By Sam Leitch, editor
Online learning has not been without its challenges: spotty Wi-Fi, screen-induced eye strain and reduced class time continue to plague students and teachers alike. However, on top of all that, the change in format has given students the ability to disrupt Zoom lectures without identifiers like a name or face, inciting events that teachers around the nation have dubbed “Zoom bombings.”
Since Maria Carrillo High School’s transition to online learning in March, there have been fewer than a dozen reported instances, according to Assistant Principal Andrew Campbell.
Art teacher Thomas Laughlin experienced Zoom bombing first hand when, midway through August, three unknown students joined his 5th period Zoom meeting. Unbeknownst to him at the time, they weren’t enrolled in his class, and their display names had been fabricated.
Out of the three, two posed as male and one as female, but because there had been 20 schedule changes for that day and course, differentiating fake names from real students was no easy task. “I was pretty cautious about security, even back then, but I didn’t want to exclude a student, especially if I was mistaken about their name or their behavior,” Laughlin said.
In what Laughlin estimated to be a 20-minute period, the suspects interrupted his lecture by playing music, talking with students, talking with each other, asking inappropriate questions, and, on one occasion, drawing on his presentation in the brief moments before he took it down. But when he muted and kicked the three from the stream, they would come back with new names, each claiming to be someone else.
“In 22 years of teaching art, many students like to act out, and I usually have to inform everyone of the rules before things calm down,” Laughlin said. “Therefore, I am fairly tolerant of some unusual behavior in the beginning of the year. I realized something was wrong pretty quickly in this case.”
According to sophomore Logan Cheriff, as Laughlin continued with his lecture, the rest of the class attempted to use the chat feature to let him know who was causing the disruptions. “It was nobody’s fault except the people who joined,” Cheriff said, explaining that Zoom’s “share screen” option limits the presenter’s visibility, allowing the three unknown students to repeatedly slip by unnoticed.
Unable to discern who were his students and who were not, Laughlin ended the meeting and forwarded the chat to Assistant Principals Campbell and Albert Ettedgui, who were investigating other stream sabotages at the time.
Campbell explained that he and Ettedgui have caught Zoom bombers by asking students to confidentially reveal details about what happened, using data collected from Zoom like meeting recordings, and inspecting pictures of the suspects taken by teachers for further investigation.
“Staff needs to make sure they are using their security features,” Campbell said. “On campus we have our doors and cameras; online, we have our passwords, waiting rooms, SRCS account authentication and recording options for preventing and capturing evidence of inappropriate behavior.”
According to Campbell, the district has purchased premium Zoom accounts so teachers can access features like stream recording, and as teachers and administrators grow more acquainted with its features, he believes that identifying and preventing Zoom bombers will only get easier. “Ultimately teachers need to decide what Zoom features they are comfortable managing while leading their classes, and students should be reminded that with more freedom comes more responsibility to make good choices.”
Just as campus security translates to Zoom policies, the repercussions for sabotaging teacher streams look similar to those for class disruptions, and according to Campbell, they have suspended students from online learning before.
“We work together with the teacher to decide what would be the best way to fix what happened and keep the digital learning space safe going forward,” Campbell said. “If it was a minor incident and the student took responsibility for what happened, we usually have an online meeting with the school, student and family to apologize.”
Laughlin now exercises extra caution when admitting students from the waiting room, but he said this is easier now that each participant displays their full name. He only wishes that students be required to keep their cameras on.
“Many students don’t participate, and I cannot tell if they are really watching and listening or not, with an avatar, photo or name screen,” Laughlin said. “I understand camera malfunctions, inabilities to participate and internet issues, but I can’t count students as being present when they are not.” As of now, district policy does not require students to keep their camera on, and the rule that students use their full name and camera is simply a recommendation.
“It takes a little extra time to join, but in the class, I don’t think anything’s changed,” said Cherrif, who enrolled in the class because he enjoys making art in his free time. “I’m a pretty extroverted person and miss talking to my teachers and classmates…I would definitely prefer to be in the studio, but [Mr. Laughlin has] done a good job so far online.”
“I would remind everyone that no one at Maria Carrillo thought they were going to be in an online school this year,” Campbell said. “It’s unfamiliar to teachers, students and families! If you’re feeling restless and bored, it’s not OK to take that energy out on a teacher or classroom of people who are doing their best to stay connected and [learn] through this difficult time.”