential for an outage of something even more important to online learning -- the internet -- affecting the academic year.

Tulane has three internet service providers, so there aren't many single points of failure that could bring them down, Wong said.

The University of Dayton also has two internet service providers, but if the disruption were at a regional or national level, that redundancy wouldn't help much, Skill said.

"We’re all kind of stuck in the middle there," he said. "We’re hoping all these major internet service providers are doing all they can to keep things up."

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