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Learning in Two Time Zones: International Students’ Experiences during Covid-19

Posted by on Wednesday, November 11, 2020 in Commentary.

By: José Luis de Ramón Ruiz and Nazirah Mohd Khairi, Teaching Affiliates, Vanderbilt Center for Teaching

During the fall semester of 2020, most students have had to adapt to new models of teaching and learning, with course schedules combining in-person classes––which have looked very different this semester amid safety protocols––and remote classes conducted via Zoom. The inclusion of online learning has challenged students and instructors alike, who have had to reimagine ways of teaching and learning in a virtual environment. For one group of students, the difficulties of adapting to remote learning have been exacerbated by other factors, such as time zone differences and difficulties accessing class materials and digital tools. To learn more, we surveyed Vanderbilt University international students taking classes from abroad. In this post, we present our findings, offering insights into how instructors can best support these students as they learn from their home countries.

Time Zone Challenges

The time difference with Nashville can be a major disruption to international students’ experience in the virtual classroom. Students in China and India have classes until late at night, and those in certain parts of Canada report having lectures very early in the morning. These groups share several concerns, including suffering sleep disturbances and having to attend class before sunrise, while the rest of their family sleeps. Several students report having had to make changes to their sleep routines––either by going to bed too early or too late––so that they could adapt to their class schedule. These changes have degraded their sleep quality–a similar issue discussed in a recent Vanderbilt Hustler article— so these students are fatigued during class and unable to perform as well as they would like. In addition, taking classes too early or too late has diminished their participation and motivation; some students are worried about speaking while their family sleeps, and others report that lack of daylight affects their mood and energy levels. Time differences have also negatively impacted their engagement in office hours and help sessions, which are usually held in the late afternoon or early evening, on Nashville local time, and are very hard to access for students in countries with more than a five-hour time difference, such as Turkey, India, and China.

To address these issues, instructors could provide multiple ways of accessing class content. Whenever possible, professors can offer class materials asynchronously, giving international students ample time to engage with and process materials on their local time. If asynchronous alternatives are not available, then professors could record synchronous classes and make them available for students. These alternatives could enhance the accessibility of class content to both international and domestic students. Instructors should also offer a wider range of consultation times in the morning, afternoon, and evening, making office hours more accessible to students in different time zones.

Fostering Connectedness

Being in a different time zone may negatively affect students’ connectedness with their professor and classmates. Research has shown that having a sense of belonging in the classroom enhances engagement and academic achievement. In certain online environments, however, it can be difficult for students to interact with and get to know their instructors and colleagues, which makes it hard to develop a feeling of connectedness. In hybrid classes, some students report having had trouble answering complex questions through the chat box, adding that the answers they submit in this way are not always seen by their professor. Students have also mentioned having had difficulties hearing comments and questions of students who are taking the course in person. These difficulties affect their experiences as students as well as their ability to get to know their classmates and make themselves known to their classmates and professor. Time zone differences also exacerbate disconnection. International students identified office hours, study groups, and online social events as opportunities to get to know and bond with their professors and classmates, but time differences can prevent them from attending consultation hours and other online gatherings with their peers.

To help foster a sense of community in an online setting, we recommend providing as many opportunities as possible for students to interact with their professor and classmates. In hybrid classes, instructors could use various tools such as Padlet and discussion boards on Brightspace to promote communication among online and in-person students. Both platforms allow students to answer questions online and to respond to their classmates’ posts at their own pace. VoiceThread is another option for facilitating engagement among students, allowing for the creation of online videos and presentations on which students can verbally comment to engage in dialogue with their peers. We encourage instructors to respond to their students’ comments, giving them feedback and engaging in more personal interactions with them. In synchronous classes, some students identify breakout rooms as great opportunities to collaborate with and get to know their classmates. In both synchronous and asynchronous situations, interactions must be meaningful. It is crucial that instructors have a learning goal in mind when asking students to interact among themselves.

Interactions with the instructors are also important to feel connected with the class. In addition to hosting office hours at different times so that international students can attend, professors may use messaging applications such as Slack and Zoom chat to allow students to communicate with them and with the rest of the class. Doing so will require extra work on the part of the instructor (to moderate the chat or to find conversation topics), but it can provide a space for students to get to know their professors and each other better.

Lab Classes

Most of the students we interviewed were not taking lab classes, perhaps because of the inherent difficulty of taking such courses remotely. However, one student who was taking a lab class lamented over the fact that they missed out on the opportunity to perform a real lab experiment and instead had to complete an extra assignment for a lab report in its place. It seems that students who are taking these lab courses abroad are missing out on key learning experiences. Meanwhile, others may be avoiding lab classes until they can take them in person, which raises potential challenges for some students who may now be off track if they are unable to complete required lab courses in their program before enrolling in post-requisite courses and/or graduating.

Instructors everywhere acknowledge that conducting labs is very challenging without hands-on activities, but since the beginning of the pandemic in March, universities have found different workarounds. Many virtual labs are now available, such as ChemCollective, Connect Virtual Labs, and MERLOT Virtual Labs. In addition, the director of making at the Wond’ry has suggested packing lab materials in shipping boxes to mail to students who cannot be on campus. For international students, instructors could provide a list of materials that students can purchase before the lab session so that they can conduct the experiment at home. Generally speaking, having contingency plans is always a good idea when teaching in an online environment. Students, both international and domestic, may not be able to complete lab assignments and certain activities due to technical issues. So, having alternative ways of providing the same learning experience can help instructors deal with glitches and other unexpected problems during their classes.

Graduate International Students

Regarding graduate students, the challenges of taking classes while not being in Nashville are combined with difficulties in advancing their research. Thanks to our Vanderbilt library staff, who put a tremendous amount of effort to digitize most of the library resources this summer, some graduate students have been able to continue their research while being abroad. One of our participants specifically mentions how these digital materials are helping the continuation of their studies. However, there is still research that needs to be conducted on-site. Not being on campus and having access to particular resources have caused some graduate students to fall behind on their original research timeline.

As both of us are international students ourselves, we can empathize with the unique challenges that these students are facing. By sharing their experiences and offering suggestions for remedying their concerns, we hope to help Vanderbilt instructors make their classes more inclusive of and accessible to international students who are taking remote classes from their home countries. Remote learning should be a positive and meaningful experience for every student regardless of his or her location. If you need more information or assistance, please contact the Center for Teaching so that we can help you accommodate the needs of your international students.

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