The University has made several changes from the spring semester regarding its Zoom security, policies and best practices for users with U.Va. accounts, such as requiring all meetings to have passwords and banning the recording of class sessions except under special circumstances, among other measures.
One new change from last semester was announced by University Provost Liz Magill Aug. 24. The new policy outlines the approval processes for the recording of class sessions and the distribution of course materials.
“Although the policy applies to both remote and in-person instructional settings, providing guidance from the University on these two topics was especially appropriate now, as more students are participating in remote learning than ever before,” said Wes Hester, deputy University spokesperson and director of media relations. “We want to be sure that instructors and students have the tools to safely and productively engage technology in the classroom setting.”
According to the policy, students are not allowed to record Zoom sessions — for any reason — unless they have been given written permission by the instructor and all participants have been notified that they will be recorded. Instructors can revoke this permission at any time and recordings are only allowed to be used for individual and group study purposes. Similarly, instructors are not permitted to record class sessions unless they inform all students that they will be recorded — this may be done through a class syllabus, course website or another method.
Anne Kokas, an associate professor in the Media Studies department, said that while the concerns around recording class certainly predated the COVID-19 pandemic, they have definitely been enhanced by the massive shift to online-learning.
Specifically, Kokas cited international students, who now may be taking classes from home. Laws in their home countries may subject them, other students and their professors to surveillance risks according to Kokas.
“If students are studying in Russia or in China, for example, they may be — depending on what the content of the class is — subject to different types of laws based on what they say in class, and based on what the professor says in class,” Kokas said.
To go hand-in-hand with this decision, the University has issued guidance for faculty who choose to record class sessions, including both sample syllabus statements and alternatives for when students choose not to be recorded.
“For a number of legitimate reasons, including encouraging an open exploration of course topics, some students may prefer not to appear in classroom recordings,” the guidance reads. “If possible, consider supporting this preference.”
In cases where participation in class is a part of a student’s grade, the page recommends alternative ways of grading participation, such as having students complete discussion boards or reflections.
Another change this semester is that as of July 19, all new U.Va. Zoom meetings now require a password, with the exception of those accessed through Collab sites. Hester did not specify why exactly the University chose to implement this change.
“When Zoom offered the ability to enforce passcodes as an additional security measure, the University opted to implement the change,” Hester said.
Though this addition is just one of several new security measures, it could certainly help put a stop to zoom-bombing — when uninvited and often ill-intentioned hackers crash Zoom meetings unexpectedly, sometimes using offensive language. The spring semester saw several cases of Zoom-bombing — during one, individuals invaded a virtual town hall held by Student Council about the fall semester and used numerous racial slurs. Student Council President Ellen Yates was forced to end the meeting and restart 30 minutes later with heightened security measures.
Zoom-bombing isn’t a problem specific to the University, however — the University of Southern California, Northwestern University and the University of California-Berkeley have seen both lectures and community events over Zoom be interrupted by Zoom-bombers and schools across the country have been looking into methods of tightening security as a result.
Despite the issues zoom-bombing has raised in the past few months, the University’s statement on Zoom privacy and security confirms its support of the platform to hold classes and other events.
“We continue to support the use of Zoom at U.Va. at this time, and we believe that mitigating factors either in place or which may be put in place can reduce risk substantially,” the statement reads.
The statement goes on to suggest several actions users should take to increase security on Zoom this semester, such as locking the ability to screen share and not allowing participants to join before the host. Additionally, the page recommends that students and faculty close meetings once all desired participants have joined and keep meeting links private.
Kokas said that these security issues aren’t necessarily specific to Zoom — they are a result of having to teach and learn online.
“The whole practice of having class online creates insecurity in a classroom environment,” Kokas said. “So moving from analog to digital, rather than the specific platforms, makes the information that we share within a classroom environment less secure.”
One caveat of using Zoom for classes is that the program only supports meetings of up to 300 participants. If a class is larger than that — which several at the University are — the instructor must request a Zoom webinar license. According to the University’s Zoom FAQ page, requests for these licenses are taking longer than usual.
One final change from the beginning of online classes last spring is that Zoom itself has disabled attendee attention tracking, a feature that allowed U.Va. Zoom meeting hosts to tell if a participant did not have Zoom in focus while screen sharing. The feature did not use any audio or video.
Zoom removed the feature in April due to privacy and security concerns. In an email statement to The Cavalier Daily, Hester confirmed that this feature is no longer in use at the University.
Kokas added that not using these kinds of features is important, as they decrease the overall security of platforms.
“It's also important to remember for professors that, you know, that kind of power dynamic is different in a classroom versus online,” Kokas said. “The experience of being surveilled online is something that, I think, to the degree possible we should step back from.”