Learning Across Borders

Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash

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:


Two weeks in, both Raisa and Smith say the sudden experiment with distance learning is going well. “Yes, some aspects don’t really translate,” Raisa said, “but I appreciate what my professors are trying to do.”

Are you an international student studying from back home or a professor teaching students dispersed around the globe? Tell me about your experience at latitudesnews@gmail.com.

Inquiry on China Ties Moves Ahead

Despite the coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. government is moving ahead with its investigation into what it says are Chinese efforts to steal American intellectual property. Politico took a deep dive into the inquiry, which has focused on American universities and academics. Here are a few highlights:

  • The Justice Department wants each of the country’s 94 U.S. attorney’s offices to bring cases. “These cases take time, they sometimes involve classified evidence,” the assistant attorney general for national security told Politico. “But we wanted to signal to the U.S. attorneys that we understood that, and nonetheless we wanted them to focus their resources on this.”
  • The focus simply isn’t on bringing prosecutions but on working with higher education to encourage educators to exercise greater vigilance. One U.S. attorney said his office spent half of its time on outreach to academe and industry as part of the investigation.
  • The inquiry has led to a “sea change” in college administrators’ views on international collaboration. This characterization comes not from educators themselves — no one from a university is quoted in the article — but from Justice Department attorneys and lawyers hired by colleges. My take: This overstates administrators’ views. I do think college leaders have felt less on the defensive after public officials took the time to reach out. But I don’t sense that they have fundamentally shifted their belief in the value of international work.

Relatedly, the British government says it plans to tackle foreign interference on university campuses, according to a document obtained by the PIE News.

What’s Your Strategy?

Last week I asked how colleges are developing approaches to recruit and enroll international students amid the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus outbreak. I want to hear more about the biggest challenges you worry about and how you plan to address them. Email me your strategies or message me on LinkedIn or Twitter. I plan to write more about this issue in the coming weeks.

Around the Globe

Australian universities said a government-funding guarantee was not enough to plug the financial hole caused by a loss of international enrollments.

University College Dublin has dropped proposed changes to its academic freedom policy that would have allowed for different interpretations of the concept, a move related to its growing ties in China.

The Chinese embassy is chartering planes to fly students out of the United States, with underage students given priority.

Some 100 Chinese scholars signed an open letter to the American people about the coronavirus — which questioned its origin.

Saudi Arabian universities are pushing to hire more female faculty members.

A prominent Indian economist is calling for the abolition of the country’s University Grants Commission, which controls funding and sets standards for Indian universities.

The president of the European Research Council quit after the group’s board failed to approval a plan to fund special coronavirus-related research.

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And finally …

It’s hard to find much humor in a global pandemic. But this tweet, by an English teacher in West Virginia, made me laugh outloud when it popped up in my feed:


Seriously, how familiar are many of these lines?! Though I was disappointed not to see my personal favorite pitch from these last few weeks, sent to me and other higher-ed reporters: “What industry can colleges dive into to ensure student and overall business success? That industry is cannabis.”

’Til next week — Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.