Time to start ‘un-zooming’

Time to start ‘un-zooming’

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A student takes online classes at home, with his companions, using the Zoom APP during the coronavirus outbreak. (Reuters)

Lockdown was recently chosen as “word of the year 2020” by Collins dictionary — to no one’s surprise, so large was its impact this year on economies, education and every part of human life. A close second, in my mind at least, would have been “Zoom,” which quickly surfed the coronavirus (COVID-19) wave (or tsunami) and became a household word. It even became a verb — “let’s zoom this weekend, OK?” — without any dictionary’s approval.
Zoom, the online video platform, has replaced Skype as the default video communication app or software. And as soon as it became clear that COVID-19 and lockdowns would affect most human activities, other similar platforms vied for market share.
All of a sudden, besides Zoom and Skype, there was Google Meet (formerly Hangouts Meet and Hangouts Chat), Microsoft Teams, Google Classrooms, Streamyard, Remo, GoTo Meeting, Slack, BlueJeans and probably others. At my university, we have been using Blackboard Collaborate (the Ultra version), and Google Meet as a backup, but I have used most of the other platforms for meetings, lectures, conferences, TV interviews and social “gatherings.” Needless to say, each had its own learning curve and idiosyncrasies.
I must admit that at first I enjoyed the convenience of teaching, meeting and doing workshops from home. But soon the workload and the demand on my online time grew exponentially, and the negative aspects of “zooming” began to manifest themselves.
Indeed, my colleagues and I began to miss physical classrooms and students (in person), and to a lesser extent encountering colleagues in hallways and meeting rooms. In fact, when students were surveyed at the end of last semester, they said what they missed most when classes moved online were classroom interactions, the professor’s body language, etc.
Within a few months, and in some cases just a few weeks, many of us started “zooming out.” Education articles and blogs started to discuss “zoom fatigue,” and even “zoom gloom” and “zoom doom”! I would not be surprised if someone asks for a “zoom vaccine,” and I am sure “zoom diets” will soon be offered, perhaps even “zoom fasting.”
Indeed, international meetings now fall at odd hours, depending on one’s time zone; after all, we are at home 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And not just work — many family gatherings, religious celebrations (Eids in particular), birthday parties and friends meetups are now routinely conducted via Zoom, with mixed impact.
First, connections are rarely perfect for all participants in a call or meeting. Second, even when audio and video are good, the human connection is very weak: There is little eye contact, facial expressions, body language, etc. In one survey, respondents said video chats made them feel bad because they got the impression that their friends and family relations were weak and superficial.
In teaching, it is even worse. Teaching is far from just lecturing from a remote location. There is so much in the physical interaction in classrooms. Online, however, I do not even see my students. I have asked them to attach pics to their profiles so that when they ask a question or are just there attending the lectures, I can put a face to the name, but most of them did not.
In a workshop I conducted over several weeks recently, we asked everyone to keep their cameras on so we could all see each other, but most girls acquiesced for one or two sessions then stopped doing that. I think this is because at home they dress informally and do not cover their heads, hence they will not allow strangers to see them that way.

Technology such as Zoom can be a boon in emergency periods such as this year. But we need to do everything to socialize and humanize technology.

Nidhal Guessoum

In fact, there are broader issues of privacy, confidentiality and information storage in videoconferencing, especially as sessions are routinely recorded. And let us assume that those “zoom bombing” incidents — where mischievous idiots crash an online class or meeting and, if precautions are not put in place, show indecent images or videos — are now prevented.
What we all fear is that this “zoom world” becomes the new normal. Indeed, a number of universities and companies are considering cost-cutting “blended” models, where offices and classrooms are reduced. But the post-COVID world will need to be planned very carefully, with the above lessons in mind. In fact, we should be addressing those online issues now.
Indeed, online wellness is a new trend. Video meetings now often include breaks, with informal relaxation activities that involve music, stretching exercises or short meditations. But this could be a double-edged sword. Indeed, the more we make zooming “friendly,” the more online or “blended” teaching and meetings will be the norm after COVID-19.
We humans are a social species; we need close, direct interactions. Technology such as Zoom can be a boon in emergency periods such as this year. But we need to do everything to socialize and humanize technology, and use it to remind us of the benefit of close, direct human relations.

  • Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum
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