Under normal circumstances, waking up in time to go to lecture or take an exam might be taken for granted. But for some students living abroad over this past year of online learning, everyday tasks became consistent challenges.
Last summer, the Sauder School of Business told its undergraduate students that if they couldn’t attend live classes, they should withdraw from their courses. But as the difficulty of online classes grew heading into the winter session, so too did students’ concerns about if and how instructors and faculties would accommodate those living overseas.
The issue is far from UBC-specific; stories from universities across Canada touch on the challenges faced by international students trying to remain in Canada during the pandemic and the mental and physical strain faced by students studying late into the night.
But with a full school year of online learning on the books and the fate of the fall term still uncertain for many international students, it’s worth reflecting on how students in different time zones fared over the past year.
We’ll take a look at how some students dealt with learning across time zones, how some instructors adapted to the circumstances and how university policies and faculty recommendations stood up to students’ calls for action.
‘I needed to chug a Red Bull every morning to stay awake.’
For first-year arts student Dania Shadid, the transition to university was exhausting.
“I don't feel like I've been prepared to go into university,” said Shadid. “It's been really lonely and the workload is very heavy.”
Shadid took her first year at home in the Philippines — a 15- to 16-hour time difference from Vancouver.
Transitioning to university, Shadid knew that she would have to make some adjustments — she was transitioning from IB classes to university-style instruction, and her circumstances left her hoping that her professors would be accommodating. But it appeared that some instructors, too, were still learning how to make their courses suitable for online learning.
Shadid said that in term one she was in an English class that required live, in-class participation, even though it was at 4 a.m. in the Phillipines. She ended up dropping it within the first few weeks.
“Even though the professor said [lectures] would be asynchronous, live participation was still worth ten per cent of your grade,” said Shadid. “I needed to chug a Red Bull every morning to stay awake.”
As the term continued, Shadid found herself beset with a constant flurry of quizzes and midterms — and time zone differences meant that exam days called for an “inverted schedule,” where she would sleep around 7 p.m. and wake up around 2 in the morning.
Her speech sciences major required her to take a biology course that held synchronous exams at 4 a.m. Philippines time. Despite the potential consequences, she dropped the course halfway through the term, hoping to try again under more practical conditions.
“I just decided I've had enough,” said Shadid.
Khushi Patil, another first-year arts student, took a more drastic approach to studying from a different time zone: she adapted her entire life to Vancouver time.
Asked to describe her first year, Patil simply replied, “It’s been mostly just looking into a screen, you know?”
Patil said she committed to the full switch for two reasons. Academically, her schedule saw classes and tutorials slotted from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. and again from 5 to 6 a.m., and she said sleeping between those would’ve been “too risky.” Socially, Patil volunteered with the Arts Undergraduate Society and wanted to block out time to call and chat with friends she made around the globe.
“I recognize that not everything can adjust for us, so I feel like we have to do the best that we can to accommodate for everything going on,” said Patil.
That being said, Patil recognizes that her experience was more positive than the experiences of some of her peers. She says she was lucky that most of her professors were accommodating for assignments and midterms, though she encountered the same obstacle that other students abroad faced come finals season.
“Last term, I had a class where midterms were open for 24 hours, but when the finals schedule came out, the exam was at 1 a.m.,” said Patil. “I hadn’t done the full switch yet, so my options were either to wake up really early or stay up really late.”
Despite this, Patil said that the support from her family, professors and the camaraderie she found with other students kept her going.
“It does feel very disconnected being like this, having most of my interactions in college [so far] being through a laptop,” said Patil. “But surprisingly, I made a lot of friends through clubs, so it’s not that bad.”
Similarly, Rowan Ifill, a first-year science student at UBC Okanagan, encountered a heap of logistical challenges while bridging the time zone gap.
iClicker questions, notorious mainstays of large-lecture courses at UBC, compelled students to physically come to class and give their responses. But Ifill says that live participation marks meant that she had to wake up for computer science lectures at 4 a.m. in Hong Kong.
“I didn't want to wake up at 4 a.m., as the lecture is the [morning] after I have work all day,” said Ifill.
The professor offered to shift participation marks to the final exam, but Ifill ultimately decided against it. However, Ifill’s concerns focused primarily around exam timing. According to Ifill, her course grades depended mostly on how well she did on exams.
In term one, Ifill had a final exam scheduled for the early morning in Hong Kong. She reached out to her professor, who pointed her to the associate dean of the faculty of science.
“They basically said they’re not making any concessions for international students,” said Ifill.
According to communications from the UBC Okanagan Irving K. Barber faculty of science, accommodations for time zone hardship were unlikely even for finals in term two.
“Students are expected to write their final exams at the time scheduled to avoid hardships and clashes. We will NOT consider out-of-time exam requests solely based on differences in time zones,” the faculty wrote in an April email to students.
Time zone differences and increased workloads forced instructors to improvise
Dr. Jackie Stewart is no stranger to experimenting with her course structure. However, bringing classes online and making them accessible to students around the world was a challenge in its own right.
“Despite my over 15 years of teaching chemistry, I'm not an expert in online teaching,” said Stewart. “So I set that bar of like, ‘I'm really excited about this and it's a good opportunity, but I'm not going to claim to have it all figured out.’”
Stewart’s pedagogy emphasized collaborative learning and student engagement. But having no physical classroom and with students joining from around the world, Stewart wondered how she would approach teaching online.
As it turns out, most things stayed the same.
For SCI 113, a first-year seminar on studying and communicating science, the project-focused course structure transferred almost seamlessly. But in CHEM 100, a more content-focused, entry-level course on the foundations of chemistry, the transition was a bit trickier.
Not everything was in Stewart’s control. To her surprise, tutorials moved to 8 p.m. Vancouver time; she said the department intended to accommodate students in different time zones, but attendance was low.
Otherwise, other parts of the course appeared successful.
Although Stewart preferred that students attend class live at 12 p.m. Vancouver time to ask questions and engage with other students, recordings were available. She adjusted her assignments to make them open for 24 hours and assessments to be done individually instead of in a group.
Stewart added a midterm to the course — half an individual, multiple-choice assessment, and half a short-answer section based in small breakout groups.
To dissuade cheating, Stewart restricted students' ability to revise previous answers and implemented a time limit.
“I was really scared to use open-book exams in the past because I really doubted my own ability to make a good exam,” Stewart said. “[This year,] I really tried to trust that I was asking questions which, first of all, weren't Googleable. And second of all, if they did Google it, I would know it.”
But when it came to the logistics, exam timing could only be so flexible. Stewart offered two sittings for the midterm, but faculty guidance to not accommodate for time zones during final exams in term one led her to stick to the assigned time of 8:30 a.m. PDT, stretching into the late-night hours for students in East Asia.
“I definitely absolve myself of [the faculty decision] because I'm like, ‘Okay, if this is the messaging, it’s crappy, but everybody's in the same boat,’” said Stewart.
“[I]f a student felt like they really performed poorly on this or it was super stressful and bad for their mental health, I feel terrible about that. I'm not in the business of making people miserable.”
Similar sentiments were shared by Dr. Anka Lekhi, an assistant professor in the department of chemistry. In term one, Lekhi taught CHEM 120 to over 2,000 students, over a hundred of whom were international students within Vantage College, which hosts programs for students who don’t yet meet the English language admission requirement for UBC.
Lekhi implemented 24-hour lecture quizzes in lieu of iClicker questions, weekly homework which remained open for 7 days prior to the deadline and midterm exams that were open for 16 hours.
However, the CHEM 120 final exam was synchronous, with its time likewise set for 8:30 a.m. in Vancouver.
“Faculty of Science guidance was that instructors were not required to provide additional final exam times and that it can introduce unfairness if different versions are harder/easier,” Lekhi told The Ubyssey in an email.
But in the end, experience and comfort with different modes of teaching varies widely by instructor.
“I view it like instructors [being] on this continuum of how they like to teach and how they do their assessments ... active versus more lecture-y. I feel like this [year] pushed everyone,” Stewart said.
Current policies leave little guidance for accommodating across time zones
There’s a wide divide between policy and implementation.
Conditions for examination hardship and clashes are currently governed by Policy J-102. The AMS proposed an amendment to the policy to ensure that students scheduled to take exams in the middle of the night would be eligible for examination hardship, but it was rejected by the Senate Academic Policy Committee on March 9.
The amendment would have required an instructor or faculty to provide an alternate exam time or format should a student request a scheduling change.
“This should not be creating more burden [for instructors], but the underlying principle is that they need to be accommodating and these are resources they can use to do so,” former AMS VP Academic and University Affairs Yee said during a February meeting of the AMS Advocacy Committee.
In the Senate, Academic Policy Committee Chair Dr. Kin Lo recommended that in lieu of policy changes, deans should reiterate UBC's Academic Concession policy and encourage instructors to accommodate their students as they see fit.
“Some of the considerations included that a lot of these exam situations are already being handled by instructors,” Lo told The Ubyssey in March. “So that reduces the need to have this in policy.”
Implementing measures such as 24-hour exam periods, alternate start times or take-home assignments in lieu of exams all depends on faculty, subject matter and the instructor’s course design preferences, according to Simon Bates, associate provost, teaching and learning.
“Whilst it may look ad hoc, it is crucial to understand that one approach to assessment may not work for all course contexts and that is why the faculties and faculty members are able to decide which option works for them,” said Bates in a written statement to The Ubyssey.
This gave faculties the freedom — and challenge — of working with instructors to make their courses accessible.
“Our guidance to instructors has been to be compassionate, accommodating and flexible where possible, recognizing that the entire UBC Science community — students, TAs, and faculty members — are balancing challenges in the online learning environment,” said Sara Harris, associate dean academic of the faculty of science in a written statement.
Harris noted that the faculty encouraged instructors to shift marks away from high-stakes assessments like midterms and finals and implement flexible grading approaches like allowing students to drop their lowest marks on a set number of assignments.
As for final exams themselves, Harris said that the faculty still advised that most students write them at the scheduled time, with one notable exception:
“Sometimes, usually for large classes, we need to offer alternative exam times to accommodate students with hardships under UBC’s official policy [Policy 102] — so we also recommended that instructors offer students with significant time-zone challenges the opportunity to write exams at those alternate times,” said Harris.
This differs from the response taken by the faculty of science at UBC Okanagan, which didn’t offer out-of-time exam requests based on time zone differences alone.
“This is to limit uncertainty in the final exam schedule and to minimize, to the greatest extent possible, exam anxiety for the greatest number of students,” said Nathan Skolski, associate director, public affairs, Okanagan, in a written statement.
‘This shouldn’t have been limited to us.’
While some instructors insist that every student attend synchronous exams and class activities, one fifth-year science student thinks that more could be done to ensure that students in different time zones receive support.
The student, who requested to be anonymous due to perceived stigma around having a disability and potential for academic retaliation, believes that the only reason they were able to get time zone accommodations was because they have a neurological disability and were registered with the Centre for Accessibility.
The student said that they had multiple courses where an instructor explicitly told students that no accommodations would be made to students in different time zones, but were granted accommodations in their case due to their relationship with the centre.
“For other students, it sucks. I’m in the same [circumstances] as them. I just have extra documentation enforcing [an] adjusted exam time,” said the student.
The student noted that they had been registered with the centre for years, but moving home to an often-loud and disruptive environment and a large time zone difference prompted them to seek out additional accommodations. The student said they were baffled when the centre told them they needed a psychiatrist’s note to affirm that the medicine they took rendered them unfit to take an exam at 3 a.m.
“I got new documentation that explicitly stated that ‘this person can only function during [normal working] hours,’” said the student. “Which is what every single person also has — neurotypical brains also have [normal working] hours.”
Given that the student’s classes saw one or two midterms and a final make-up between 50 and 100 per cent of their course grades, they believe that the ability to take exams at an appropriate time would have been beneficial to many students abroad.
“I think that when professors have a student [who’s] already in their class with these accommodations, that creates a great opportunity for them to accommodate other students,” they said.
The fifth-year science student wants to see consistency in how instructors, faculty and administration approach students in different time zones.
“I think UBC should have been able to be like, ‘We know, there's so many different classes and types of teaching, but these are some of the guidelines that we would like to enforce for all the online classes,’” said the student.
For now, students consider what their options are — and what they could be
With courses looking to be primarily in-person come the fall, international students are still wondering whether they’ll be able to enter the country or if they’ll start a second year of online learning.
While Patil wanted to move to Vancouver in term two, her study permit application was stuck amidst the backlog of cases at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
Requirements regarding entry into Canada, especially from regions facing a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, are still changing every day.
As global conditions change, students continue to navigate a patchwork of faculty and instructor responses to find out what options are available to them this summer.
Student senators have long echoed concerns around prompt communication with faculty and students — exam concessions for students in different time zones was no different.
“The exam concessions policy is designed to protect and to support students, but interpretation of that policy and the way that it is applied through different instructors isn’t necessarily uniform across the institution or in line with the true intent of flexibilities,” student senator Julia Burnham said to The Ubyssey in March.
And for first years new to university classes or students who have had less-than-pleasant experiences reaching out to instructors, advisors or administrators, reaching out for help isn’t always as simple as it seems.
“There is a certain level of privilege that comes from, or it manifests itself in, those who think it's okay to ask for something,” said Dr. Jackie Stewart. “Those students who asked for an extension are confident enough to put themselves out there and to directly ask their professor like ‘Hey, can I have more time for this reason,’ but lots of students never asked.”