Sudden death of Chinese student highlights struggle faced by millions in ‘Zoom Universities’
Published: Mar 21, 2021 04:08 PM
A student from Shanghai Jiaotong University watches a video for an online class. Photo: CFP

A student from Shanghai Jiaotong University watches a video for an online class. Photo: CFP

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced millions of Chinese students in overseas universities to stay in their home countries and attend classes online. While this has saved them from high living expenses and homesickness, it has also brought a new and invisible enemy - time difference. 

China belongs to the UTC+8 time zone - several hours away from most destination countries for students who study abroad, which means they must burn the midnight oil to attend their lectures. There's no respite during the day  either - office hours, seminars and group discussions take up their daytime rest hours. On Reddit-like Chinese social networking platform Douban, nearly 20,000 people make up a group called "2020s Strenuous Study Abroad Students," in which they share their hardships in this unprecedented year, with many of them reporting symptoms of depression. 

Recently, the sudden death of a Chinese student who took online classes at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in New York, US brought this issue under the spotlight once again. 

RPI confirmed on February 8 that Zhang Kaijie, a first-semester freshman at the school, passed away when he was studying remotely from Wuxi, East China's Jiangsu Province. Media reports said it was highly likely that his death was caused by the irregular routine. 

Chinese students mourned Zhang's death and blamed the universities' unreasonable online working schedule. Chinese students attending universities around the world have also told the Global Times that attending a 'correspondence university' not only means missing out on on-the-ground experience, but is also physically and mentally challenging.

The latest figures show that there are more than one million Chinese students studying in overseas universities, with most of them having to stay at home and take classes online. Behind Zhang's tragic death, millions of Chinese students are struggling in their "Zoom University."

Unforeseen struggles

The main destination countries for Chinese students are the US, the UK and Australia. Among them, the smallest time difference is with Australia and China at three hours, but students who take classes online in China told the Global Times that they are still affected by the gap.

"For example, a course that starts at 9 am locally in Australia is 6 am in China," a student surnamed Xu, who is studying at the University of Sydney, told the Global Times, "Counting in the preparation time, you have to get up early in the morning, which is very tiring and affects your mood and effectiveness in class."

The situation is more or less the same in other countries. Hong, a graduate student majoring in film studies at the University of Edinburgh in the UK, shared some of her troubles. 

"Film viewing is often required in our lectures. Usually, the classes are held late at night in China. Many times, Chinese students will fall asleep during a movie," Hong told the Global Times. 

The US is another one of the biggest destinations for Chinese students. According to the latest data, over 370,000 Chinese students are studying in US universities -- in other words, suffering the most severe "jet lag" as a result of long-distance learning. 

"I often need to attend lectures from 1 am to 4 am," Wu Qu, a Chinese student of New York University who is studying remotely in Shanghai, told the Global Times, "You can't find a time less suitable for logical thinking."

Wu said he feels tired all day after attending such classes that go against his biological clock.

It is not only the lectures that are taking their toll. Things that students used to find completely natural on-site are now proving extremely tricky, none more so than group projects. 

"Because group members are in different time zones, have different lecture schedules, and have different habits, it is often difficult to find a time that is convenient for everyone to meet," Xu said, adding that meeting times often take place late at night.

The vast majority of universities have not offered tuition fee reductions as a result of classes being conducted online. Many of the top private institutes in the US charge more than $50,000 a year in tuition fees, causing even more dissatisfaction among students who feel they are not getting the experience they need to justify the price.

"Now that we don't have access to all the facilities and resources on campus, a lot of us are starting to think the tuition is even more overpriced," Wu told the Global Times. 

Receiving help

Students said they have received some help regarding the time difference issue from the university and faculty, but it is still not enough. 

Some teachers take into account that some students are in places where it is bedtime when lectures take place, and said they do not have to turn on their cameras during zoom sessions.

"That way, students don't have to dress formally when it is usually bedtime," Xu said, "But the teacher still asks questions of the students, so everyone has to stay online and be focused, which is not easy to do in the early morning hours."

In Edinburgh, in order to adapt to all the students' time zones, a professor delivers his lecture twice, teaching the same content in the morning and again in the afternoon in the UK, which Hong noted was a very kind gesture. 

Chen Yiran, a professor at Duke University, was similarly thoughtful about his students' woes, saying that that asking them to attend lectures at midnight was "crazy."

"I arranged to hold office hours three times a day in the morning, afternoon and evening, to make sure that students in all continents can attend them at their convenience," Chen wrote on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo, suggesting that professors allow students to skip live broadcasts and find time to catch up on recordings instead. 

According to Wu, New York University has not given official guidance for the situation, but his department has advocated that all teachers try to take care of their students located in Asia. Some Asian students have asked the teachers to change their lecture times, an idea that has been generally approved.

But in practice, there has been soft enforcement of these rules, Wu said. "If a student makes too many requests, it can lead to a drop in their final marks, so most students still choose to stay up late for classes."

The biggest benefit of studying online is saving on the high cost of living in the destination city, the students told Global Times, but they still miss being on campus in many ways, especially when it comes to getting the proper rest.

"I miss being able to sleep at night so much," Wu said, "I never thought it would be so hard until we enrolled in these 'Zoom Universities'."