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Teachers can keep using Zoom for now, Board decides

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Teachers can continue to use Zoom to communicate with their students during blocks 2 and 3. The university’s Executive Board doesn’t want to ban the video conferencing software just yet, despite concerns about safety and privacy. Several other applications will be banned, however.

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With this statement, the Board extends its decision to condone Zoom during block 1, which was announced just before the summer holidays. Teachers will be allowed to use Zoom for now, despite concerns about possible privacy violations expressed by the co-determination councils and the data protection officer.

Using Zoom is emphatically discouraged, however. The university would prefer teachers to use Microsoft Teams instead. But completely banning Zoom would increase teachers’ workloads in this already busy corona age, the Board states.

Research
Moreover, the university is waiting for the results of a national study on Zoom’s safety and privacy aspects, which is being conducted by Surf, a nationwide IT service for education and research, in collaboration with the Dutch government. They’re also speaking with the software company about possible adjustments to the software. The UU wants to choose a single approach along with other Dutch universities which are still using Zoom, too. The results of the study are expected to be published in December.

User-friendly
Many teachers prefer using Zoom over other video conferencing programmes because of its user-friendly interface, which makes it easier to hold meetings with a large number of attendants and to organize break-out sessions in which participants are divided into smaller groups.

Zoom is the software of choice at several study programmes, including the inter-university Master’s programme for Mathematics. “We don’t want to take away a user-friendly tool now that workloads are high,” writes the Board.

Burning bus
UU’s data protection officer Artan Jacquet still doesn’t agree with UU’s policies concerning Zoom. In an advice also sent to the University Council, he laments that the situation hasn’t changed and compares the university to a secondary school sending students on a field trip in a bus that is highly comfortable, but has a tendency towards spontaneous combustion.

Although Zoom Communications has recently announced improvements to its product, the UU Board acknowledges that there are still concerns about the software’s security, as well as about how it saves personal data on servers outside of Europe and how it shares this data with third parties. “We know privacy is at risk,” said University President Anton Pijpers in a committee meeting, responding to questions posed by concerned council members. “But we’re weighing different interests, taking into account the fact that a ban would cause a lot of stress to teachers, and that Surf is taking action now.”

Licenses
UU has set a number of conditions to the use of Zoom. First, teachers are only allowed to use the university’s licenses. This measure aims to make sure that the university can keep track of how many teachers are using the software, as well as guaranteeing that the programme’s settings are as privacy-friendly as possible. All participants will therefore be required to type in a password before joining a session. Recordings were also explicitly prohibited.

A total of 24 UU teachers are currently in possession of a UU license, most of them (14) working at the Faculty of Law. This inventory excludes the faculty of Medicine. It’s known that many teachers there prefer to keep using Zoom, which is why the UMC Utrecht handles the licenses for that faculty.

Phasing out
The Executive Board also looked at a number of other online tools, including surveillance software such as proctoring. The Board wanted to discuss with the Council under which conditions proctoring should be allowed during exams, but this discussion never took place in the end. Instead, the memo was withdrawn as the Board found that the consequences for students and teachers might be too far-reaching to simply discuss it with the University Council. It’s being investigated whether the University Council has advisory powers or the right of assent in this matter. (Update 27 October, below this article, ed.)

The university also plans to stop using Peergrade, an online tool where students can give each other feedback. Too many shortcomings regarding information security were found on this platform, and it’s unclear whether the provider can meet the university’s privacy demands. Unless Peergrade comes up with solutions soon, the UU will discourage the use of this tool, and then phase it out.

The university has also made agreements with the provider of popular voting tool Mentimeter, aiming to reduce its privacy risks as much as possible. The privacy concerns were related to the fact that a number of American companies have access to some of the students’ data. Teachers will be allowed to use Mentimeter in block 2, but it’s unknown what will happen afterwards. The university’s contract with Mentimeter expires in the spring and, according to the guidelines, a new tendering procedure will have to take place.

As for Pitch2Peer, a platform where students can share pitches, the ‘condoning’ status will be extended throughout block 2. At that point, the provider should clarify whether it can meet a number of additional security requirements.

When asked during the committee meeting, the Board promised that teachers will receive all necessary support if a tool they use is no longer allowed. They stated that there should always be an alternative platform available, and that teachers can call for assistance when having trouble using any type of software.

*Update 27 October* Shortly after the committee meeting it became clear that according to UU-lawyers the note could only be submitted 'for discussion'. The memo is about the deployment of an application and not about the university's privacy policy. The latter will be submitted to the council for approval at a later stage. The subject was no longer discussed in the U council this week.

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