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Students concerned about online classes continuing at DKU post-pandemic

The view of the upgraded DKU campus taken from near the south entrance. Courtesy of DKU
The view of the upgraded DKU campus taken from near the south entrance. Courtesy of DKU

Administrators at Duke Kunshan University said that campus would return to normal this fall semester, but some classes are still taking place online.

For the first time since early 2020, the entire DKU student body is on-campus, with the exception of juniors on Duke’s main campus for their study abroad semester. Almost four years later, DKU is operating nearly as it did pre-pandemic with one major difference — some classes still remain completely virtual for students.

On Jan. 6, Dean of Undergraduate Studies Marcia France sent an email to all DKU undergraduate students anticipating that in the fall of 2023, students would “be back [at] DKU as originally envisioned.” 

“There will be no more early morning/evening class time slots, and no more dual enrollment for students studying at Duke,” France added. 

In another email to undergraduate students sent on July 26, France echoed her January email, less than a month before classes were expected to start in the fall. 

“Please be reminded that starting this fall, DKU expects all students to be on campus and taking courses in person,” she wrote. “We will no longer be approving students for remote study, and faculty will no longer be expected to accommodate students studying remotely.”

However, in early August, some DKU students were informed that classes they enrolled in for the fall were being held remotely. 

On Aug. 5, DKU University Registrar Lingling Wang emailed students enrolled in GCHINA 301/POLECON 302, China’s Economic Transition, informing them that the classes would be taught online and held at 7:15 a.m.

Zhaojin Zeng, DKU assistant professor of history, who is teaching GCHINA 301/POLECON 302, recently started working at Texas A&M University-San Antonio and was asked by DKU to continue teaching major requirements online during the fall. 

“I think DKU needs people to cover the courses,” Zeng said. “I believe probably next year, they will either hire new faculty members or find visiting faculty from Duke to cover those courses. That's just my hope.” 

Wang also emailed students enrolled in GCHINA 302 on Aug. 5, informing them that classes would be offered online and held at 7:15 a.m. 

Other classes were also moved online at the last minute. On Aug. 20, Yujia Zhang, assistant professor of environmental science, informed students enrolled in ENVIR 201, Applied Environmental Science and Policy, that the class would be entirely remote one day before the class was set to start. 

Transition to in-person learning 

In an email to The Chronicle, Scott MacEachern, DKU vice chancellor for academic affairs, wrote that “the DKU undergraduate curriculum was designed to be face-to-face” and that is the ideal mode of instruction, which DKU is working towards.

MacEachern added that some faculty have not arrived on campus, primarily due to issues with visas and documentation to enter China. 

As a result, some students have ended up with an entirely remote class schedule. Senior Nat Jablonska spent her first three years learning remotely or at Duke. All of her online classes this semester are major requirements she needs to take in order to graduate on time.

“I was excited for everything to be normal for at least one year, my last year,” Jablonska said. 

Jablonska’s primary concern with having online classes is greater barriers to interactions with classmates and professors, noting that it feels more difficult to ask her professors questions after class while online.

For senior Bella Nowroozi, having fully-online classes can make paying attention in class more difficult. 

“If I'm in an online class, I'm more tempted to do other things like check my phone or sometimes go on other websites while I'm in class,” Nowroozi said. “Online classes hold me less accountable than in person classes.” 

However, the continuation of online courses has allowed some professors and students more flexibility than traditional courses. For instance, Nowroozi said that she enjoys being able to travel away from DKU’s campus while taking classes.

For Zeng, online classes have allowed him to utilize the asynchronous lecture and synchronous discussion model more easily, as well as use online integrated textbooks and polling software. 

“I think it offers both advantages and challenges … when you do it online, you are forced to try something different,” Zeng said. “I think online teaching actually allowed me to integrate digital resources and digital technologies into offerings.”

Ultimately, Zeng hopes students and faculty can work together to make the best out of continued online classes. 

“You will still have a lot of boring classes in person, and you just want to fall asleep,” Zeng said. “So when that happens, you know, online teaching is not a problem itself. It’s really about how you navigate it and how you embrace it.”

“If I had the opportunity to address students, I would want to assure them that this could be done right,” Zeng added. “If we are stuck in the mindset that [online classes] need to be eliminated, [such] problems will always be there.”

As of now, it is unclear how long online classes will continue. Zhang wrote in an email to students that she does not intend to return to campus until March 2024. However, the hope is that classes will continue transitioning in-person as the school year progresses. 

MacEachern wrote that the probability of a student having a fully remote schedule will be “much smaller” in spring 2024. 

“We haven’t come to any conclusions at all about these issues: in fact, we have only started to think about them,” MacEachern wrote. “And we will certainly be seeking student input on these issues as we think about them further.”


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