Why I’ll Miss “Zoom University”

Angelenos—haltingly and chaotically—are finally rolling up their sleeves and getting vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.  Based on the current trends (and barring major setbacks), my university recently announced that faculty, staff and students will return to campus in the fall.

Most of my colleagues and students seem eager to leave “Zoom University” and its online classes in the rear view mirror.

That’s understandable.  People miss interacting with friends and colleagues, not to mention the leafy campus, buzzing coffee shops, concerts and sporting events.  Talking to the equivalent to digital postage stamps through a computer screen day after day has only so much appeal.

I get it.

But as someone who studies the politics and policy of disability and wheelchair access, I will miss teaching on Zoom.  Zoom was created long after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a result, access is deeply built into its architecture.  The same cannot be said for college campuses.

Here are just three examples from my experience:

* A Room of their own. I teach a number of large, stadium-sized classes, mostly in buildings built or renovated decades ago.  They are often patently inaccessible.  A common problem is seating that uses fixed chairs with small, fold-out desks in tightly packed rows.  Even if you carried wheelchair users down the steps to the main amphitheater—and, yes, there are often stairs and not ramps—a wheelchair would not fit in the rows.

Don’t get me wrong.  Good faith efforts have been made to renovate buildings and improve access.  To make some space, open tables have been added behind the regular seating at the back of many lecture halls.  But there is only so much that can be done.  These buildings were simply not designed for wheelchairs.

In Zoom, every student has their own space.

* Smile, you’re on camera. Some students with learning differences face steep challenges in traditional lecture classes.  While the university does a laudable job in providing note takers and I always let students with legitimate needs record or videotape sessions, Zoom does this automatically and, in my experience, seamlessly.  It also provides transcripts, also automatically and perhaps a bit less seamlessly.

* Breakout sessions without breaking a sweat. In large classes, creating smaller breakout sessions is always awkward.  Dividing a group of 175 into 35 groups of five is often not worth the effort.  To the extent that a small number of wheelchair users are trapped in the back, even attempting to create smaller groups can serve to further isolate them.

Not with Zoom.  Click a few buttons, wait a few seconds and, presto, you have 35 groups of five in a space where they can fully engage and hear themselves think.  As an added bonus, I can drop in on different groups, creating brief moments of a small seminar experience within a large lecture class.

Zoom U is not perfect.  But, like so much of the COVID experience, teaching on Zoom has brought issues of fairness and inclusion sharply into focus.  It’s vital to remember these silver linings within the dark cloud of the pandemic as we return to campus and its architecture of the past.

 

-Jeb

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