Dear Zoom Product Team: Improving learning in the virtual classroom

Jack McDermott
The Future of Education
5 min readMay 9, 2020


Last fall, I began classes in pursuit of an MBA. I quickly learned the ins and outs of business school: learning teams, the case method — Mark sipped on his coffee and wondered what he would possibly do next — and the unexpected and dreaded “cold call.”

Today business school and the rest of the world look very different. Classes from preschool to business school have moved onto Zoom, the B2B/enterprise video communications platform, for the semester and foreseeable future.

From my perspective — as a dual-MBA and Masters in Education student, and someone who has designed education-tech products — I often find myself asking: how well-designed is Zoom for the demands of virtual learning?

So sipping on my cup of coffee, I decided to analyze which features of Zoom promote effective (or ineffective) virtual learning.

When learning goes virtual

Zoom has been thrust into an enviable position as the go-to virtual classroom with very little notice. The company has a surging education user base: more than 90,000 schools have signed up for Zoom’s free offering for schools.

Yet the Zoom classroom is an entirely experimental place to learn.

In a recent survey, only 11% of high schoolers and 15% of college students felt that distance learning has been as effective as in-person classes. This finding should come as no surprise; Zoom was not designed with students in mind.

Breakout rooms create small spaces for students to host their own discussions. This feature was most favorably viewed by students I spoke with — but assigning each student to rooms (for pre-assigned group work) is a manual and labor-intensive process for teachers and aides.

I started by asking several of my MBA peers to reflect on their experience using Zoom for virtual classes:

“The power of the case method just isn’t felt as strongly over Zoom as it is in the classroom. Letting go of that feeling has been tough.”

- First-year MBA, UVA Darden School of Business

“Students have moved pretty seamlessly to Zoom lectures, and it’s even created more small group breakout discussions than we might have had in-person. I will say, the likelihood of a cold call seems to be much higher on Zoom.”

- Second-year MBA, Tuck School of Business

Other students have been less enthusiastic. From HBS to Berkeley Law, thousands of students have petitioned for partial tuition refunds due to their diminished learning experience. Many K-12 schools, including those in New York City, have banned Zoom outright over privacy and security concerns.

It’s likely that Zoom will address its privacy issues. But how will Zoom deliver a better learning experience in the virtual classroom?

Zoom and the science of learning

As a student and daily active Zoom user, I have several thoughts for how the product can evolve for students and teachers. We know from the science of learning that there are many fundamental aspects to knowledge-building.

So Dear Zoom Product Team, here’s my take on improving learning in your virtual classroom:

Durable learning

Learning has to be effortful for learners to develop new knowledge. When learning feels easier, it’s often gone by tomorrow. It’s why taking notes by hand improves information recall more than taking notes on a laptop. On Zoom, information is readily conveyed in digital bits and soundbites through discussions, breakout rooms, and screen-sharing.

Gallery view puts every student’s face on a visual grid. Yet our brains aren’t wired to interact with 40+ others at once. Research shows this amount of visual decoding is cognitively draining, perhaps contributing to the “Zoom fatigue” we all feel after class.

Yet there’s mounting evidence that deciphering all this virtual information without access to body language or social cues is causing “Zoom fatigue,” the mental exhaustion we feel after concentrating on Zoom all day. You’ve likely asked yourself, why am I so tired after Zoom meetings?

Well, Zoom demands greater cognitive load for decoding information and offers fewer opportunities for recalling or applying it. Knowledge acquired on Zoom may be less durable than it is in a physical classroom.


A Zoom classroom is full of distractions. Live chat, screen-sharing, polls, and gallery view are features that require near-constant attention from learners. I asked several classmates how often they “poke around” Zoom’s gallery view or live chat, and (unsurprisingly) MBA students do this almost all the time.

Live chat is more often a distraction in the Zoom classroom. But some students ask for help with questions that can be readily answered by classmates without disrupting the flow of the class.

The problem is humans aren’t wired to multitask very well, and evidence shows that those who multitask while using technology in class score lower on tests about the material.

If you think “visual learners” may gain more from a Zoom classroom than others, there’s actually little evidence to support the notion of learning styles. We may be all in this distracted Zoom learning environment together.

Isolation & inequities

Learning is a social behavior. We generate new neural pathways from interacting with information and people. It’s why fostering positive teacher-student and peer relationships is so critical to learning. Unfortunately, online interactions can make us feel lonely and disconnected, especially when they supplant real-life interactions.

Distance learning may exacerbate the inequities that exist in a physical classroom: low-income students often suffer disproportionately from spotty Internet connections, which can result in chronic absenteeism and lost learning time.

Even the microphone in our computers picks up men’s voices (with their deeper tones) more readily than women’s. We risk having virtual classrooms that are both inequitable and isolating.

Participants window lets students “raise hand” or vote yes or no. Raising your hand adds you to the top of the teacher’s queue. Savvy teachers use these signals to get the pulse of the class and to check in with students that may be falling behind.

Illusion of mastery

Perhaps the most concerning part of a Zoom classroom is that it may feel like we’re learning more than we really are. People are terribly poor judges of when they’re learning and when they’re not. A classic example is how reading textbooks is a popular and time-consuming study habit that feels like learning, yet there’s little evidence to show that it leads to durable learning.

Given the distractions and decoding necessary in a Zoom classroom, I worry that the knowledge and skills students seek appear easier to attain than they really are. And what we’re left with is an “illusion of mastery.” We may actually be learning less than we think.

Looking ahead

There are plenty of challenges in mastering a Zoom classroom — and solutions are a dime a dozen. Yet I’ve been most encouraged by the resolve of my classmates and teachers throughout this crisis.

I think of my friend from New Delhi who returned home to India and now joins live Zoom classes at 2AM local time. Or I think about the K-12 administrator who said that this crisis has accelerated his school’s blended learning plan by 3 years in less than 3 months.

Wherever or whenever school starts next fall, students and teachers will likely look towards Zoom for their virtual classroom. It’s still unclear, however, how effective that learning environment will look on Zoom.

For now, it’s back to reading cases in preparation for tomorrow. I’ll arrive at my first class of the day at 8AM sharp on Zoom.

- Jack



Jack McDermott
The Future of Education

Growth @ Chegg Skills. Previously: MBA & M.Ed, UVA Darden, @PanoramaEd.