Harvard’s remote learning plans leave some students struggling

Normally, Austin Siebold would be sitting in her Chinese language course at 9 a.m. on Harvard’s campus. But now, she’s two time zones away, exiled by the coronavirus pandemic that shuttered the campus and forced students back home.

Her class was now at 7 a.m. Not only that, but she also couldn’t run video and audio at the same time due to a weak internet connection.

“I was specifically asked to turn on my video, and I was like, ‘if you want.’” she said. “I can have one work well, or both work poorly.”

Siebold, a Harvard sophomore, has been home in Alberta, Canada, since March, when Harvard shut its campus and sent most students packing in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Over an unstable FaceTime connection, she told Digital Trends that a mere two-hour time difference and poor internet made her Zoom classes a frustrating technological challenge.

“I get 3 Mbps,” Siebold said of her internet speed. “And I have the best internet connection for a 100-kilometer radius.”

The nearest big city is a 90-minute drive away, which is not a viable option for a quick internet connection.

“It’s very difficult to be able to correct my own speaking and adjust my listening when the audio quality is so poor,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m saying anything correctly.”

It wasn’t just her Chinese course. Siebold said another class of hers refused to record their lectures for privacy reasons. This was, to put it mildly, inconvenient, especially for friends of Siebold’s who are in Australia, which is 14 hours ahead of the Boston’s time zone. As a result, they were forced to wake up in the middle of the night to attend a required class.

Harvard has announced that all of its classes next semester will be online only. This past spring provided a preview of how classes might operate in the fall, and so far, they’ve garnered mixed reviews. Siebold said most of her professors were able to adjust eventually, but there were some growing pains.

What Siebold faced this spring may be a preview of what hundreds of students around the world will have to deal with during the fall if they are forced to stay off-campus.

Hidden problems

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Last week, Harvard sent out a survey to its students, asking them simple yes-or-no questions about the state of their home learning environments: Do they have an internet connection that’s greater than 5 Mbps? Do they have a recent computer? Do they have a quiet place to learn?

“I have friends who are facing hugely difficult situations,” said Kai de Leon de Jesus, an incoming freshman. “The only quiet place they have in their house is the bathroom.” Zooming into class from the toilet is their only choice.

Guillaume Bouchard, another Canadian Harvard student, said the language of the survey was dehumanizing and did not capture the full range of experiences that many far-flung college students, especially those who fall under the “first-generation, low-income” bracket, might have to deal with.

Distant time zones, poor internet connection and out-of-date machines were certainly going to be a huge part of the problem, but equally as problematic will be abusive households and dangerous home countries. Bouchard himself experienced homelessness for the first time at age 15, and said that he still doesn’t have a home in Canada to go to if he’s forced to stay out of the U.S.

“So much of Harvard’s policy and a lot of the discourse is around ‘students who don’t have access to Wi-Fi,’” Bouchard said. “But it’s about so much more than Wi-Fi. It’s about students who don’t have a home.”

Even the 5 Mbps internet Harvard mentioned would get students “nowhere,” Bouchard said. Those with low internet speeds “will not get the same learning experience.”

Another sophomore, Vlad Ivanchuk, comes from a small village in western Ukraine, where he said there are “a lot of students like me, who come from low-income families. Some come from villages where there are challenges like lack of internet.”

A student wearing a face mask
A student wears a face mask on Harvard’s campus this spring. Boston Globe / Getty Images

A steep learning curve

A spokesperson for Harvard told Digital Trends that the reason for keeping all classes online in the fall was to “preserve academic continuity.”

Harvard has also said that it would switch from the emergency “Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory” grading system that it put in place in the spring back to normal letter grading.

“Continued remote instruction ensures that academic continuity for all students is maintained, even if travel restrictions, visa issues, or health considerations keep them away from campus,” spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an email.

Dane also wrote that “digital resources” would be available for students in areas with poor internet connections, including “support for Wi-Fi or other resources they may need” like a laptop. But students said those with poor networks in their area may not be able to benefit from new hardware.

Vlada Karpovich/Pexels

To accommodate for the time zone question, Harvard has said it will attempt to schedule all classes between 7:30 a.m. and 10:15 p.m. in the student’s local time.

Siebold said she suspects this “partly to give us [students] no excuse for not attending in-person classes,” but given that the schedule is still not set, it creates a situation where two major classes could be scheduled at the same time.

“We might pick two classes, and we don’t have any warning about when it’ll be,” she said. That uncertainty also makes it difficult for students to hold down a job or care for ill family members.

Students also said online classes aren’t the same as in-person teaching.

“No matter how much training and incentives you provide, online classes will never be the same,” said Bouchard. “This emphasis on going back to normal grading has been frustrating. The idea that each student will be provided with space to have a productive learning environment with online classes and that we’ll all be at the top of our game is just wrong.”

Some professors are still playing catch-up with exactly how to hold online classes and all that that entails. Providing resources like lecture slides or recordings of the lecture — which could be a great help to students with disabilties, in remote places, or with shoddy internet — was not standard practice across the board during the spring classes, students said.

Ivanchuk said that while the quality of teaching was great this spring, the lack of a structural environment made it hard for him to focus, and there’s no way to replicate the Harvard community on the internet.

“When you’re not on campus, there’s no motivation from others,” he said. “You don’t interact with other students. They’re now trying to convince us that the faculty has had more time to prepare for the entire summer so the quality of instruction will be higher, but where’s the social aspect?”

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