Under COVID-19, Zoom has become the standard for remote teaching in higher education. We need to talk about Zoom because the way we are interacting with it is shaping our intuitions and expectations around online education. How we as users — teachers and students, alive and dead — are navigating education under quarantine is setting the tone for the future education as a whole. The quick mainstreaming of Zoom onto students’, teachers’, and administrators’ computers reflects more complicated histories of power and technology in the classroom. It is in talking to our students about these issues openly that we can use the broader higher education structure to help prepare them as digital citizens.

Working to build a framework at the intersections of anti-oppressive education and anti-oppressive technology, we have found it fruitful to think about how technology gets used in classrooms through the lens of consent. Consent is relevant whenever students are asked to participate in a class or be recorded, and also to use software, download it, participate in social media, or use a particular digital platform for public facing scholarship. In this case, we’ll focus on the issue of requiring our students to download software to the computers they are using for their studies.

This consent is necessary to respecting students, and to valuing and empowering them. We cannot fully expect students to authentically participate in their education — and the education of their peers — when they are being forced to do so. To this end, we have asked ourselves about the preconditions to consenting to use a technology; what information is necessary for someone to be able to do so from a state of good conscience; and what sorts of alternatives are necessary in order to create equitable conditions for quality education?

We all ticked the Terms of Service before installing Zoom’s software and/or setting up an account. Most of us didn’t read it. Most of us don’t even know how to read the dense several thousand word document that Zoom calls its Terms of Service. Most of us don’t know why we should have read it; or that we’ve agreed to things like legal arbitration in the case of a dispute and to not share copyrighted material over it. Most of us did not tell our students to read it. It has been updated at least three times in 2020. Most of us have not followed those changes.

We all may have clicked a button, but our students did not consent to use Zoom and neither did we as teachers. At best, we complied with an instruction from administrators above us. In order to consent to downloading and running Zoom we needed to understand what it meant, and we needed to have had an alternative choice without repercussion from our institutions. In order for this consent to be meaningful, we needed a lot more information than we received from these institutions.

Modeling information sharing in the case of Zoom:

Before we can teach our students to critically analyse technology and power structures, we must also make sure they have a reasonable understanding of Zoom and how it functions legally, socially, and technically. This requires that we too must have this knowledge.

An introduction to the basics mechanics of Zoom for teachers: Zoom is an online digital meeting tool used to provide video, audio, and text chat. Created by a company also named Zoom, the software is being used across the United States and Canada to deliver education to students, providing pixel-proxied “face-to-face” time with their instructors despite geographic distance. Zoom comes with useful technical and social features: it can host hundreds of participants; it allows screen sharing; there is a text chat option; it can record the audio and it offers transcription services.

These mechanics are related to the day-to-day use of Zoom, and they are also a means to open a conversation about “how” Zoom works, a topic less often integrated into classroom discussions.

We know several things about what Zoom does, but the majority of its technical processes are unknown. We, as instructors, need to know what can’t be known about this software in order to impart that knowledge to students. For instance, as a piece of proprietary software, the majority of the source code that makes Zoom work is not available to the people using it. It is fundamentally unknowable to teachers, our students, and even to skilled software developers.

Questions like “how does Zoom work” and “how does Zoom monitor us” are ones that we simply cannot accurately answer without receiving more information from the company than they are willing to share. Only Zoom’s own software developers could answer these questions. Standard non-disclosure agreements associated with tech-work mean that they are contractually prohibited from sharing that information.

What does this kind of information mean for consent?

Much of the educational experience is grounded in power structures which shape the terms of consent. Students have to follow the policies of instructors, who are beholden to their institutions. Students are presented with the option to opt-in or opt-out of their education: consent to someone else’s rules or don’t play at all. Embedded in the multi-year structure of education are different layers of constrained choice for our students, like choosing their courses and their major.

The experiences of several former students who have spoken out about their sexual harassment and assault within the academy, such as the cases brought forth by Stacy Arsenault, Seo-Young Chu, and Jade Guedes (as well as an uncountable number of unnamed others) notwithstanding, educators ought to have a firm concept of bodily autonomy and consent. One way of articulating bodily autonomy and consent would be declaring: We are the owners of our bodies and we have the fundamental right to decide what happens to them. We, and we alone, can agree to let someone else act upon our body. In turn we do not act on the bodies of others without their consent. The same is true of our digital selves: we are digital citizens and our digital autonomy can only be protected through consent. Our digital autonomy is our right to control our own digital destinies through self-determination and self-governance. Our digital selves encompass the ways we extend our humanity into the digital: the way we present ourselves online, the content we create, the ideas we share.

A digital self is the extension of the physical self that exists within and with respect to technology — especially computing technology. To preserve our autonomy and the integrity of our digital selves, the technologies we use must be knowable. Consent cannot exist without the opportunity to understand and inform ourselves of the nature of a technology: how it works and, ideally, why it works those ways. In order for this to be accomplished, there must be transparency in form and function, including the availability of source code and documentation. It must be possible to build a commons of ideas and understanding comparable to the way we have done so with things like sex and sex education.

While an enduring rape culture on campus is demonstrative of the imperfect conversations we are having about bodily autonomy, there are more models for teaching bodily consent and autonomy than there are teaching for digital autonomy. Student led protests against rape culture, parent led educational policy change, university policies, professorial lesson plans, accounts of instructors’ experiences in teaching consent, and legislation (such as Title IX), bring the topic of sexual exploitation in higher education settings into a broader pedagogical consciousness. These conversations are increasingly nuanced. When pedagogues interrogate the emotional experiences of the classroom we can acknowledge the diverse forms of care — such as love and intimacy — already exchanged in the classroom. These discussions are grounded in how respect and affection can lead to care and compassion in the classroom without exploitation of power culminating in the exploitation of bodily autonomy. Care and compassion remain pressing issues in the case of digital autonomy as well.

Using this of compassion, we are going to offer three examples of information that could have been shared about Zoom that would have allowed us to make an informed choice about using it.

Recording the meeting’s content

Zoom can take multiple recordings simultaneously of video, audio, and instant messages (including private messages being shown to the “host”). These recordings can be initiated by any individual on the call or the institution sponsoring the business account and they can be initiated at any moment in a call, meaning one moment you were not being recorded, but in the next moment you were.

These recordings document more than the “lesson” and student participation. They document our bodies, our homes, and our voices. Users have the option of storing these recordings themselves, but Zoom will also keep these on its own servers, at the request of a user. In either case, students (and instructors) are handing over digital captures of their selves to another, rarely being fully aware of how they are being used or how they could potentially be used.

We need to be aware how recording features are being used by all participants. Are universities holding onto these sessions? Are instructors? Are students? And, to what end. What kinds of regulations, if any, should be placed on the reuse and redistribution of recordings that document more than lessons? What role can educational institutions and individual instructors play in setting these rules bounding the “use” of technology?

Long term data storage

If a lesson’s content is being recorded by our institutions, all those being recorded deserve an explicit statement on the purpose of these recordings, how long that data will be stored for, and where it will be stored. We should know what, if any, kinds of anonymizing mechanisms will be used when consulting any recordings of the course’s content. We should know if our institutions have built in any parameters into the data storage: will information be collected and retained at the scale of individuals, classrooms, departments, or the university as a whole. We should know if we have the right to withdraw our data from storage at a later date. We should know if this data is being securely stored by the use of encryption technologies, or if it is vulnerable to misuse and theft.

“Content”, however, is far from the only thing that software documents. When it comes to web applications, like Zoom, it would be easy enough for them to collect information like an IP address, which allows someone to figure out a user’s location. While Zoom doesn’t require a sign up process if you want to dial in, it does have the ability to record and store phone numbers. In general, many web sites install “cookies” on your computer, which gather unknown quantities of information on your and your activities. This information allows a company to create a surprisingly comprehensive profile of you as an individual, your habits, likes, and demographic information. In a case like Zoom, this information is not explicitly sold to marketing companies, however it is shared with partner organizations, including the advertising giant Google.

Among the multi-layered complexities of this issue is that Zoom’s status as a piece of proprietary software means that  informed consent is consenting to the unknowable when it comes to what the company is documenting. In contrast, higher education institutions have the capacity to create documentation and resources to clarify what is happening “behind the scenes”  and thus those institutions must be held to a higher standard of transparency in data management.

We expect medical experts to publish findings associated with health benefits and risks and we expect our doctors to distill and translate relevant information to us before we make decisions about our body. Informed consent is sharing known and knowable knowledge that may sway an individual’s decision to withhold or give consent. There is a difference between incomplete knowledge because we don’t yet have a way of knowing it and knowledge that is kept as a secret. We don’t lack access to Zoom’s source code because it “can’t be known,” we lack this access because the company made a choice for their perceived benefit at the user’s expense. Those benefits include assumed profitability based on the misconception that Free Software is unprofitable. Users knowing how personal data is extracted and resold on the market might change our perceptions, because it would open them to a higher standard of oversight.  

Among the multi-layered complexities of this issue is that Zoom’s status as a piece of proprietary software means that informed consent is consenting to many unknowns. Informed consent is sharing known and knowable knowledge that may sway an individual’s decision to withhold or give consent. We expect medical experts to publish findings associated with health benefits and risks and we expect our doctors to distill and translate relevant information to us before we make decisions about our body. There is a difference between incomplete knowledge and knowledge that is kept as a secret. We don’t lack access to Zoom’s source code because it “can’t be known,” we lack this access because the company made a choice for their perceived benefit at the user’s expense. Those benefits include assumed profitability based on the misconception that Free Software is unprofitable. Users knowing how personal data is extracted to increase profit through data brokering might influence their decision to download it. Opening source code opens the software to a higher standard of oversight.  

Institutions of higher education effectively do the same thing when they do not share public, accessible documentation and resources to clarify what is happening “behind the scenes.” Those institutions must be held to a higher standard of transparency in data management because their purpose is, above all else, to serve and protect their students, faculty, and staff.

Ownership of data

We should know who owns the rights to these recordings and if there are any limitations on their reuse and sale, and even copyright considerations such as which copyright licenses are being used for classroom content. What can and will be done with these recordings must be made explicit to students and may, legally, require written consent on behalf of the students. If we are used to promises from tech companies that they won’t sell our data, we deserve an explicit statement about this issue from our colleges and universities as well. We should know what, if any, access to our own information we will be able to acquire at a later date and how to do that.

Ideally, we should know that our post-secondary institution has no economic conflicts of interest when choosing one piece of software for online teaching over another. In circumstances where such conflicts of interest already exist in educational institutions mandating the use of particular software, those ought to be disclosed. We should understand the relationship between the data that Zoom is collecting from us and the data that the university is collecting via Zoom.

Conclusion

The comparison to sexual consent is not facetious. It is an anti-oppressive recognition of the intersectionality of power relations in the classroom. It is grounded in the premise that exploitation of power begets the exploitation of power. Thinking about any manifestation of student autonomy in the class is inextricably linked to the same ideas about our students’ bodily autonomy.

Students must be presented with the kind of information described above to have informed consent. And, to have consent at all, they must have been provided an alternative to “opt-out” of Zoom without repercussions. It was not a part of the social contract that they entered at the time of university enrollment when this started in March 2020.

We advocate that anti-oppressive approaches to online teaching must respect student and instructor autonomy and privacy. They must take into account the technologies being chosen and the policies institutions construct around those technologies. Online teaching must empower students in their education and lives.