‘This is online education’s moment’ as colleges close during coronavirus pandemic

As more colleges move to hold remote classes amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Zoom Video Communications Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. are among tech companies offering deals to attract institutions looking to offer online lessons.

“This is online education’s moment” to prove a positive experience in front of a big audience, 2U Inc. TWOU, -11.59% Chief Executive Chip Paucek told MarketWatch. The leader of the online-education company expects that after schools are introduced to new online tools due to the outbreak, they’ll be more inclined to opt for “blended” educational experiences that mix in-person classes with online tie-ins after the situation improves.

See more: Coronavirus threat cancels classes at major U.S. universities

A Cisco CSCO, +5.31% executive told MarketWatch that the company is offering its Webex Education software as a free 180-day trial to schools during the outbreak of COVID-19. The suite provides the option for group video meetings, private video calls, file sharing and administrative controls, as well as the ability for professors to record all sessions for future viewing and deliver automated transcriptions after the fact.

Aruna Ravichandran, the chief marketing officer for Cisco’s collaboration products, said she didn’t think that universities, professors nor deans were prepared for a shock that would require a quick move at scale toward virtual learning, like the coronavirus. Cisco has seen a 700% bump in adoption of its more general Webex video-collaboration offering since the company began offering free sign-ups, but Ravichandran thinks that the bump in sign-ups for the education-focused product could be even larger.

Don’t miss: Student-loan borrowers could get a temporary break on payments during coronavirus pandemic, Mnuchin says

Numerous universities used Cisco’s Webex Education product for various aspects of distance learning before the novel coronavirus outbreak, and Ravichandran expects to see some of these partners leverage the technology more widely as they’re forced to move more programs and classes online.

Other schools are using technology from Zoom Video ZM, +3.00%, the videoconferencing company that’s emerged as a rare stock-market winner on the expectation that more workplaces would be opting for remote tools as employees stay home to prevent the spread of disease. Zoom also has an educational offering.

Read: This stock has scored the biggest boost from the coronavirus outbreak — but the company has been out of business for years

A Zoom blog posts said the company has removed the 40-minute meeting limit on free Basic accounts for schools in Japan and Italy, and Zoom will be doing this “by request” for K-12 schools in the U.S. The post also discusses a paid education plan that allows for unlimited meetings for up to 300 people, recording and transcription options, and various administrative controls.

A Zoom spokesman declined to comment beyond the company blog posts.

Alphabet Inc.’s GOOGL, +4.20%GOOG, +3.27% Google announced earlier this month that it was providing free “advanced” Hangouts capabilities to users of its Education suite until July 1, giving educators the ability to host larger virtual meetings and save recordings to Google Drive. A Microsoft Corp. MSFT, +8.23% blog post said that the company is providing “resources, training and how to guides” for educators who wish to use products like Teams videoconferencing for their classrooms.

Zoom held down the top spot among free apps in Apple Inc.’s AAPL, +4.40% App Store as of midday Monday, though the company’s app is used for general business purposes as well as education. The Google Classroom app, which has more of a K-12 focus, ranked third, while Microsoft Teams was 10th and Google’s Hangouts Meet was 16th.

2U is also seeing increased interest in its services as schools scramble to move traditional classes online, Paucek said. The company operates online-degree programs for not-for-profit and for-profit universities, and it has been in the midst of migrating in-person “sister” programs onto the infrastructure that already supports these schools’ online equivalents. It is also transitioning physical boot-camp programs to the web.

2U has a “pretty big partnership with Zoom” and handles other aspects of logistically onboarding students who need to make the move to an online course due to university policies, Paucek said. The company also offers support services to universities and recently announced that it would be offering its 70-plus university partners free support resources, including live webinars and practice sessions, on how to hold courses online.

See also: Harvard and other major universities still charging full tuition as classes go online amid coronavirus outbreak

Ronda Black, the IT program director at Montana State University’s Gallatin College, has been using Cisco’s educational Webex product in her classrooms since before the outbreak and she’s currently helping her colleagues become acquainted with the platform now that the coronavirus has moved classes online.

Black said she appreciates a feature that allows her to annotate a virtual whiteboard and save the notes for students’ future reference, letting them spend more time concentrating and less time taking their own notes. Black also thinks professors will opt to keep the digital tools around after trying them during the current crisis, in part because they’ll be able to reach students in new ways.

“The reason they’ll like it and want to keep using it is that it opens up communication between them and the students in a way they didn’t experience before,” she told MarketWatch. Before, Black used to give students her phone number if they had questions, which led to calls at all hours from unknown numbers. Now students reach out via Cisco’s app and Black has the option to respond personally or answer the question for the entire class.

The introduction of video tools into educational settings raises questions about data collection and user privacy. Zoom’s personal-data policy discloses that the company may gather information including a user’s name, address, email address, and phone number. Cisco collects similar information.

Zoom’s official Twitter TWTR, +1.83% account responded to one concern about the company’s privacy policy by saying that it “only uses data for providing our service and supporting our users.”A Cisco spokeswoman said that the company’s general privacy policy applies to its education suite and that Cisco’s customers own the rights to content that emerges from their Webex usage.

One thing to watch for is whether an organization has activated “video by default,” according to Lopez Research principal analyst Maribel Lopez, which would mean that students’ cameras would automatically start broadcasting once they joined a conference. By turning this feature off, schools can give students more control over when and where they want to appear on camera.

As for the data-collection issues, Lopez said she was “not all that concerned with the privacy concerns around someone having Zoom” given the level of personal information that the company is collecting, though she acknowledged that some parents may feel uneasy to know that their children’s addresses could be listed in a tech company’s database.