Foreign firewalls present challenge to global online learning

Institutions and teachers find workarounds to reach students enrolled in Western courses, but domestic internet rules still constrain efforts

September 25, 2020
A Chinese tourist uses the scarf of a friend as she is helped while she and others  struggle to climb in the wind on an icy section of the Great Wall at Badaling, on a cold day after a snowfall
Source: Getty

Before Covid struck, millions of students would pack their suitcases each autumn and leave their home countries, with most migrating from developing Asian countries to Western democracies such as the US, the UK, Canada and Australia.

For an estimated 600,000 students from mainland China this traditionally meant escaping internet restrictions that block sensitive materials and social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Google tools.

However, travel bans, closed campuses and fears about Covid have kept hundreds of thousands of international students at home this term. They now find themselves stuck between two systems: virtually enrolled in Western courses, which emphasise free expression, but living under restrictive domestic internet laws.

While much attention has been paid to China’s Great Firewall, the digital divide is a global issue. Even nations without sweeping controls might have limits that differ from those in the West. For example, those in Thailand might not feel comfortable commenting on the monarchy, while other netizens might not be at liberty to discuss gender or LGBTQ issues.

Western universities have scrambled to reach students for teaching purposes and also to retain an important source of tuition income. However, even institution-issued virtual private networks (VPNs) do not always work, while privacy concerns persist with China-linked tools – Zoom admitted in June to shutting meetings and terminating accounts of some US and Hong Kong users.

Internal guidelines from a US university, seen by Times Higher Education, serve as an example of the difficult balancing act academics and students are asked to perform. The document says all online courses must be recorded for later viewing – but not if there are “sensitivities”, in which case instructors “must create other ways”. It says the institution is against “censoring or altering course content” in violation of academic freedom; but it also warns that students might face “invasive surveillance, political persecution, harassment and/or the imposition of criminal penalties”.

Students are to be sent a disclaimer asking them to review the syllabus and decide for themselves, “in light of [their] own countries’ laws or norms”, whether they are able and willing to complete the course.

Alan Ruby, senior fellow of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania, said the shift to online learning has exacerbated an existing conundrum.

“This is not just a China issue,” he said. “Lots of sovereign states monitor communication between their citizens and others. And this is not restricted to online exchanges. The shift by so many institutions to online learning has increased the scale. Our thinking about promoting and protecting free voice has not kept pace with changes in how we communicate and/or how we have expanded the footprint of our classrooms.”

Mr Ruby said he would not vary his teaching materials based on student location, but he acknowledged that the current set-up might cause a change in behaviour.

“The issue that is emerging is that we have had Chinese students who are worried about speaking up in classes because they do not know who in their class may be communicating what is said to someone outside the class group,” he said. “This is problematic in discussion-based seminars that [make up] much of graduate studies. So what advice can an institution offer to faculty?”

Syaru Shirley Lin, Compton visiting professor in world politics at the University of Virginia, said faculty members and administrators there were developing a handbook and manual on how to help overseas students cope with online restrictions.

“There are so many issues: how to get students to download reading material which may not be allowed in China, and how to expect students to participate – and be recorded – when they cannot be totally comfortable that they can say those things. How do you know if students feel that others have said things that offend them?” she asked. “There are so many things which are disconcerting, and it is changing the meaning of a liberal education.”

In July, the Association of Asian Studies issued guidelines “for faculty (particularly in Asian studies but applicable to all fields) and university administration as they navigate the contradictory demands now imposed upon us by our increased reliance on online academic exchange and the new threats this poses to academic freedom and safety”.

Five academics followed up that document with their own guidelines on “How to Teach China this Fall”, published on ChinaFile, a website run by the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society.

Alibaba Cloud, a subsidiary of Chinese internet giant Alibaba, has been working with overseas universities to provide a secure channel for students in mainland China. It started partnering with about 20 Australian and New Zealand institutions in March.

In June, it offered free services for a pilot project with Jisc, the UK sector’s main technology body. Trials were held at King’s College London, Queen Mary University of London, and the universities of Southampton and York. At the time, the British media raised concerns that the pilot would make UK universities “comply with Chinese restrictions” or “pander to Chinese censors”.

The pilot was successful, Jisc said, and on 4 September a Global Education Access Framework was released, “with a number of suppliers able to deliver similar solutions between the UK and China as well as the rest of the world”.

Jisc, which was responsible for technology infrastructure, was not involved in teacher and student feedback, pedagogy or curricula, which were handled by the institutions. However, a spokeswoman added that “students in China are given access to exactly the same learning materials as their UK peers”.

Dr Lin of Virginia – who has taught mainland Chinese students in the US, Hong Kong and Taiwan – stressed that the issue was not only technological and was not limited only to this year.

“Chinese students have strong feelings and easily find themselves on the other side of discussions when they meet the ‘other’ when studying abroad. The short-term problem of the firewall is nothing compared to generations of young people having lived in the bubble of the firewall, who do not know what the world is saying about Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang or Hong Kong,” she said. “Students growing up with the firewall are just less accustomed to diverse views and not ready to debate them.”


Print headline: National firewalls challenge efficacy of online learning

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