International students adapt to synchronous learning

Aditya Singh and Kajoo Patel talking through Zoom

Aditya Singh and Kajoo Patel completed the spring 2020 semester from their homes in India, attending synchronous courses despite a nine-and-a-half hour time difference.

Credit: Penn State

MALVERN, Pa. — When Penn State Great Valley engineering management graduate students Kajoo Patel and Aditya Singh went home to India at the beginning of March, they assumed they’d be back in the United States before the start of the spring II term. Instead, they remained in India, attending their virtual synchronous courses despite a nine-and-a-half-hour time difference.

At first Patel and Singh expected to spend about two weeks visiting their families; at the time, COVID-19 cases were on the rise globally, but neither the United States nor India had implemented social distancing protocols or stay-at-home orders.

The pandemic and safety measures escalated quickly, though, and Patel and Singh realized they couldn’t return to the U.S. for a while. However, Penn State’s decision to deliver courses remotely meant they could still take Technical Project Management and Invention and Creative Design from home.

Then, they realized something else: The time difference would be huge. The remote classes were scheduled to run from 6 to 9 p.m. U.S. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). That translates to 3:30 to 6:30 a.m. India Standard Time (IST) — not the easiest time to be awake, alert and learning.

“The first class was very difficult,” Singh said. “We thought that we will not sleep before the class. As soon as the class started, I started feeling sleepy.”

What was the best way to handle a 3:30 a.m. remotely taught class? Staying up all night? Starting their day that early? Sleeping before and after the class? Working on assignments outside of class also presented some challenges; emailing professors or other classmates with questions in the morning meant Patel and Singh wouldn’t hear back until much later, during daytime in the United States and nighttime in India.

Within a few weeks, they learned what sleep and work routines worked best. Singh shifted to getting at least an hour of sleep before class, while Patel went to sleep early and began her day at 3 a.m.

“They [Singh and Patel] were absolutely super in how they adapted to synchronous learning with the time difference,” said Kathryn Jablokow, associate chief academic officer and professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering, who taught Invention and Creative Design. “They got up in the wee hours of the morning and stayed engaged and focused throughout the class sessions. They even showed up for the optional Q&A sessions I held. I think their families deserve credit as well, since I’m sure the demands of our students learning this way disrupted everyone’s schedule in some way.”

Patel’s family ate dinner and went to sleep later than she did, but she still tried to spend time with them and help around the house when she could. Attending classes from home was a new concept to Singh’s family and they were worried about the logistics, since their village has only 4G networks and no broadband internet access.

While the exact circumstances were new for Patel and Singh, online learning was not. Penn State Great Valley employs a hybrid system for its graduate programs, with courses offered partially online and partially in-person.

“Having a hybrid system is something that helped us evolve with this situation,” Singh said. “You are already used to taking classes online and doing assignments online.”

Before the pandemic, Patel and Singh had planned on spending the summer interning, but many companies stopped hiring as the pandemic worsened. Singh landed a remote internship, but Patel took a different route.

Options were limited, but that didn’t deter Patel. She enrolled in an elective course for the summer II term, and she and Singh have taken certification courses on LinkedIn and Coursera and continued their part-time employment supporting faculty research projects.

“We can’t sit for three months without doing anything,” Patel said. “At least we can do online courses and get certifications.”

Patel and Singh are both on track to graduate in December 2020, but their plans could change; they may take fewer courses in the fall and instead graduate in May 2021. They may work on earning another degree through the concurrent degree program.

Despite the unpredictable situation, Patel and Singh both said they are prepared for the future, thanks in part to their experiences with remote courses.

“It was a new learning experience, other than the actual subject learning,” Patel said. “We are glad we could complete the semester from India. We are learning how to manage. This is a new type of managing for both of us.”