The Chronicle of Higher Education
by Karin Fischer
September 30, 2020
One minute the class looked like any online session, neat boxes framing the faces of students and their professor.
The next, some of those faces disappeared, replaced by avatars, pseudonyms, and shots of the ceiling. The reason: Discussion in the course on Chinese society had turned to politics, and students in the class from China had pulled out of the conversation, afraid that their government could be listening in.
The incident was reported last spring at Emory University, part of a survey of Chinese students and instructors at the private college about their experience with the shift from in-person classes to online.
On top of routine headaches like spotty Wi-Fi and the adjustment to asynchronous learning, students in countries such as China must worry about censorship and running afoul of local security laws. As remote learning stretches into fall and beyond, they may find themselves pursuing an American education without the benefit of academic freedom and open discourse. Meanwhile, their large presence may undermine those very principles at American colleges.
Faculty members face tough choices teaching in newly global virtual classrooms: Do they change their courses to eliminate potentially contentious topics, or create two sets of materials, one for students in the United States, another for those abroad? Or do they stick with their original lesson plans, potentially putting their students at risk? Do they say to students, Sorry, this class is off limits if you’re studying from China?