6 ways your school's Zoom calls will get better this fall

Students in distance learning programs will be able to select their own breakout rooms, pin students in their own layouts, and even jam with friends in a new music mode.

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On Thursday, Zoom revealed its upcoming changes for distance learning this fall, creating focus groups and allowing students to roam between breakout rooms without the need for their teacher to facilitate things.

Both Google and Microsoft have already told us what their own distance learning plans are for Meet and Teams, respectively. Now it's Zoom's turn. All of Zoom’s new features will be available to the free Zoom for Education plan, which means that they’ll probably appear sometime soon. Zoom hasn’t revealed the exact timetable for their release, however, beyond “this fall.”

1.) Students can choose breakout rooms without permission

Zoom was the first to popularize “breakout rooms,” essentially a small video chat window that was a subset of the main group. Students who wished to join a breakout room previously had to ask their teacher to assign them to a breakout room, however. Now, under Zoom’s new permissions, students will apparently be able to freely wander between breakout rooms if the teacher allows for it. While Zoom says teachers can create themed breakout rooms, it’s not exactly clear if this will allow for graphical themes or backgrounds, or just a themed name. It’s also not clear if there will be a maximum number of participants allowed per breakout room.

2.) Focus groups

In a classroom setting, it’s not unusual for members of a group project to present it to the class. Zoom’s new “focus group” allows a teacher to select up to nine participants who will be “spotlighted” in the new arrangement. These students will be more prominently placed than the rest of the class, as well as grouped together.

3.) A customizable gallery view

Similar to the focus group, a teacher will have the option to drag and drop Zoom windows in whatever order they’d like. Essentially, this allows for the teacher to create a “seating chart” that won’t change whenever a student enters or leaves the room. With a little creativity, teachers could also arrange the Zoom windows in a rectangle or circle, allowing students to “go around the room” in a specific order.

4.) Multi-pinning: a gallery view for students

Zoom’s allowing students (if their teacher permits it) to adopt their own version of the adjustable gallery view, too. Students will be able to pin nine other participants’ windows in whatever arrangement they choose. According to Zoom, teachers could pin special-needs students that might require more attention, or an ASL student could pin their interpreter.

5.) Unmute controls now flow to the teacher

Currently, Zoom gives muting controls to the participants—if a student wants to remain muted, the teacher can do nothing about it. That’s changing, though it requires both students and teachers to opt in. This gives teachers the right to set up recurring classes where students’ audio can be unmuted at any time, but students can also revoke these permissions whenever they want, Zoom said. Changes to muting permissions can be made between recurring classes, too.

If a student and the teacher opts in, the teacher will have the option to selectively unmute a student’s audio when the teacher chooses. This is useful, Zoom says, during a situation where a young child can’t figure out how to unmute their audio, or are physically unable to. A virtual P.E. teacher might also give a student who is physically away from their camera a chance to speak.

6.) Professional “music mode”

Remember all the concerts and TV shows where performers collaborated across Zoom? Zoom is giving participants an easier way to collaborate, without having to fall back on recorded video. In the Advanced Audio settings, this new mode will disable echo cancellation, post-processing and compression. It also raises the audio codec quality from 22kHz to 48kHz, 96Kbps mono/192Kbps stereo for professional audio transmission in music education and performance applications. It’s designed for performances, but also to allow music teachers to use Zoom, too.

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