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Faculty and Staff

Faculty guide: Helping international students overcome academic and access barriers

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many international undergraduate and graduate students returned to their home countries last spring and many incoming international students have been unable to get to campus this fall. These conditions may make it hard for them to stay connected to their courses this term, and they often face additional barriers when it comes to fully accessing and safely engaging in online course content.

Below are some of the issues these students face and suggestions for supporting them in overcoming these challenges:

  • In the case of providing distance education to someone in a country subject to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions (e.g. Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Crimea region of Ukraine), please see “OFAC Sanctions and Distance Learning Guidance for the University of Rochester Community” prior to engaging in any activities that may require a license from OFAC.
  • Of special concern are students who have returned to countries with robust internet and social surveillance systems, which can create a number of barriers related to blocked US-based websites and the potential for government surveillance of online activities. The University community includes students from all over the world, including Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, China, Turkey, and Venezuela, all of which block some websites and engage in surveillance of online activities.
    • Some governments engage in a high degree of surveillance to monitor its citizens online, and in light of this it’s important to consider not only which platforms students abroad will have access to, but also what they can say or write when using these platforms. We are not recommending that faculty tell students to watch what they say when interacting with their Rochester courses—these students will likely be aware of the need to monitor their own speech online and in class. But we are recommending that faculty think through the extent to which their writing assignments, discussion prompts, and test questions touch on potentially politically sensitive topics. In some courses, the topics may be unavoidable; in others, faculty may be able to offer options including allowing students to write about topics that would not jeopardize their safety. We realize that this is a serious conundrum—in the US, academic freedom is part of the backbone of higher education—and we don’t ask that faculty compromise courses or instruction. But flexibility and a measure of generosity are warranted when assessing internationally-located students’ work. For example: faculty could choose not to record class discussions of politically charged topics, or students engaged in sensitive class discussions online can be given the option to use pseudonyms as their Zoom names and mute their video, be allowed to opt-out without penalty, or given alternative, anonymous means of engaging in discussion. Students could be allowed to use a code instead of their actual name on written assignments. Similarly, recordings of lectures with sensitive content could be placed on Blackboard for a limited time period (e.g. 24 hours) for student viewing and then deleted.
    • Some countries block U.S.-based Google products, as well as many other Western social media platforms and tools. Many Rochester students access their University email accounts through GSuite (a Google platform), which can create a problem for access from their home country. Some students will have anticipated this problem before leaving the US by purchasing a VPN (access to a virtual private network, which shields online activity). However, VPNs also are regulated in some jurisdictions, and accessing unauthorized VPNs can be illegal, creating potential legal issues for students in those locales. A workaround is to communicate through the course Blackboard site, rather than using UR email addresses. All students are automatically enrolled in the course Blackboard sites, however, the default email account associated with their Blackboard account is their UR email address. Therefore, students also need to add a second email address to their Blackboard account in order to receive announcements and emails sent through Blackboard.
  • The good news is that students located abroad should have no problem accessing the following: Zoom, iCloud, Panopto, and Piazza. For Zoom, it is recommended that students download their local country version (for example, the Chinese version: http://www.zoomcloud.cn/Download.)
  • We also recommend that as faculty move to virtual instruction, classroom etiquette is re-established as it relates to creating an inclusive environment. The new Blackboard course template adopted by many University divisions (ASE, SMD, ESM, EIOH, and Warner) contains pre-built netiquette statements that instructors can adopt or amend to reflect the needs of their courses. Students may need to be reminded explicitly of divisional academic honesty policies that forbid unauthorized recording of lectures and discussion, as well as unauthorized dissemination of any recordings.
    • If discussion boards are assigned, a general statement can mention that students are not expected to edit their discussion board posts for Standard Written English, and that assessment will be more focused on posts’ content. If you ask students to respond to peers’ posts, you might instruct them to ignore non-standard uses of English and focus instead on the message. (This approach is in keeping with best practices for responding to informal writing and writing-in-progress by multilingual writers; see Conference on College Composition and Communication, 2009.)

Being sensitive to issues related to access, culturally sensitive topics, time zone differences, and accented English will create a more inclusive online classroom for all of our international students.

Additional questions can be directed to Global Engagement at global@rochester.edu.

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