In the midst of an infectious global pandemic with no clear resolutions in sight, two months before a major presidential election that may determine the course (or recourse) of a country that has been upended by political, social and physical harms, first-year students in many colleges and universities started back today on course for an education like they had rarely if ever experienced. Then Zoom shut down.
The videoconferencing platform, which has been largely adopted across institutions of learning as a way to connect necessarily remote presences during a time when learning in person has become potentially unsafe, has been hailed as a solution to a myriad of our country’s ongoing and historic issues. Yet the platform has been rebounding for months from public acknowledgment that its flagship software had many security risks, leaving meetings and participants of those meetings open to any number of intrusive, harmful interactions.
Yesterday, on the first day of classes for many colleges and universities, Zoom crashed at approximately 9 a.m. Eastern time in major markets, widely impacting the East Coast and European customers. Without backup plans in place -- or secondary tools organized in advance -- the disruption left instructors, students, parents and administrators facing error messages instead of curriculum, blank windows instead of lessons or welcomes. Working as an instructional technologist -- the sole instructional technologist -- at a small, historically residential college in Pennsylvania, I can say, this hurt.
Colleges and universities have been struggling for months to manage and maintain enrollment goals and, at the same time, deliver education that is ethical and safe. Parents, many now back to work, have been figuring out how to help their students achieve academically, and have pivoted to make room again at home for those students who were expecting to live in residence halls this academic year. Bloggers, educational consultants and social commenters have been providing as much remote guidance as they can from afar.
But yesterday, the virtual colleges themselves became inaccessible to learners. And even if it was just for a morning’s worth of classes, the impact cannot be understated. Consumers of education will blame the systems of education, when many colleges and universities acquired these specific tools because of Zoom’s presence and promises in the marketplace: promises to do better than before and remain on the cutting edge for educators.
Historically, education has represented hope: for safety, ethical and philosophical betterment and connection. On the very first day of many students' freshman year, such traumas -- even momentary and technical in nature -- are now emotional, psychological, philosophical. They especially impact those students without the privileges of material wealth and/or home-life stability, or who have not been guaranteed access to education.
Have all of us depended on the technologies we have come to develop, consume and acquire at the expense of our abilities to solve challenges and confront obstacles as a society and culture? As social media assuages and exacerbates loneliness, and as we log in to videoconferences from our couch in lieu of hugging a friend or family member -- hoping for technology and science to come to our rescue, someday -- we are finding again and again that technologies aren’t reliable.
In my professional role, I see this more clearly than most people. We instructional technologists field questions from college and university faculty members about “why things don’t work well” almost every day. The answer, in short, is due to constraints: the constraints of inadequate human creativity and ingenuity, of capitalist markets that choose features that generate revenue over human connection, and of the inability of humans to manage existential and environmental risks that are inherent in the tools we design to scaffold our society.
When Zoom went down, many of our hearts sank. Bug fixes will come, to be sure, but I hope that we’re all able to reflect on the values that led us to this moment to begin with. Perhaps right now -- as the engineers at Zoom work to maintain as well as restore platform service -- is the time to take a break and to ask ourselves what we really want and figure out how to make intentional plans to find those things again.