by Irina Jiang
Image: Matheus Farias / Unsplash
What is your first impression of online schooling? Flexible? Enjoyable? The answer for Kaijie Zhang, a former freshman student from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a private university in New York, would be “lethal”. On February 8th, 2021, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute posted a brief announcement on their website expressing their grief towards Kaijie’s passing. Though the university did not explicitly reveal the cause of Kaijie’s death, his friends and family believe Kaijie’s death to be caused by his long-term irregular sleep patterns, as well as accumulated stress of attending classes synchronously in China with a 13-hour time difference—the professors will mark down his participation marks otherwise. As an international student myself learning remotely in Shanghai, I have also made compromises to fit my schedule with Toronto time. Fortunately, remote learning is not as challenging for me due to effective communications via email with my teachers and available class Zoom recordings. With that being said, when I read Kaijie’s story, I was deeply shocked. It was until then that I realized during the pandemic, teachers who allow asynchronous remote learning should not be taken for granted.
To quote from Rex Zhang, a senator of ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California), “There’s never a time like now, where this sacrifice of health is taken for granted” (Seyoum, 2021). Indeed, as I research deeper into the topic of how international students are sacrificing their health for better academic performance, I am further shocked by the lack of sympathy from many professors towards students who live in different time zones. For example, Ash Louis SC ’20 living in Bangkok, Thailand—14 hours ahead of PST, is required by her professor to write a 1500-words review for each of her asynchronous reading, something that is not required for those synchronous lessons learners. Other international students also report a clear lack of support for asynchronous remote learning (Swift, 2020). Some professors are unwilling to record lessons for privacy concerns or worries that the students will sell the lectures for monetary gain. The biggest concern is copyrights of their recorded lessons—the universities can fire the professors if they choose to not go to work due to COVID-19 concerns and use their recorded lectures to teach (Vincent, 2020). Initially, I have wondered, “how hard can it be to press the ‘record’ button?”, but it turns out everyone has their legitimate reasons to refuse a notion. However, lives should always be valued above everything else, regardless of whether it is academic performances or privacy concerns. During a time when every stakeholder is blaming the other—international students blaming their professors for being unsympathetic and professors upholding their strict teaching policies and blaming loopholes in recording policies— we need a strong voice from the authority to appease both sides.
Unfortunately, the passing away of Kaijie has not raised enough awareness around the pressing issue of international students’ health sacrifices among the general public nor the authorities. When I searched up Kaijie’s incident, the announcement from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was the only source reporting its specifics. Majority of the results that popped up on the web page are about a student from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who died from the Avian Influenza. The Avian Influenza epidemic takes lots of time and efforts to mitigate but pressing the recording button does not— the latter is something we can do immediately to address health concerns. In China, on the contrary, the incident went viral on WeChat. Everyone started to post about it and expressed their sadness while waiting for a solution to end a health concern that is affecting more than one million international students in the U.S. alone (Moody, 2020).
As the debate between international students and their professors unfolds, the U.S. Department of Education remains impartial. In my personal point of view, new regulations and enhanced understanding are not hard to achieve; there is certainly a way to appease the professors’ concerns about privacy and at the same time allow international students in different time zones to access recorded lessons. For example, universities can sign a new protocol with the professors that guarantees ethical use of the recorded lessons and reach an agreement that is beneficial to both parties. The U.S. Department of Education, responsible for both domestic and international students in the U.S., should make a clear suggestion to all educational institutions to prioritize students’ health and dedicate enough resources for them to learn both remotely and asynchronously.
Research shows multiple health risks of sleep deprivation, ranging from mood change to heart diseases (Watson, 2020). The students are suffering and sacrificing. If there is one reported death, there would soon be the second if nothing is done. Now as we focus on “global issues” that affect us all—COVID-19, Avian Influenza, global warming, etc.—attention tends to deviate from issues suffered by smaller groups, even when they are much easier to be solved. Therefore, press the ‘record’ button for the sake of our international students. It should not be hard at all.