‘Things changed dramatically for us here at Zoom – we suddenly became a verb’

A conversation with Jane Ross, EMEA education lead at Zoom, on what it’s been like working for one of the world’s most in-demand tech companies in the midst of a global pandemic, how digital provision can meet diverse learning needs, and keeping online learning environments safe and secure for all involved

Q. Hi Jane! Please can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your role at Zoom?

J: I’ve been with Zoom for a little over three years and, as you can tell from my accent, while I’m in the UK, I’m definitely not British – I’m American. 

When I first came to Zoom I was looking after the public sector for the UK and Ireland, so I covered education and the NHS, as well as government.

But I’ve actually been in the technology industry for ages – I got my degree in telecommunications engineering in the early 90s, so I always had my toe in the water, so to speak. From large telecommunications companies to startups – I’ve kind of have run the gamut in my 35+ years of doing this.

Q. What’s it been like working for such an in-demand tech company in the midst of a global pandemic?

J: Well, Zoom was doing great before the pandemic – we still had a very spirited group of users. Customers seemed to love the technology, they loved how responsive we were to their requests and they loved seeing how we weave what they request into our product releases.
We went from being a business-to-business tool to suddenly having this full audience of consumers that were using Zoom in a way that we never could have predicted”
Fast-forward to about a year ago, and things changed dramatically for us here at Zoom – we suddenly became a verb. We went from being a business-to-business (B2B) tool to suddenly having this full audience of consumers that were using Zoom in a way that we never could have predicted.
The uptake was just tremendous and we were so humbled by how quickly people turned to Zoom. You know, my mother-in-law, who’s 76 now, she still thanks me every weekend because her and her friends get together and they do their Saturday evening ‘Zoom bar’, they call it. It’s just amazing to see the uptake across so many different generations all over the world.
I’ve had to stop several times and just kind of absorb what was going on”
I’ve had to stop several times and just kind of absorb what was going on, because it’s something that rarely ever happens and we’ve been truly humbled by that experience for sure.
There’s been a huge uptake on the education side globally, and Eric – our CEO – jumped in and said, “Listen, we want to help education as much as possible to keep our kids connected. So we’re going to start removing that 40-minute limit on the basic license for primary and secondary schools in affected parts of the world.”
And so, today, we have 130+ thousand schools around the world that have taken us up on that offer and are using the Zoom free license. Between that and everybody shifting suddenly to remote learning and teaching, it suddenly became clear to Zoom that we needed somebody to step in and focus the efforts across the region. So I stepped into that role as of August, and what I do now is business development – I work with the sales teams to make sure that we’re aligned in our approach to education and that we’re bringing to our software what our customers are asking for.
Zoom
Zoom removed the 40-minute call restriction on its education license. Image source: Anna Shvets/Pexels

Q. How has the pandemic reshaped the company’s plans for the future?

J: I think primarily it has escalated things – it’s put us on a fast-track. We wouldn’t necessarily be doing things much differently than we had planned before the pandemic, but I think the big one would be the focus on the consumer market because, as I said, that wasn’t something that we were highly involved in prior to the pandemic – we were a B2B software solution designed for that kind of implementation, so we did have to pivot towards our new community of users, which were, you know, Bob down the street having his dinner party, or somebody holding a quiz night. 

“…we did have to pivot towards our new community of users, which were, you know, Bob down the street having his dinner party, or somebody holding a quiz night”

At the start, we didn’t have the IT departments behind our consumer users to make sure their security settings were set up correctly, so we had to pivot to help protect that community as well. I believe it was last April when we kicked-off our 90-day security pivot, stopping all product development and just focusing all of our resources on security and privacy.

We made the tools and security settings more accessible and easy to find in the actual desktop client itself. That really helped our user community adjust a little bit better. Other than that, from the perspective of where we’re going as a business, it’s been escalated a little more quickly, but the direction hasn’t changed. We’ve always put our users in front of everything so whatever they ask of us in terms of the software is top priority for us.

Q. You touched on the issue of security generally there, but since the start of the pandemic – which of course led to a tidal wave surge in usage of video conferencing tools such as Zoom – there have been multiple reports from the education sector of security holes in the platform, with the discovery that Zoom’s privacy policies gave them the right to do as they please with users’ personal data leading to the ban of Zoom meetings across New York City Public Schools last April, and other US districts following suit. What has Zoom done to address concerns surrounding the use of personal data, as well as tackle issues such as ‘Zoom-bombing’, to ensure the safety and security of staff and students across education systems?

J: We take privacy, security and trust extremely serious at Zoom. It’s always been woven into the steps that we take throughout the whole product development process.

We froze features not related to privacy, safety or security, and all our engineering and product resources were aimed in that direction for the security of users”

Now, as I mentioned before, Zoom was originally developed for enterprise use where you [already] have a structure and infrastructure around it that protect the employees and their data. Now, because we have this whole new level of user on the consumer side, we did have to stop that – and that’s what we did in the 90-day plan where we covered security features for our new user community. We froze features not related to privacy, safety or security, and all our engineering and product resources were aimed in that direction for the security of users. In that three-month period, we released over 100 features.

We also worked with a group of third-party experts and they reviewed the enhancements to our products, our practices and policies, and we developed our seesaw advisory council to bounce these ideas off of and get further industry feedback. We’ve made significant progress in defining the framework and the approach for [a] transparency report that details information related to requests that we receive for data, records and content.

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On top of this, we developed an enhanced bug bounty program where we encourage users to test out the software and let us know if and when they find things so we could develop a central bug repository with related workflows.
Then, I think the most exciting thing was the acquisition of Keybase. We started our path on building a true end-to-end encrypted solution for all of our users – whether they’re free or paid.

Q.  What are some of the most innovative uses of Zoom you’ve heard of over the last 12 months? Any fun anecdotes you could share?

Zoom
Image source: Ekaterina Bolovtsova/Pexels

J: Right at the start of the pandemic, it was pretty exhausting for all of us here. People talk about Zoom fatigue, but we are Zoom, and so we have to be on Zoom all the time. But then we [also] had the stuff that everybody else was struggling with too, like family issues, balancing working life and the kids – all of that.

On top of that, because we were becoming such a household name, we were getting more attention and a different kind of attention than we had ever gotten before in the press. For those of us who had been at Zoom for a few years, it could be disheartening at times because we know what our intentions are, we know what our CEO’s intentions are, and that [what] we’re doing is something for the greater good.

“People talk about Zoom fatigue, but we are Zoom, and so we have to be on Zoom all the time”
So, what our CEO did was he started a chat channel called, ‘cool and inspiring stories’. It’s still going now, and in this channel, anybody in the company can post cool stories. One that comes to mind was [about] a super funny a goat farm here in England. I saw in one of the newspapers that, because they’d normally have these goat birthday parties but they couldn’t do them because of COVID, instead, they did a virtual one and they named the baby goat ‘Zoom’.

Q. I love that! But back to education – what do you believe to be the most important conventions of a high quality digital classroom?

J: The first thing is making sure that the kids have an equal playing field. That means having the accessibility to devices that allow them to interact and complete work. The nice thing about Zoom is that the technology is very forgiving in that fashion, so if we do have some students who are using older devices versus others on newer devices, Zoom treats them the same. They will have a similar if not identical experience to one another.
“We can’t allow the the pedagogical piece to suffer because we’re doing this remotely…”

Another one of the big things is that while technology has a big part to play in ensuring that education can continue, I think it needs to be balanced well with traditional methods. We can’t allow the the pedagogical piece to suffer because we’re doing this remotely, and that requires teachers to get a little bit more creative because teaching remotely is not the same as delivering in-person. It can be tough if you’re not used to it.

We’ve had some pretty clever teachers come up with some interesting things to keep students engaged, and we do our best to propagate that information as much as possible. But really, the teaching technology needs to be simple to use because teachers need to focus on their role and the content of the class, and I think that’s one of the reasons why Zoom has been so widely adopted. Once you get familiar with the technology, it does just kind of fade into the background.

Q. Moving on to matters surrounding accessibility and inclusivity – what does the digital shift mean for neuro-diverse and SEND pupils, and how can edtech developers ensure they are catering for all?

J: I think the most important thing is to listen to your audience. Zoom has always taken a lead in developing the tools for accessibility and to make sure they’re available to as wide an audience as possible. That didn’t come about because we worked in a in a vacuum or a silo – it came because we listened to what the community needed in order to be effective.
Zoom
Image source: Julia M Cameron/Pexels

In fact, one of our our customers, Dublin City University, they have a blind professor on staff and he did a review of the Zoom platform. This was long before COVID – I want to say probably about two years ago now. W
e’ve shared that widely throughout our community as well. You’ve got to listen to your users.

Q. Countless reports have expressed the danger of widening attainment gaps across age groups following the disruption of the past year. How can we use technology to ensure no child is left behind?

J: Before COVID, universities were adopting remote learning more rapidly than schools. They were trying out different revenue generation methods to extend classes so they could have students join who weren’t on campus. Schools, on the other hand, were ‘dipping their toe in the water’ here and there, but then the pandemic comes and thrusts everybody into the deep end of the pool and you had to learn how to swim!

Now that most people have a certain level of comfort with the technology and understand what kind of benefits it can deliver, it really can help close that gap because, while we can still have kids in school, there’s also that remote learning option that can serve as either a replacement or a reinforcement to in-person. And now, there won’t be this huge learning curve like there was a year ago when everybody was forced into it.

Q. Do you see an entirely digital future for the education system?

J: Jeez, I hope not!

No, I don’t see that because that social interaction of being in-person is something that children need in their lives. I see the personal impact on my children from being away from their friends and they just use it as an excuse to play more fortnight!

Instead, I think the sector will see a nice marriage between in-person and digital. It’ll be great for students that, for whatever reason, may have to step away from the physical room for a while – they can still feel connected to the classroom, that’s the beautiful thing about it right? If you set it up correctly and allow space for both in-person and remote learners, then those kids who aren’t physically present can still feel like they’re part of the class. They didn’t have that before COVID. 

Q. What are some of the biggest lessons you think educators and edtech companies should take from the events of the last 12 months?

I think that keeping the teacher’s role focused on inspiring, motivating, encouraging and imparting knowledge on students is key. Like I said: keep the technology in the background and let the teacher do what they’re there to do.
“I think that keeping the teacher’s role focused on inspiring, motivating, encouraging and imparting knowledge on students is key”
It’s about bringing a digital toolbox where teachers have access to a seamless experience for everybody involved. At Zoom, we’ve been focused on designing that well thought-out digital toolbox for some for some time now.
We’ve always valued the chance to collaborate with as many third-party technologies as possible; what that does is it allows these schools, teachers and universities to choose which best-in-class solutions work for them. Then, they can easily integrate that into the Zoom platform and have one point of entry.
No one edtech company is going to be everything to everyone”
No one edtech company is going to be everything to everyone, and so, offering this type of path through integration is key to filling those gaps for the community.

You might also like: ‘Technology cannot replace great teaching but it can amplify it’


 

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