When Kenyan officials announced they were closing the borders to stop the coronavirus’ spread, Raisa Kanji found herself navigating through “almost a ghost town” of airports to get back home. The University of Indianapolis sophomore and her older sister, a student in New York, made it back in time — many of her friends studying abroad did not — and spent two weeks in quarantine.
Now, like students at hundreds of American colleges, Raisa, a double major in psychology and business administration, is taking classes remotely. Her new routine has its advantages — she can break to help her mother cook lunch or to go for a quick walk around the neighborhood with her father before the 7 p.m. curfew.
Still, the transition to distance education has been a bumpy one for many students, and for faculty, too. How do you transition mid-semester to an entirely new medium of learning? How do you tune out the distractions — from family, from the news — to focus on schoolwork? For international students who returned to their home countries when campuses closed down, there can be additional hurdles. I talked with Raisa and with Paula Smith, a professor of English at Grinnell College, about the challenges of distance learning when that distance is thousands of miles — and across international borders.
The most obvious headache is time. Nairobi is seven hours ahead of Indianapolis, which means Raisa’s afternoon classes could stretch late into the evening. With students in all 50 states and in dozens of countries, Grinnell faculty from the start were discouraged from following a “same place, same time” model in favor of asynchronous learning. Smith said a few of her colleagues are holding “live” class sessions, but that’s almost always at the request of students themselves, who are anxious to see and hear their classmates. But the professors have made those sessions optional so that students who can’t join in aren’t penalized.
Likewise, Raisa said most of her classes consist of prerecorded lectures and assigned readings and aren’t held at specific times. The one exception is a course that meets at noon in Indianapolis. But 7 p.m. is the time for evening prayers for Raisa and her family, who are observant Muslims, so she can’t join in. Instead, she’s able to watch the session later.
Time differences don’t just affect course delivery but how long students have to complete assignments. An assignment posted online during the day by a professor in the U.S. might not be seen by a student in another region of the world until they log back in the next day. Before she left for Kenya, Raisa reached out to her professors, who agreed to give students a 48-hour window to hand in assignments. Smith, too, gives students several days to post responses in the online discussion forum. One wrinkle: She has to encourage some eager students to hold back to give all students time to weigh in.
Internet connectivity can be spotty in parts of the world. “Here, our Internet is not the greatest,” Raisa said, and her connection turned especially balky right in the middle of a timed exam. She ended up recording a video of how long it was taking questions to load and sending it to her professor, who gave her extra time to complete the test. After returning to China, one of Smith’s students was quarantined in a hotel where the wifi was so poor that she was unable to post to the class online discussion board. Smith asked her to draft responses to the readings and submit them later.
Smith’s students are studying Greek literature, but she and her colleagues are mindful that some material could trip the Internet firewall in places like China. Should students be denied access to any readings because of local censorship, professors can give alternative assignments but share the original content with students later. Some academics have debated whether to be more circumspect, such as omitting case studies on politically sensitive topics like Tiananmen Square from a human-rights course: