By FIONA LAVROFF
Global Business Journalism reporter
Completing a master’s degree is no easy feat. Pursuing any kind of degree online in the midst of a global pandemic is even harder. When 16 students dotted across the globe applied to Tsinghua University’s prestigious Global Business Journalism program in September 2020, they had no idea what to expect.
Such was the case for hundreds of thousands of students worldwide during the past year, and will be for a new group of Global Business Journalism international students this fall.
Remote learning has provided a specific set of challenges for students, ranging from minor inconveniences to just plain overwhelming. Here are some of the key problems – and solutions from Global Business Journalism students:
1. Time Zones
The most logistically challenging issue posed by the pandemic for online students was different time zones. While the course is based in Beijing, the 2020 cohort of Global Business Journalists are spread across the American continent, Europe, Africa and Asia — so establishing a timetable proved nightmarish.
The architect of this year’s meticulously planned timetable is Chengzhang Li, the course’s academic administrator. Speaking to all 16 students and their professors on WeChat at the beginning of the academic year, Li was able to schedule classes throughout the week with minimal disruptions for students dotted around the globe. With such a spread across time zones, students are also accepting of their luck of the draw for certain days of the week.
“China is six hours ahead of Zimbabwe and because of that difference I have had to miss classes scheduled at 4 a.m. in my time zone,” said Charity Matizandzo, the only student in Africa. “Thankfully the GBJ department allows us to watch recorded classes.”
2. Tech Issues
Once the GBJ timetable was fixed, certain students were faced with another problem —the online platforms used to teach classes weren’t supported in their countries.
For Tekchand Sonawe, the program’s only Indian student, geopolitical tensions between India and China resulted in his not being able to use China’s answer to Zoom, VooV Tencent. Bloomberg’s inhouse meeting platform, Nexi, was also not accessible to students in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In GBJ’s case, ongoing tech difficulties involved with online school are circumvented using tailored VPN solutions for those experiencing accessibility issues.
But a more pervasive problem with technology lies in online censorship software on VooV. David Bartle, the program’s American student, recalls giving a presentation referencing the alleged detention of 1 million Uighers in China’s western Xinjiang Province earlier in the semester. The next thing he knew, he was faced with a blank screen and was unable to log back into the meeting.
“Being sensitive to Chinese perspectives on global issues — especially those that contradict American or international perspectives — is something that I’ve grown accustomed to,” he said.
The question of censorship is jarring, not just for students but also their teachers. Chinese limits on free speech sometimes are not visible, and shock was reflected in each student’s harried smile once order online was reestablished. Perhaps aware the meeting was being surveilled, Bartle’s professor made sure to keep calm and carry on.
In St Petersburg, Russia, Irina Komarova is aware of what she’s missing out as a result of pandemic-induced isolation.
“We can attend classes, do homework, ‘go’ to the library, participate online in events but we’re in our bedrooms and we’re not that excited to be studying because we’re isolated,” she said. “We’re isolated from emotional experiences.”
The postgraduates tackle isolation on multiple fronts. For many, the concept of making friends with a perfect stranger online feels bizarre, but GBJ students have become adept at forming relationships across WeChat and group videos. When they’re not supporting each other online, they take advantage of COVID-19’s slackening grip on their cities. They go to cinemas, museums and reconnect with their physical friends —they do what they can.
Staying motivated during university studies can be difficult at the best of times, but when students only glimpse at their professors and classmates in two and a half hour increments during the working week, reminding themselves of why they’re pursuing their degree and self-motivating themselves to give it their all it can seem downright impossible.
“Thinking about my goals and future career opportunities keeps me motivated while studying remotely,” said Komorova. “I also get inspired to study when I think about returning to campus and meeting my classmates.”
For others in the course like Jamille Tran in Vietnam, motivation comes from their work.
“I can publish all my written stories from GBJ to my network and then if I get praise from my friends and colleagues it motivates me to keep going,” she said.
5. Heavy Workload
The program’s heavy workload, which is roughly equal parts journalistic and academic, has been another challenge for students as they face a tsunami of deadlines clustered around the same dates. For Tran, who is also a tech journalist, the best way of coping with a job and university assignments is mixing them.
“I’ve tried to tie all my writing projects with my other activities in Vietnam so that I have enough background knowledge or connections to make when we get given articles to write, and then I get ideas for assignments much quicker,” she said.
Still the volume of assignments set for the end of the year has proved tough to adapt to.
“I’ve learnt to prioritize my tasks and take everything one day at a time,” said Matizanadzo. “I’ve also cut back on my social life and learned to accept that I don’t have control over a lot of things I encounter.”
The pandemic left an estimated 1.2 billion students without a classroom to learn in and forced education online, and even though “Zoom school” will never be a student or teacher’s first choice, the 16 students on the GBJ program are making it work.
“I’m making the best out of this situation for myself and my professors,” concluded Matizanadzo.