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Duke students, professors scattered around the world forced to work across time zones



If you thought 8:30 a.m. classes were too early, imagine having to show up to your math class at 3:30 a.m.

As classes have transitioned online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Duke professors have worked to accommodate students in inconvenient time zones.

Senior Blaire Zhang is currently at her home in China, which is in China Standard Time and is 12 hours ahead of the Eastern Time she follows at Duke. She wrote in an email that for her larger lecture courses, her professors record their live Zoom lectures for students to watch whenever is convenient for them.

“I think that although recorded lectures are nice, it is easy to get distracted watching them and generally I feel that people are not as motivated to do work,” she wrote.

Recording lectures doesn’t work for every class. Zhang is taking two discussion-based classes, where participation and working with other students are key to succeeding.

Given the circumstances, Zhang’s professors gave her alternative ways to participate in these courses. For her innovation and entrepreneurship class, Zhang completes the assignments on her own and then discusses them with peers. In her English class, rather than commenting on her peers’ writing while in class, she compiles the comments in a document and sends it to them.

Zhang wrote that the biggest challenge has been keeping track of when her assignments are actually due, as the different time zones can make this difficult.

Her fifth class is a public speaking course, which no longer meets at all. Students receive assignments to complete in lieu of lecture.

“I’m not sure why that is, but people in the class do feel that they are not getting enough of the materials especially for such a performance-based class,” Zhang wrote.

She commended Owen Astrachan, professor of the practice of computer science, for being “extremely flexible” during online learning.

Astrachan holds synchronous Zoom lectures but records them for students who cannot attend. 

He said that one of the main reasons for continuing live lectures is to give students the chance to “see other people that were in [their] class at that time.”

For most of Astrachan’s courses, there is a component where students are encouraged to work together to complete different assignments. Before, students had to be in class to do them. Now, he gives each student 24 or 48 hours to complete the tasks, and they can submit them whenever is most convenient.

He also understands that students may not be able to meet the assigned deadlines due to external circumstances such as family matters, internet complications or time zone difficulties.

“I’ve been very flexible in terms of trying to say, ‘If you can’t meet this deadline, there’s no more penalty—just let us know when you can do it,’” Astrachan said.

He has also reduced the workload assigned in his classes in order to reflect the week of school students missed. In one course he teaches that includes midterms, Astrachan adjusted the grading policy to take the maximum of students’ midterms or finals. That way, if students already did well on a midterm, they may not have to take them again.

He added that he is committed to giving more A+ grades to students on their finals or final projects—which he hopes will serve as a potential reward to students who opt in to letter grades and wish to excel in the course.

“I’m usually very, very particular about giving A+’s.” Astrachan said, “I don’t give a lot, but this semester, I probably will.”

He added that he thinks he will give many satisfactory grades to students who do not choose to opt in to the letter grade system.

Vincent Conitzer, the Kimberly J. Jenkins university distinguished professor of new technologies, collected data about his students’ time zones to try to optimally prepare for online learning. According to junior Jason Scharff, Conitzer sent a survey to his students before remote instruction began to identify their scattered locations.

The course that Scharff takes with Conitzer, Computational Microeconomics, is taught at 10:05 a.m. ET. Conitzer’s survey revealed that students would be watching live lectures as early as 7:05 a.m. in Pacific Time, where Jason lives, and as late as 10:05 p.m. in China.

“As it turns out, my original lecture time is about as good as it gets for that—early morning on the West Coast and late at night in China, but I hope, doable,” Conitzer wrote in an email.

He added that he “lucked out that nobody is in Hawaii” and that the West Coast students were “completely understanding of the need to accommodate their classmates who are now in China,” despite a 7 a.m. wake-up for them.

“I think that kind of considerateness among Duke students themselves is more important than anything I can do,” he wrote.

Conitzer still records and posts the lectures for students to watch later, but the class does polls and games in class that can only be enjoyed by attending live lectures. He also leaves time before and after he begins recording the lecture for students to ask questions that they don’t want on the recording.

He also changed the times of office hours so that any student would be able to attend least one. To further engage with students, Conitzer and his teaching assistants correspond with them via email or Piazza.

His recent midterm was a take-home assessment, and students were given more than a week to complete it.

“I ask students to reach out if they are in a difficult situation, which a few of my students are, but fortunately it seems most people are in a situation where they can participate,” Conitzer wrote.

In addition to professors and students, teaching assistants have had to make adjustments so that they can help facilitate the online learning process.

Senior Mahima Varma is a teaching assistant for Psychology 101, taught by Bridgette Hard, associate professor of the practice of psychology and neuroscience. She is joined by 14 other teaching assistants, all of whom have worked together since last semester.

“A lot of what we do has been very collaborative and we have a strong network that is super great about stepping in and helping out whenever needed,” Varma wrote in an email.

Varma lives in India and is currently in India Standard Time, which is 9.5 hours ahead of Eastern Time. She now leads her discussion section at 9:30 p.m. instead of noon. She doesn’t mind because she usually works late anyway, she wrote.

However, as Zhang also pointed out, there are still plenty of difficulties that come with the transition to online learning that can’t be resolved as smoothly.

“In general, I think the morale is low and it's a lot more challenging to simulate the same experience, create the same conversations,” Varma wrote. “Also, because of the nature of the class, sometimes conversations become intimate or personal and it's difficult to completely replicate the intimacy of a small discussion section onto Zoom.”

Despite the setbacks, Varma has made the most out of Zoom. She loves the breakout rooms, and in one of her discussion sections, she had students use Google Slides instead of large sticky notes.

She also commended Hard for her support, writing that she “works with us so closely to navigate this transition.”

Varma wrote that Hard and the teaching assistants meet every Sunday to “brainstorm potential strategies and challenges and ways to work through them.” Although the meetings are at midnight for Varma, she wrote she doesn’t mind, as she’s usually awake at that time anyway.

“But I am definitely in pajamas and attending the meeting in bed,” she wrote.

Along with Hard, Varma feels that her other professors have been “absolutely amazing about this transition and so willing to meet with [her] and help work through the challenges that come up with being so disconnected.”

In general, Varma feels like she is still working as if she is in the Eastern time zone. She wrote that she usually sleeps closer to 5 a.m. and wakes up at about noon. 

“My country is in complete lockdown now and so I haven’t left my house since I got back on the 17th March—not for a walk/groceries, nothing,” Varma wrote.

This is part of the reason why Varma doesn’t mind working through the night, when her three dogs are sleeping and her house is quiet.

“This whole situation is crazy, but it’s been a great learning experience made so by an amazing team of people I’m working with,” she wrote.

Leah Boyd | Editor-in-Chief

Leah Boyd is a Pratt junior and editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 117th volume.


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