Making a course accessible to international students

Learning with technology can create challenges for students and faculty alike. For one group of students, the difficulties are exacerbated by additional factors due to their international location.


Challenge #1: Time zone differences

Students report academic and health issues during online learning while living in time zones other than Connecticut’s eastern time zone. International students, in particular, are often taking synchronous courses or exams late at night, leading to sleep disruption, degraded sleep quality, fatigue, and reduced motivation. This also leads to diminished participation because they are concerned about waking their family, cannot provide complex responses in the chat feature, and report their chat comments and questions are missed.

How to help:

  • Record all synchronous sessions and make them available for asynchronous viewing;
  • Provide asynchronous opportunities to participate, such as discussion boards and asynchronous polling, as an alternative to synchronous participation; and 
  • Provide a more flexible time window during which students can take the exam that allows them to take it during normal business hours in their time zone.


Challenge #2: Inability to connect to BB Collaborate for synchronous sessions

Students in countries with Internet restrictions, such as China, report challenges accessing a variety of websites.  The impact of the three China International Gateways, commonly referred to as the Great Firewall of China, screen traffic between China and the rest of the world. Intermittent security screening slows down general internet performance, making accessing virtual learning environments hosted outside China difficult, such as HuskyCT. This creates unreliable access to these sites. Many students utilize a virtual private network (VPN) but even with a VPN connection can be sporadic. In particular, the use of Blackboard Collaborate for synchronous sessions can be especially challenging for these students. 

How to help:

  • Utilize tools that do not require a VPN for synchronous sessions, such as Microsoft Teams (limit 350 participants);
  • Utilize tools that are more stable with a VPN, such as Webex; and
  • Provide recordings of synchronous sessions to allow for asynchronous viewing.


Challenge #3: Poor internet connections

Many students experience what is referred to as “last mile” connectivity issues. Although there may be sufficient connectivity at the main network, as it gets further from the source the connectivity declines, similar to travelling on highways for most of a long journey but as you get closer to the end of the trip you are travelling smaller roads with less capacity and lower speeds. Additionally, similar to the highway, closer to the main network connections have only a few junctures but the rural connections have many twists and side roads creating a longer journey. During these last miles, the connectivity slows down, making it difficult to maintain a strong network connection.

How to help:

  • Set online exams to show all questions at once, rather than one at a time, to reduce the number of times the page reloads;
  • Post short videos when possible (i.e. 10 minute chunks), rather than longer recordings;
  • Avoid loading voiceover PowerPoints directly into HuskyCT due to file size;
  • Provide recordings of synchronous sessions to allow for asynchronous viewing; 
  • Provide course materials as electronic copies; and
  • Utilize course features that permit asynchronous participation, such as discussion boards.


Challenge #4: Inability to attend office hours

Time zone differences hinder international students’ ability to attend office hours. Because office hours are based on Connecticut’s time zone, students with more than a 5-hour time difference are often unable to attend. Even if students are willing and able to attend office hours in the late night, they do not want to disturb their family by speaking at this time.

How to help:

  • Establish a second office hour time that allows international students to participate during their daytime hours (e.g. 7:00 pm EST = 8:00 am China time).


Challenge #5: Obtaining course materials

Students living outside the United States often have issues getting books and other course content delivered to their home in a timely manner. Countries with internet restrictions create additional challenges for obtaining and viewing course content. To date, China blocks more than 8,000 websites. Among the websites blocked Youtube, many Google sites, WordPress, Slack, Netflix, Vimeo, Flickr, Wikipedia, Dropbox, Mendeley, LinkedIn, Flipboard, Amazon, social media sites, and many news sites.

How to help:

  • Provide students with a list of required books and materials before the beginning of the semester so they have time to source access;
  • If you use videos provide written transcribed content for those who may not be able to access and view the video;
  • Avoid posting links if you are unsure if international students will be able to access;
  • If you learn that a website cannot be accessed, be prepared to provide an electronic copy of the content;
  • Provide short electronic documents;
  • Rather than Youtube, provide the reference and more than one alternative source link, such as Youku; and
  • Rather than Google, provide the reference and more than one alternative source link, such as Baidu.

Challenge #6: Creating connections or collaborating with classmates and instructors

Being in different time zones negatively impacts students’ ability to create connections with classmates and instructors. Research shows that a sense of belonging enhances classroom engagement and academic achievement. 

How to help:

  • Provide a variety of opportunities for students to interact with classmates and instructor but using flexible times and asynchronous options;
  • Incorporate tools, such as FlipGrid, that allow for video-based answers viewable to classmates;
  • Incorporate tools, such as MicroSoft Teams, that allow for asynchronous chats;
  • Utilize tools, such as Google docs or Padlet, that allow for asynchronous collaboration; or
  • Provide a variety of office hour times.