What ‘Zoom University’ is like for international students
The Justice spoke to Alice Pham ’23 and Vy Phan ’23 about their experiences taking classes online in a different time zone.
Wake up. Zoom class 8 a.m. Zoom class 1 p.m. Zoom class 4 p.m. Insert periodically eating throughout the day. Study. Sleep. Repeat. We are all feeling it: the slow drag of this semester, the lack of motivation for anything beginning or ending with the word “Zoom,” the desire to stay in sweatpants perpetually. College students around the world have undergone enormous transitions that have added to our already stressful feelings of figuring out what we want to do in the future and how our college education aligns with those goals. But how do certain students’ experiences differ from others'?
The environment that students are living and studying in is perhaps the most impactful distinction between peers right now. At Brandeis, there are 1,841 students currently living on campus. For this group of college students, the transition to online learning is arguably somewhat easier. For students studying from home or in different time zones, however, so-called Zoom University is much further from the college experience that they were expecting.
I began to witness the differences between different students’ experiences when I got my first job on campus. As a new English Language Programs tutor for international students, the first challenge I ran into was scheduling Zoom meetings. Since most of my tutees are students in China, the 12 hour time difference made it more difficult to schedule sessions at hours when we were both awake that also did not conflict with our classes. I remember looking from their schedules, to my schedule, back to their schedules again, in utter amazement at the complications that different time zones alone present. When I asked them what it was like attending classes at odd hours, one of my students just laughed, then sighed and mentioned that he wasn’t getting much sleep.
According to the 2019 International Student Profile on the University’s website, international students make up 20% of Brandeis’ undergraduate population and 42% percent of Brandeis’ graduate population. With the arrival of COVID-19, international students had to make the decision of whether to stay home or return to campus this fall. While students who remained home avoided the inconvenience of making travel arrangements and limited additional health risks that could arise from travel and living on campus, they lost any sense of normalcy and consistency with their coursework, in addition to their connection to college campus life.
“Online learning is just not that effective,” said Alice Pham ’23 in a Sept. 25 Zoom interview with the Justice from her home in Vietnam, which is 11 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Pham highlighted the numerous opportunities for distraction during online classes, such as looking at her phone whenever there are technical difficulties. She also said that the different types of assessments that she has to take didn't suit her academic needs. “Teachers are more flexible on exams, they extend the time, and so I feel like I’m not learning as much. It feels like I’m depending more on my notes than my memorization or understanding of the material,” she said.
For her biology and physics labs, she explained that they have become more centered around “oral communications and writing intensive skills,” which she sees as a shift in the way academic material is being taught and evaluated now compared to before COVID-19 happened. Pham also brought up the issue of internet access — an issue that emphasizes a lack of equity among students around the world. With the majority of learning happening online, not having a strong Wi-Fi signal creates insurmountable issues that can divide students academically. Everything from submitting digital assignments, to emailing professors, to attending Zoom lectures, requires the internet. For students who don't have internet connection or the other technology needed for online learning at home, school can become significantly more stressful. One of the major advantages of living on campus is having access to certain resources that others do not, such as campus wide internet and computers.
For many of the first-year international students that I tutor, missing out on the social aspect of college is the most immediate disappointment with their situation. With many new first-years on campus, some first-year international students feel isolated and separated from most of their class year. One of my students explained that she really wants to get to know some American students, but she worries that a semester gap (or more) where she is not on campus will make it more challenging to socialize with non-international students.
In contrast, while international students Pham and Vy Phan ’23 miss their friends and living on campus, they both feel that they have a sense of college social life already, and they emphasized other aspects of socialization that have changed. Phan, who is also doing online learning from her home in Vietnam, said in a Sept. 23 Zoom interview with the Justice that she misses the ability to talk to her classmates and ask them questions. She explained, “You don’t get to just turn around and physically talk to your classmates.”
The Zoom lecture hall experience, as well as Zoom breakout rooms, have left students feeling awkward and unwilling to participate and interact with people that they don’t already know. “Not only is it difficult to make new friends in class, but if you didn't catch something the professors said, or were too shy to ask a question that gets the attention of the whole class looking at your screen, you have to go through the recordings. And that’s less convenient," Phan said. The bond between professors and students in class is another social part of college that suffers from a virtual format for many people.
For international students in different time zones, even attending club meetings is often out of the question due to time differences and scheduling conflicts. While the Brandeis community attempts to be as accommodating as possible, the fact remains that international students are generally unable to engage with the wide variety of online events and opportunities offered in the same way that other students can.
Of course with all its drawbacks, there are benefits to the Zoom lifestyle as well. Perhaps the greatest thing about online classes is having more freedom. If you feel like sleeping in for an extra hour, you can. If you feel like staying in bed the entire day in your pajamas, you can. All you have to do is get up about two minutes before Zoom class starts and login to your computer. For classes that are recorded, you can work your studies into your schedule in any way that suits you. Multitasking has also become an option. You can walk or drive while listening to a recorded lecture, optimizing the time you have each day. As college students on tight schedules, online classes provide more pockets of time that were not previously at our disposal.
Phan raised an interesting point about another way online learning has benefited students: “My professor uploaded the required books to LATTE, instead of having us buy it because some books you can only get the physical copies.” We both laughed at the thought of how great this service was and that it should continue every semester — surely the University could afford it. Overall, Phan and Pham were both incredibly appreciative of professors who have been considerate and changed their office hours, given extensions for assessments and provided class recordings. Both agreed that these policies should continue even after online learning has ceased.
COVID-19 has forced educators and students alike to rethink their understanding of effective education. For college students, online learning creates a number of obstacles and inequities that had not previously existed, especially for international students. But as we continue to live and learn through our new experiences with academic and social life, perhaps this turning point in history will be a stepping stone for the American educational system that could combine the advantageous elements of in-person learning that we took for granted with elements of online learning that we have just begun to discover.