Teachers learn that online classes for foreign students come with geopolitical snags

By Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — In the midst of the summer scramble to get courses online at Memorial University in St. John’s, Sonja Knutson realized there were political implications to remote learning she hadn’t considered. 

A Memorial student living in Iran couldn’t buy an e-book for a course because Iranians don’t have access to major credit cards, Knutson, director of the university’s office for international students, said. The student dropped the course. 

Knutson and her colleagues realized there could be a host of similar problems involving Memorial’s international students, many of whom are taking courses remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The school’s efforts to ensure a smooth transition to remote learning had a political blind spot, she said in a recent interview. “The same curriculum that we could deliver privately in the classroom is now going to be subject to monitoring in countries around the world.”

She said she flagged the issue to university officials, who sent a memo to instructors before classes began encouraging them to offer alternative course content for students who live in “authoritarian” states.

“This is not a call to censor the course material or guide assessments: critically exploring issues and topics deemed by authoritarian states as problematic are a keystone of the role that a university plays in supporting a democratic society and developing engaged citizens,” the memo said. 

Rui Hou, an expert in surveillance and authoritarian politics, said when he was at Queen’s University, a few of his colleagues faced similar issues with international students. 

Now a postdoctoral fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs’ Asian Institute, Hou said his Queen’s colleagues were asking him to help them provide course material to students in China.

China monitors its citizens’ use of the internet and blocks content from sites such as Facebook and YouTube. Sensitive material such as nudes or violence is also blocked.

Hou suggests professors upload PDFs to their university’s online learning systems for students to download directly, but notes that video will still be a challenge — China’s firewall system makes internet download speeds excruciatingly slow. 

Professors, he said, should not encourage their students in China to use virtual private networks, which are encyrpted internet connections. VPNs, Hou explained, have a complicated legal status in the country, though he said he doesn’t know of any students being punished for using one.

“It is not wise to adjust the course materials for Chinese students,” he said in an email. Instead, he said, teachers should be very clear about what’s in the course so students can assess the risk themselves.

Professors who teach social movements can’t avoid including material on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing and the ensuing massacre, he explained. The Chinese state violence in 1989 is “100 per cent sensitive content in China’s censorship policy.”

“In this way, instructors of different courses may find they are influenced by China’s censorship on different levels.”

The University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia also sent memos to instructors before the school year began. The University of Toronto asked its faculty to share a message with students explaining that online course material can violate local law.

UBC encouraged instructors to include a statement on their course syllabi explaining the material could contain content that is censored by “non-Canadian governments.”

“This may include, but is not limited to, human rights, representative government, defamation, obscenity, gender or sexuality, and historical or current geopolitical controversies,” the statement said. It asks students to consider postponing the course until they are back in Canada.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2020.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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