For U of A's international students, distance makes the online learning a lot harder

Time zones and dodgy internet connections are making university classes even trickier this year for international students who have opted not to return to Canada when the fall semester started.

Tech troubles, different time zones and isolation hinder university studies

University of Alberta business student Mahek Seth is doing her online studies from Lucknow, India. (Supplied by Mahek Seth)

Time zones and dodgy internet connections are making university classes even trickier this year for international students who have opted not to return to Canada when the fall semester started.

When Mahek Seth, a University of Alberta student in the second year of her business degree, logs into a lecture, it is already 11-and-a-half hours later in Lucknow, India.

The time difference means she studies all night, sleeps during the day, and then wakes up to do it again.

"It's four months, I'll have to be working like this, staying up all night," Seth told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. "My social life is at a standstill. Being international students, we know less people in the university. It's really hard for me to network with new people, virtually. It's been challenging."

Almost all U of A classes were moved online this fall, meaning more than 9,000 international students had to make the difficult decision to remain home for the fall semester or make a costly and fraught trip to Canada during a pandemic.

Gurbani Baweja, a U of A student and vice-president of the International Students Association, told Edmonton AM that she is hearing from students from all around the world who remained in their home countries and are struggling.

One of the main complaints Baweja gets is about technology.

"The internet connection and the speed is not similar in comparison to Canada," said Baweja.

International students who remained in their home country must also deal with the social isolation that comes with being so far away from their classmates and, often, working in incongruent time zones.

Many made the choice to remain in their home country in order to save money, she said.

Tuition paid by international students at the University of Alberta is about three times higher than for domestic students. For a full-time undergraduate international student, that's more than $12,000 per semester in tuition alone.

The University of Alberta is holding most of its lectures online for the fall semester. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

The challenges of completing coursework abroad are so great that some international students have moved back to Edmonton, even if they aren't attending in-person classes.

Divij Dhingra, a second-year computer science student, returned to his home in Delhi in March, at the beginning of the pandemic. He'd been planning to return at the end of semester anyway, so thought he'd do so before travel was restricted.

However, taking online classes from Delhi was a huge challenge, he said. He came back to Edmonton this fall and rented a house with two other students.

"India has a time difference and all the classes run in the night, which was really difficult for me to manage," Dhingra said. "And there are some bandwidth limitations in Delhi." 

The internet was slow or would cut out, said Dhingra. In the winter semester, he even missed an exam because of a poor connection. 

And that was in Delhi, a major city, he pointed out.

"People in the rural parts of India, that would be very difficult for them to manage," Dhingra said.

Despite the litany of challenges, Baweja said delaying studies is not an option for international students, who need to study to keep their visas.

"No international student I have heard of has dropped out, because we are on a fixed study permit timeline," Baweja said. "That's usually four years, for every student, so you have to finish on time."

With files from Ariel Fournier


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