You can view related posts on where there is Hope in This Health Crisis, using video conferencing in schools, a focus on Remote Learning in Special Education, and Broader Educational Resources for Use During Quarantine.
Everyone’s online right now and web meeting platforms are all the rage. It’s how families are staying in touch, friends are having fun, and classrooms can continue live learning. I personally used them to engage in encouraging interactions with students, training with other teachers, virtual happy hour with some teacher friends , and I hosted our first Virtual Game Night: Quarantine Edition on Friday.
And while there are dozens of available platforms from device specific (Apple’s FaceTime) to audience specific (MyLiveDistrict for schools), Zoom has reigned and gotten the lion’s share of the attention. Part of that is because it has a vast array of features and is fairly easy to use across devices, but it’s also because it’s the one everyone knows. And not all of that attention has been positive.
Meetings Gone Wrong
You have likely seen the stories on tv or in your social media feed. There are the silly accidental ones where people’s new coworkers (children and pets) popped into frame or when family members or the attendees didn’t realize their pants-optional parade was widely viewed. I personally have seen cats cross keyboards, had my kids come and yell questions, and a teacher forget to mute their phone when they took it to the bathroom. For that last one I was pretty quick to mute all (one of those great security features for those in the know). I highly recommend checking out some of the funniest web meeting failures.
But not all these issues have been accidental. In non-professional meetings, I’ve been quick to take screenshots and make them my background. When I’m feeling particularly ambitious I’ll throw together several people’s images and quickly edit together a Brady Bunch collage for my background. I’ve also been known to throw in a few SnapChat filters. While those are all in good fun, some Zoom trolls, as they are now called, have hopped into insecure meetings that were often published on social media and taken over displaying hateful or inappropriate content. There was even one high school graduate who sought to hack as many Zoom classrooms as possible to become TikTok famous.
And while almost of these were issues of user error and the inability to set proper security measures, it has raised a red flag for many. Now Zoom has nearly as many (and more than some) available security features as other platforms, but they were left to the individual users in most cases. When users are using the Zoom client, meetings are fully encrypted and not stored on Zoom servers. To their credit, Zoom has now made many of those security precautions, like waiting rooms, the default setting. And they have also shared guides on how to keep out uninvited guests. In fact, there have been some large-scale successes where Zoom was used securely like California’s Virtual Spring CUE, a massive statewide educational technology conference.
Despite those efforts though schools are reasonably concerned and putting some platforms out of their district’s playlist. That has happened here in New York City now as fears (or contractual agreements) have led citywide leaders to relegate teachers to using Microsoft Teams only (update: and GoogleHangouts Meet) for video conferencing. Let me be clear, I am a major fan of Teams and its ability to improve communication, collaboration, and accessibility. With that said, I believe these decisions may be very short sighted as teachers, who have had to quickly adapt already are now forced to adapt again just as they and students are becoming comfortable. It is also limiting which is not at all in line with Universal Design for Learning principles.
I have certainly made no secret about my being hopeful despite seeing failings on so many levels of leadership. Any now with some places, like New York City, where the suffering is currently surpassing anywhere else, leaders are making bold decisions to cancel Spring Break and to limit educators out of fear of litigation more than hope of quality instruction. Now I am glad mine is not that heavy head wearing the crown having to make these decisions. And people serving in those roles are likely to receive derision regardless of their decision and only time will clearly determine if they are right. Concern for teacher well-being and student understanding though clearly were secondary to other concerns.
But I have some serious concerns too. First, even the articles speaking of recordings of Zoom meetings being taken as an incentive for these lockdowns clarify that it was people who stored those recordings outside of Zoom without any password. And while student privacy is a key legal concern, it is clear these decisions are being made by administrators and lawyers who understand very little of the technology involved. Even more, I know no one in District 75 (citywide special education) or on the assistive technology team were consulted. So this new decision, which, though it is in newspapers has yet to be officially announced to teachers, is sure to be glitchy. There are security shortcomings in Teams too. Outsiders can crash non-password protected meetings there also, it’s even easier to take over someone’s screen, and meetings don’t ever actually end.
It is clear there are no perfect solutions. There is nothing stopping an ambitious attendee, like me, from taking screen shots or screen recordings and doing something silly with it. The only way around that is if we are fully managing our student’s devices. And that requires 1:1 devices and remote management which is unlikely in a system as large as New York City. And even if you are able to lock it down that way, you will also be severely limiting your students’ abilities to create meaningful instructional projects. So in every situation, trades must be made. The extremes then are having complete control (or convincing ourselves we do) and generally preserve privacy but limit freedom, creativity, and give students no practice in online decision making and digital citizenship or we can let students dive into creation wholeheartedly with abandon and risk offense. Extremes are never good, but I am leaning towards trusting teachers and students.
Because this is an issue though I thought I could clarify here the general benefits and risks of each major platform. I will be looking at basics and extra features with a focus on accessibility, security, and ease of use.
I am going to be focusing mostly on Zoom, Google Hangouts Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Cisco WebEx because they seem to be the main platforms being used by schools. I have covered a number of other video conferencing resources before, but they (Citrix’s GoToMeeting which may more familiar) are either more limited, require a subscription for even basic features, or both. I am also considering the currently free upgrades and updates being offered by platforms.
The most basic decisions of the four platforms have to do with management and cost. While a school organization can have far more control of Zoom and Cisco’s WebEx with an organizational account, that requires a subscription. G Suite and Office 365 (O365), of which Hangouts Meet and Teams are a part are absolutely free for schools. O365 and Google allow you to even manage devices fully through admin consoles or using Intune. That allows for even more control and restrictions which can even be enhanced further with something like GoGuardian. So ultimately the question here is whether schools want to trust an individual or systemwide settings. Many, for legal and privacy reasons, opt for systemic control
Features Winner: Google – While Microsoft offers similar controls, Google’s are easier to manage.
While Zoom and Cisco used to limit meeting time and severely limit size, they now both allow 100 users and unlimited time. You can add more features, but we are only considering free options here. Meet and Teams allow for 250 for regular meetings and up to 10,000 for live streamed events but those severely limit the abilities of participants. As for phone calls, some people relay issues with Meet while Teams has easy built-in calling connected through Skype for Business. WebEx and Zoom also offer telephony options.
I could dive into audio/video quality, but that is generally more dependent on individual bandwidth and device being used. They all allow for screen sharing easily though only some allow for restrictions there. Zoom and Cisco make seeing a lot of people easy. That’s limited by Google, but there is a grid view add-on. Teams limits four large videos on the screen. Recordings are easy and secure (if done properly) in Zoom and Meet. Meet easily stores in your Google drive. Zoom can store it online or on your desktop. What you do with it from there is up to you. Teams recordings can’t be edited and can only be re-streamed by members of the Team.
Basics Winner: Zoom – This category is very close but Zoom’s ability to record easily and show simultaneous users set it ahead despite a cost for larger meetings.
Ease of use
Teams offers so much in its app for calls and collaboration, but, like with so many Microsoft products, all those bells and whistles come at the cost of convenience and ease of use. Like many Google apps, Hangouts Meet may be slim on features, but it just works easily in all the ways you would expect. Despite Zoom’s full set of features, Zoom is also pretty easy to use. Many think WebEx is overly complicated.
Ease of use Winner: Google – Google makes things easy to use, but Zoom is close behind.
The basics of collaboration are text and whiteboards. Google does poorly in both of those areas. The chat is limited in capability including links, images, and documents. And for whiteboarding you’ll need a separate app like Jamboard. Zoom has the ability for screen writing, but the messaging is also somewhat limited. There is private messaging though. WebEx has a nice setup for emojis and searchable chats. Teams is the most robust though with chat built into the whole Teams structure and doesn’t even require a video meeting. You can private message, message groups, tag people in the chat, search it, and add all sorts of fun GIFs and more. And Microsoft Whiteboard is decent enough too built into screen sharing.
Zoom and WebEx do offer breakout rooms built-in, but Teams channel feature can function similarly. There are varying degrees of broader collaboration, but Teams is the only one with it all built-in easily. In fact, collaborating on documents and in other applications in Teams is vastly easier than it is anywhere else inside Office 365. In fact, Teams even allows you to add many other collaborative apps including OneNote, Google Docs, Flipgrid, or built-in polls. To get that from Google you have to head into several different apps.
Collaboration Winner: Teams – It wins by a large margin, but if you counted all of Google’s G-Suite collectively they would surpass it, but it’s not built -in to play very well with Meet.
This category should is incredibly important, but apparently not important enough to some platforms. All platforms do captions, but it costs extra from Cisco. Microsoft Teams even has built-in translation, text to speech, and more with their Immersive Reader built-in. Google has some of those options, but they aren’t built directly into Meet.
Collaboration Winner: Teams – High-quality captioning and translation along with their amazing Immersive Reader makes it no contest.
Security & Privacy
I have discussed the importance of security and privacy before in an overview of remote learning in special education. There are important issues of privacy for all students and we must adhere to COPPA, FERPA, or any other state/national guidelines and shifting to remote learning can cause some real concerns. There are particular issues though for students with disabilities regarding IEP mandates and tele-therapy. The DOH announced that during the COVID19 outbreak therapists could provide sessions through unsecured platforms like Zoom or Teams. But that requires care on behalf of the provider. And I am updating this as platforms have also recently pushed updates to their systems.
Encryption v. Meeting Security
When used properly though all the platforms have a decent level of security. The major difference, as I said previously, is whether they are set individually or organizationally. I should clarify though that I am including both the more classroom management security and data security. Most people in this area are only considering data and issues like encryption. That is important, but not everything. For example, currently IEP information must be faxed and cannot be emailed. That is because faxing has better encryption, but I would argue it is often less secure. Those fax printouts which may come in a different room, so there are not immediately seen can then be accessed by anyone in that physical space-no password required. We’ve all seen the movies where someone gets sneaky and grabs a printout. Meanwhile, you can set decent separate passwords for both your computer and email thus adding to that security. And since most breeches (unless you’re expecting foreign hackers, perhaps a genuine concern) happen at those access points especially regarding the Zoom bombings mentioned above, I want to consider both.
As for encryption, Cisco’s WebEx is top notch for security. That’s why it has long been used by health care providers. The problem is that if you want all that security you have to trade off options like computer sharing and meeting rooms which are a necessity for some. And even they have had past security issues. As for Teams, they are a tad vague about whether they have encryption at each end or end-to-end. Now Microsoft controls a lot of servers and thus have a decent level of control. It doesn’t make them immune, but their size does make them quick to respond. But all of us who’ve been around long enough know of Windows breeches. As for Google, while it’s hard to trust them for data privacy on the personal end, they are certainly more fastidious with their education products. They offer solid encryption in Meet. Zoom has been a little fast and loose in this area, and while they are addressing it more deeply now, past data sharing and muddled messaging about “end-to-end” encryption are genuinely troubling. But even those who have criticized their handling, make it clear that in an organization where the full Zoom infrastructure can be run and clients can manage their own keys it moves towards end-to-end. If you want a more of an overview of just this area, I recommend Inc’s article.
Only Zoom and WebEx allow for password protected open meetings and have waiting rooms for additional security. Teams and Meet kind of have waiting rooms, but those are intended to restrict people outside your organization. Zoom allows for blocking screen sharing, muting all microphones, turning off videos, and blocking private messages. They also allow you or students to mask your surroundings for privacy. WebEx has some of those features, but some come at a cost for encryption. Zoom shortcomings have been generally user error, but you can keep uninvited guests out.
In fact, while Google Hangouts Meet can allow for the greatest level of restrictions so students only access within their domain, some basic features like mute all and waiting rooms don’t exist though they recently had some Hangouts Updates that now prevents students from rejoining previous meetings. GoGuardian will even alert you if the chat gets overly baudy. Teams allows guests to join a team meeting, but they don’t have full access to the team or the chat (or sometimes they do, it’s inconsistent). It also doesn’t have restrictions for who can start or stop a recording, mute all, or kick people out unless you go to meeting options which you cannot do from within the app. Even screen sharing can easily be taken over without those controls set. But they can be. Also Teams meetings never end, so people can easily rejoin and continue it without you. The only fix for that is creating your meetings in the calendar and cancelling them afterwards. Of course that defeats the purpose of collaboration in a Team. SO that complexity required will not be followed by most people. And that will lead to security issues. Teams does allow you (or students) to hide their background by blurring it.
Ultimately when it comes to security, an organization needs to clarify its policies. You can check out how some schools are pushing out new policies, the Zoom safety settings document, or a Hangouts Meet Expectations document.
Security Winner: Google – All the platforms have security flaws though, so one must pick their poison. With the added layer of GoGuardian though and admin settings, Hangouts Meet can be fairly secure. In the end though it is a matter of whether you’re talking encryption security or meeting-level security or trusting a platform at an individual or organizational level.
Some of the platforms have built-in polls and documents and others it’s in an add-on or separate app. Zoom has fun virtual backgrounds and helpful hand-raising features, and Teams has just added some virtual backgrounds too. Teams meetings do have the screen blur, but Teams offers so many other built-in apps. WebEx has a few add-ons you can pay for and Meet is pretty stripped down which makes it low on features but easy to use. One of the most important is Zoom’s screen control feature which allows attendees to take over the controller’s screen (when allowed). This is huge for our therapists who want to work directly with students in applications, especially for Speech. Now Teams does allow collaboration in existing documents as exists in the broader G-Suite as well, but it isn’t exactly the same. For those staff members I’ve recommended either having students indicate in some way, using a collaborative app like SMART Learning Suite, Nearpod, or PearDeck. They can also install an individual screen sharing app like TeamViewer, but all of those options add complexity to an already complex situation.
Extras Winner: Zoom and Teams – If we consider only the web-conferencing portion Zoom has a slight lead, but Teams wins for overall features throughout the app.
As for what us best, it depends on your needs. As for pure web conferencing, Zoom gives teachers (and socializers) the most options and control with a robust feature set. So for those who know what they’re doing, it’s really great. I think Hangouts Meet is easiest especially for young students just learning to use the technology. And while Hangouts Meet is slimmest on features, if we factor in all else that G Suite contains, they are a beast. But if you want a full ongoing collaboration and communication space, especially for staff, Teams has it all. The only thing is you trade off some control when you’re video conferencing (which is what this whole post was about). While I dug deep here, I have an easy visualization below to help, and if you want it as real spreadsheet data, I’m sharing that too. And you can find more video conferencing options and remote learning options in previous posts including asynchronous video with platforms like Flipgrid.