By Vrinda Aggarwal on October 17th, 2020

You Think Remote Learning Is Hard? Try Doing It From India.

You Think Remote Learning Is Hard? Try Doing It From India.

“You cannot expect to study on Indian Standard Time while you are enrolled in an American university,” said Mehul Bhargava, a freshman at Arizona State, 8,300 miles away and twelve-and-a-half hours ahead of his home in Kolkata, where he is spending the first semester of his freshman year.

It had been a dream for Bhargava to study industrial design at a respected American unversity. “Until May, I was hopeful that I’d be attending a regular college, meeting new people, working with professors as a research assistant, building an out-of-this-world design portfolio, and whatnot,” he said. The Coronavirus pandemic meant a disappointing – not to mention exhausting – change in plans. Although the majority of ASU's students returned to campus ths fall, tens of thousands have joined Bhargava in not joining them.

“I am meeting my classmates but on Instagram and Whatsapp groups,” he said. “Some professors have said that we can apply to work with them on their design projects. But I have to be present in person, it can’t be done remotely.”

His classes usually begin at 9 p.m. local time and can go until 6 a.m. He then sleeps until noon, catching up with friends and family and social media during the afternoon and evening, fitting in tennis and meals when he can. It could be worse: the university has tried to accommodate students in other time zones by having multiple professors teaching the same course throughout the day. That allows Bhargava to start some of his classes a little earlier in the evening – but he’s still never done before 2 or 3 a.m., he said.

“Initially, it took me quite some time to get accustomed to this new routine,” he said. “But now in the fourth week of my semester, I am used to this change.”

Many universities are giving students the choice to opt for asynchronous learning i.e. to watch recorded lectures later. But it seems most students prefer to attend live classes.

“The professors are new to online teaching and they sometimes forget to hit the record button,” said Navdeepak Bansal, a junior at New York University. “Usually the students remind the professor in the first five or ten minutes of the class, but I don’t want to take that chance.” In March, NYU closed down its residences and Bansal decided to go to his aunt’s place in Seattle instead of returning to India. That means only a three-hour time difference. But he still wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to attend classes live.

Bhargava also prefers to attend live classes since it gives him an opportunity to interact with the professors during the lecture. And he can participate in group activities with his classmates through Zoom breakout sessions.

Shaunak Bhattachayya, a sophomore at NYU, spent last spring semester living in Kolkata and attending school on the East Coast of the United States – a time difference of nine-and-a-half hours. “Initially, I decided to watch recorded classes but soon realized it was not working out for me,” the finance and economics major said. “I would constantly procrastinate and then would end up with a pile of lectures to watch by the end of the week.”

Bhattachayya said that attending live classes on India time was quite taxing. He would usually finish his lectures by five or six in the morning. After that, it was quite difficult for him to get an uninterrupted sleep of six or seven hours during the day. He might wake up for breakfast a few hours later, or, if not, the sounds of cleaning and other daytime activities in the house would rouse him not long after. “I was often tired, groggy, and unproductive for my classes at night,” he said. He also said he hardly got any time to spend with his parents (although it must be noted, more than he would have spent with them if he were at NYU).

In August, he came back to US, but to stay at his uncle’s in Pittsburgh, not to return to New York, and to attend the fall semester online. “It doesn’t make sense for me to go to campus,” he said. “One residence hall recently reported six cases of COVID-positive students and the entire dorm of 300 students was shut down. Also, barring one or two classes that I can attend in person, most of the classes are happening online. For that it doesn’t make sense for me to put myself at risk and also, I am saving a lot of money on the living expenses.”

He tries to simulate an in-person classroom experience at his home as much as possible. He makes sure that he is sitting at his desk and not on his bed while attending classes. His room is isolated from the rest of the house so that there are no distractions. And he tries to participate as much as possible during the classes. “My microeconomics class has 300 students, so it is not possible to participate a lot in such a large class. But for other courses the class size is around 30-40 students and those are quite interactive,” he pointed out.

The changed format of teaching has not necessarily been easy for professors and teaching assistants either. Bansal says that one of his teaching assistants went home to Beijing before most international travel was restricted. With class scheduled at 3:30 p.m. in New York, he wakes up at 4 a.m. local time. “I can see that he is often exhausted and tired while teaching the class,” said the student.

Even if remote students can attend lectures, clubs and other activities running virtually can pose another challenge. Bhargava is interested in joining the 3-D animation club at Arizona State, but said the meetings of the club mostly happen after 6 a.m. Kolkata time. By then, he is tired after attending all his lectures. Also, for a freshman who has only met his classmates on Instagram, Zoom and WhatsApp, he does not know if he would connect with club members and be able to contribute substantially.

Bhattacharyya, the NYU sophomore, is the Chairperson of International Student Affair Committee, which decided to create a comprehensive guide for students learning remotely to help them find the right person on campus for any queries. He said students had complained about emailing the wrong person and then waiting too long to be redirected.

“When you are on campus and need any information, you can ask other students or just walk up to the help center,” he said. “They direct you to the right place to address your concern. For remote freshmen who don’t know which person to contact, they are confused and often end up mailing the wrong person. A lot of time is lost in this back and forth."

For Bansal, the junior, it’s a no-win situation, at least for the time being. “I am too scared to go to campus,” he said. "I am too tired of this online setup. Nowadays, it takes a lot to motivate myself to study. I hope soon there will be a vaccine.”

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