British Columbia

B.C. licenses Zoom app to arrange video calls for teachers and K-12 students

The B.C. government has licensed Zoom, a video-conferencing tool whose growth has recently exploded, to support virtual learning for students in kindergarten through Grade 12 during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Video-conferencing tool has exploded in popularity since COVID-19 kept people out of classrooms and offices

University of California, Berkeley professors use Zoom in an online collaborative innovation course on March 12. Teachers and families around the globe have turned to the video conferencing app to stay connected during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Nathan Frandino/Reuters)

The B.C. government has licensed Zoom, an increasingly popular video-conferencing tool, to support virtual learning for students in kindergarten through Grade 12 during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Ministry of Education said Wednesday it paid for access to the "easy-to-use" service so teachers in public and independent schools could have a common platform through which to reach their class while they are at home.

"This will allow consistent access for educators who choose to use it, giving them more ways to communicate with students and parents," a statement said.

Zoom has primarily been used by businesses for "seamless" conference calls since its launch in 2013. 

When the coronavirus outbreak kept millions of workers out of the office and separated friends and family, Zoom saw a surge in downloads as people sought to stay connected. It has become one of the most popular apps in the world.

However, the service's recent spike in popularity has exposed some security and privacy weaknesses in the app, including problems with hackers accessing strangers' meetings and data collection. The holes have been enough to prompt a letter from New York's attorney general, according to the New York Times.

B.C.'s education ministry acknowledged parents' potential security worries in its statement Tuesday, saying its new licensing agreement complies with B.C.'s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA).

"School technology administrators can control permissions and privileges, while disabling features that are unnecessary or inappropriate. Students will be given a unique website address, so they can access their virtual classroom without needing an individual account," the statement said.

"The Zoom server will be based in Canada, with added encryption, so it is a safe platform to learn," it added.

'Alternative approaches' still a priority

The ministry also addressed the issue of accessibility. While Zoom is handy for real-time discussion and social interaction, not every family has access to or finances for consistent, reliable home internet with a signal strong enough to support smooth video streaming.

The ministry said schools have also been asked to find "alternative approaches for continued learning that will fit with the individual needs and circumstances of their communities."

The statement said some school districts might be able to loan computer equipment or devices to support students.

Classes have been suspended for 555,000 students across the province since March 17. Teachers and students returned to "school" on Monday, with administrators struggling to find a new normal for instruction.

WATCH | B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming says all students eligible to move onto the next grade will do so, despite suspended classes:

All eligible students will graduate: B.C. education minister

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Education Minister Rob Fleming says every student eligible to graduate Grade 12 this year will do so, despite the suspension of classes due to the global pandemic.

The ministry said teachers should be getting a set of instructions and access to Zoom through their school districts this month.

The province also launched a site called Keep Learning B.C. on Friday, with links to free resources parents can use with their children.

The ministry said the website, which is updated daily with fresh materials, has been visited more than 136,000 times in the four days since its launch.

With files from The Associated Press