Classroom Technology Explainer

A Clubhouse Explainer: What Educators Should Know About the New Audio Chat App

By Mark Lieberman — March 01, 2021 10 min read
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Educators are flocking by the thousands to Clubhouse, an emerging invitation-only social app for iPhone users—even as experts on social media and privacy warn about possible red flags.

Six teachers and other school staffers who spoke to Education Week described the education community on Clubhouse as a bustling hub of conversation and connection complete with a variety of subcultures, each with its own etiquette that is still evolving as the app’s user base grows.

Some said they have forged relationships with other educators and seized opportunities for career growth on Clubhouse that have extended into the real world. Most said their experience on the app has been largely free of the toxicity and discord that plagues the user experience on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites.

The Urban Educator Consortium, an ad hoc group that hosts discussions on broad issues like equity in education system, has amassed 8,000 members on the app. Another group called the Teachers Lounge, which provides space for educators to discuss the nuts and bolts of instruction, has 4,900 members and counting.

Upon opening Clubhouse, users find a virtual hallway with a series of “rooms” in which people are engaged in audio-only discussion (no texting or uploading images) moderated by participants whose names and profiles images appear. The app’s popularity has swelled in recent months from just a few thousand users to more than 10 million, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to keep many Americans isolated from most in-person interactions.

It’s impossible to say whether the app would have taken off under less turbulent societal circumstances—but the pandemic certainly played a major role, several teachers said.

“The coming together of COVID and Clubhouse was like a perfect storm for the app,” said Lauren McKenzie, a social studies and English teacher at Ron Brown College Preparatory High School in Washington, and a founder of the Teachers Lounge group on Clubhouse. “The irony is that at a time when we become so isolated, we now can have conversations with people across the world. It definitely has helped me cope with the isolation that I was experiencing...You don’t walk past people at work in the hallway anymore.”

To many prominent observers of social media companies, though, Clubhouse represents just the latest in a seemingly never-ending chain of new social media platforms that draw an early burst of attention and enthusiasm, followed swiftly by criticism of their business practices and scrutiny of their efforts to keep users safe and their data secure. The excitement and the wariness often come in tandem; several controversies have already sprung up around Clubhouse, related to its approach to storing user data and its lax policies for content moderation, among other issues.

“We know how this movie ends. People are on a platform they enjoy, that they feel they cannot live without, and yet the platform is doing them some harm, and it’s so big that it has the ability to impact world events. That is the Facebook story,” said Linnette Attai, president of PlayWell, a privacy compliance firm with education clients. “It is very, very hard, and near impossible at scale, to put that back in the box.”

Whether to join Clubhouse is ultimately a personal decision, but it ought to be an informed one, Attai said.

To that end, Education Week assembled this guide for educators on using Clubhouse—what to expect, how to make the most of it, and how to weigh whether joining at all makes sense for you.

What is Clubhouse?

Clubhouse is a social media app available only for iPhone users, though an Android version is reportedly in the works. The app launched last April and was founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Paul Davison and Rohan Seth. It is now valued at more than $1 billion.

Unlike many social media apps, Clubhouse is centered around audio. Upon opening the app, users enter a hallway with a variety of rooms in which their followers and contacts are engaged in verbal conversation on a particular topic. Any user can start a room and serve as the moderator, determining which visitors to the room can get “onstage” to talk during the discussion, or enter a room that’s already in progress. Recording the conversations is against the rules, though sometimes it still happens, and the app doesn’t have a text or image function.

Who uses Clubhouse?

The app has more than 10 million users, and is still growing quickly. Early on, the Clubhouse community consisted mainly of technology entrepreneurs and marketers, but its user base has quickly expanded and now encompasses users from around the world, including prominent public figures like Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, and Joe Rogan.

How can I join Clubhouse?

Currently, anyone age 18 and up who wants to join the app must wait until a user sends them an invitation. Some invitations are currently selling on Ebay for more than $100. Davison and Seth have said the app will eventually be open to anyone older than 18. (The app doesn’t verify prospective users’ ages, so it’s possible for kids to get around that rule; the nonprofit Internet Matters has published a relevant guide for parents.)

How does the user experience compare with other social media platforms?

Several educators said they prefer Clubhouse to apps like Facebook and Instagram because the conversations are more free-flowing and spontaneous, and there’s less room for the meticulous workshopping that some social media users engage in before posting.

Adrienne Waller, a former elementary school teacher in the United States who has spent the last five years as a school administrator abroad, said the app reminds her of the early days of Facebook, when it wasn’t ubiquitous among the world’s population. “It feels like people show their whole self and not this facade of who they are,” she said.

Waller is among the Clubhouse users who do not typically spend much time on social media but has quickly taken to Clubhouse, sometimes spending three consecutive hours in a single discussion. “A day in Clubhouse time is like a week in real life,” she said.

Arielle Fodor, an avid social media user and kindergarten teacher in Los Angeles, said she’s recently been discussing anti-racist teaching with other teachers on TikTok, but has received some backlash as her posts and others make their way around the internet. “On Clubhouse, it’s just really an organic discussion with people that you would never connect with,” she said.

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It’s worth noting that several educators who use Clubhouse said they use it in tandem with other apps, like a back-channel Slack discussion with fellow users to follow up on discussion points from an audio chat session. After the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, for instance, McKenzie consulted a thread of Slack messages from fellow Clubhouse acquaintances and borrowed a Boston educator’s talking points for students to use for a classroom lesson.

How are educators using Clubhouse?

Some Clubhouse users are content to flit from room to room, peeking in on discussions in progress, with the goal of learning more about a topic of interest or gaining some insight that could help them in their own work. Others have taken a leadership role, either starting an organized group for educators or leading regularly scheduled discussions.

Here are just a few of the topics educators said they’ve been discussing on the app in recent months:

  • Dealing with teacher shortages
  • Supporting Black male educators
  • How teachers are portrayed in the media
  • “School” versus “education”
  • Is equity possible in white supremacist America?
  • Who should be the next U.S. Secretary of Education?
  • Using hip-hop as an education tool

Educators also use the app “to connect with one another, to build their own personal brands, to have meaningful conversations, to vent during lunch,” said Patrick Harris, a middle school humanities teacher in Detroit. Some even offer encouragement on business ideas, edit resumes, and offer consulting opportunities.

What do educators like about Clubhouse?

Harris said a conversation on Clubhouse inspired him to start a research group on the efficacy of performance-based assessments. He’s also gotten panel-speaking opportunities from connections he’s made on the app.

Others say they’ve made close friends on the app with people they’ve never met, and interacted with people in different countries who have opened their eyes to a wider world.

The app also doesn’t require users to devote their full attention to it for hours at a time. McKenzie said she’s showered, cooked dinner, and cleaned her apartment while listening to discussions, almost akin to listening to a podcast that’s being recorded in real time.

Waller likens the discussions on Clubhouse to the informal chatter that takes place during off hours at an education conference—without the hefty conference fees.

What have educators brought from Clubhouse to their work?

A few examples:

  • Marquise Richards, an instructional aide at KIPP Philadelphia Schools, said he’d love to see the style of conversation that happens in Clubhouse translate to classroom interactions with students.
  • Brandon Johnson, a middle school leader at the Global Leadership Academy Southwest in Philadelphia, borrowed an idea from a Clubhouse user and asked one student from each of his classes to meet weekly and plan virtual events on topics that interest them. He’s also heard from fellow educators that engaging with parents is extremely important, so he’s made more of an effort this year to talk to them socially, not just to communicate about their student’s progress.
  • Waller was inspired by her Clubhouse interactions to change her approach to offering professional development to her staff. Instead of starting each session with a long monologue presentation, she focuses more heavily on generating discussion.

What kinds of privacy and security concerns have experts raised about the app?

While the app’s fans tout the sense of security they feel about the conversations they’re having remaining on the platform, some have found their way onto third-party sites, raising questions about how much confidence users can have that what they say on the platform won’t pop up elsewhere on the internet.

Experts on reverse-engineering software programs have found backdoor paths to listening in on conversations without appearing to other users in a room and broadcasting Clubhouse conversations to people who aren’t on the app, according to a TechCrunch report.

A Stanford University report found that the company may be routing some of its data through a server operated by a Chinese company, which has prompted concern that the Chinese government may have access to sensitive information contained within the app.

One privacy analyst found that Clubhouse recordings aren’t fully encrypted and thus may be in violation of privacy laws, particularly in the European Union, which in 2018 enacted privacy restrictions tighter than any at the federal level in the United States.

The app notifies all of your contacts who are already on Clubhouse that you’ve joined once you sign up, which could be jarring for some who want to stay incognito. Some users have reported discomfort with the app combing through their smartphone contacts and recommending they invite their therapist or professional associates to join Clubhouse. And a freelance journalist for Forbes pointed out that the app lacks accessibility features for deaf users.

Have there been issues with content moderation on the platform?

Users have raised concerns about instances of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and misinformation on the app. The company drew criticism in recent months for failing to proactively implement content-moderation standards and practices before instances of offensive or harmful content arose.

There’s also anecdotal evidence that people affiliated with the Stop the Steal movement, which was involved in the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol building, as well as the conspiracy theory movement QAnon, have popped up on the app.

What else should I know about the appeal of the app, and the possible concerns about it?

The rise of Clubhouse, especially during the pandemic, reflects a cultural thirst for verbal conversation, and perhaps an increasing comfort with the style of discourse that’s become popular on podcasts, said Jeffrey Hall, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas.

“It makes a lot of sense to me that people would enjoy the feeling of listening because the voice carries so much more nuance when it comes to jokes, expressiveness, nuance, shades of accent, age, gender, and all of those cues that our ears can pick up really, really easily and interpret with our brains simply,” Hall said.

As for the privacy and security concerns, Attai believes consumers ought to “do their homework” before getting invested in an app that could prove problematic. More broadly, she and other privacy experts hope to see regulation of social media companies more effectively deal with the rapid evolution of these platforms and the user bases they absorb.

“Every new thing that comes along is not necessarily for us, and we need to look into it and decide for ourselves,” Attai said.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2021 edition of Education Week as Clubhouse: What Educators Should Know About the New Audio Chat App

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