Can language learning and cross-cultural exchange thrive virtually? Online learning at the HNC 外语学习与跨文化交流会在虚拟平台兴盛吗？中美中心的线上学习
By Hope Parker
NANJING, China — By January 22nd, 2020, when human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus was confirmed, Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) students, faculty and staff had already spread around the world for Lunar New Year holidays and travel. Students were slated to begin spring semester classes on February 24th and were anxiously awaiting news of how the HNC would be affected by COVID-19. The accelerating health crisis and travel restrictions could limit students’ abilities to take advantage of the linguistic and intercultural opportunities that the HNC uniquely offers. As students questioned whether they would enroll in spring semester classes, the HNC administration began making an action plan.
中国南京 — 2020年1月22日，当新冠肺炎的人传人被证实时，中美中心的师生及员工已经在世界各地过春节和旅行了。春季学期从2月24日开始，学生们急切地等待着新冠肺炎将会如何影响中美中心的消息。不断升级的健康危机与旅行限制都会限制学生利用中美中心独特的外语与文化交流机会。当学生质疑他们能否参与春季学期的课程时，中美中心管理部门已开始制定计划。
As a partner school between Johns Hopkins SAIS and Nanjing University, the HNC must receive approval from both universities’ administrations before making major decisions. Due to continually changing domestic and international situations, as well as the need for consultation between two large administrations, “decisions have been delayed while awaiting facts on the ground,” stated the HNC’s American Co-Director, Dr. Adam Webb. Fortunately, “both sides have approached this challenging time in an adaptable and accommodating spirit,” he described. But that does not mean students have always been pleased with the results.
On February 5th, the HNC administration announced plans to begin the spring semester in a virtual format, while holding out hope that the health crisis would abate and students could return to campus. The Co-Directors sent weekly updates to students about plans for re-opening, committing to provide two to three weeks (later adjusted to three weeks) notice prior to re-opening. As students waited for a decision about the HNC’s reopening, many flights between the U.S. and China were cancelled; several Chinese cities announced that individuals travelling from overseas would be required to quarantine in hotels for two weeks upon arrival; and China’s Foreign Ministry suspended the entry of most foreigners beginning on March 28th. On April 7th, the Co-Directors’ update informed students that the HNC would not be reopening for the remainder of the semester.
Students are drawn to the HNC by the opportunity to develop cross-cultural communication and linguistic skills. Courses are conducted in students’ target languages, with Chinese students primarily studying in English and international students primarily taking courses in Chinese. Students live on campus, with Chinese and international students paired together as roommates. Now, students all live off campus, mostly in their home countries. Much of the institution’s linguistic and cross-cultural distinctiveness may be lost in a virtual setting. As Yuyang Zhou (周煜洋), a Chinese student Banwei (class committee representative) recounts, although everyone “has been working on maintaining communications on the internet, so far it’s still irreplaceable,” referring to the daily interactions that usually occur on campus. Far from feeling stuck in the ‘HNC bubble,’ as the tight-knit and insulated community is often described, in international student Banwei, Jonah Kaplan’s eyes, “the whole HNC community life does not exist virtually.”
学生们被中美中心所提供的发展跨文化交流与外语能力的机会所吸引。所有课程使用学生的目标语言，所以中方学生的课大部分是用英语教授的，国际学生课程大部分是用中文教授的。学生们住在中美中心校园，中国学生与国际学生结成室友。现在，学生都住在校园外，大部分是在他们的祖国。中心在语言与跨文化方面的许多特性在线上环境中被丧失。中方班委周煜洋说，尽管大家“都在努力维护互联网上的交流，到目前为止，这仍然是不可替代的，”这里所指的是通常发生校园里的日常互动。从国际班委孔志努（Jonah Kaplan) 的角度看，人们非但没有像所说的那样感觉被困在“中美中心气泡”中，相反，“整个中美中心的社区生活实际上并不存在”。
Another concern has focused on the difficult timing of the course schedule: to accommodate students spread around the world, but primarily in Chinese and U.S. times zones, courses are conducted Sunday through Friday from 7:30am to 10:40am, then again from 8:30pm to 11:40pm Beijing time (7:30pm to 10:40pm and 8:30am to 11:40am EST).
In response to new challenges and what they see as reduced value of online classes, many students called for decreased tuition and a pass/fail grading system. Like those at many other schools, students were unsuccessful in attempting to reduce their fees. Unlike many schools in the U.S., the HNC opted not to institute the pass/fail system. The decision stated “HNC is maintaining its normal grading standards because of its joint degree arrangements.” In short, Nanjing University does not offer pass/fail as a grading option, so the HNC cannot either.
Time zone discrepancies and the debate over pass/fail grading are reminders that HNC students chose to study at an international cooperative institution. Certain policies that are enacted easily by American institutions may not be possible in Nanjing. In fact, when students enroll at the HNC, they make a commitment to work through difficulties together. Under usual circumstances, these challenges may revolve around self-expression in one’s target language and room temperature, but in the HNC’s short history the institution and its students have faced significant challenges. In 1989 the Tiananmen Square protests forced the center to close early. In 1997 the United States bombed China’s embassy in Belgrade, causing significant friction between students. Most recently, in 2003 the HNC moved to Hawaii for a semester due to the SARS outbreak. During each of these events, there were surely challenges and complaints among students. As in those times, students are again tasked with working through the current crisis together.
From another angle, sometimes circumstances change and the most effective policy is not to recreate what once was but rather to find new ways to achieve long-standing goals. As the HNC administration has pointed out, there are ways to recreate the school’s community online, including language partner exchanges, social activities and guest lectures. However, when students live in conflicting time zones and their overlapping waking hours are filled with class, convincing oneself or others to show up for an early-morning or late-night optional event is not easy. When people are not located at the HNC, they often cannot live on the same calendar.
The issue goes beyond time zones: students’ lives are now filled with new challenges and expectations unlike those at the HNC. Those who are living with parents now face different familial expectations, and students living on their own may need to work in order to pay rent and other expenses that are higher than those in Nanjing. Indeed, Co-Director Webb pointed out that “this crisis has brought to light how much varied circumstances can affect people, whether in their living arrangements or family responsibilities or travel constraints.”
The sudden health crisis introduced unexpected roadblocks to which there was never going to be a perfect answer. However, as the pandemic continues and international travel has slowed, there are doubts about whether students will be able to attend HNC in-person during the fall 2020 semester. If solely online classes continue in the fall, the professors, students and administration can take summer vacation to prepare. International student Banwei, Leah Hashagen, points out that professors need “to find better ways to engage students on the virtual platform, but I think some narratives will need to be adjusted to allow that to happen.” She highlighted the potential damage of equating virtual and in-person classes, adding “claiming that the current quality of online academic content is exactly the same as pre-online is simply incorrect, and even harmful to the credibility of the school.”
So how can the HNC improve its virtual offerings going forward? Accounting for the lack of language immersion came up in conversations with students, as did ways to make the class schedule more accommodating and less exhausting. More specific recommendations that emerged include adjusting the grading standards to account for students’ new and varied challenges and encouraging professors to record their classes for students who are unable to attend or struggle to understand a lecture. In speaking with Co-Director Webb, it was clear that the administration has plans to more effectively use technology in upcoming semesters. Beyond encouraging professors to use breakout rooms as a way to encourage discussion, JHU SAIS is also thinking of conducting a Zoom training for professors. Eventually, SAIS administration hopes to use Zoom as a way to integrate the D.C., Bologna and Nanjing campuses.
As the HNC community considers another virtual semester, students should remind themselves of why they chose the HNC: it is not just the linguistic training, but also the skills gained from working through these tough issues. At the same time, the administration should acknowledge that some things are lost on a virtual platform. Chinese and international students are typically paired as roommates to create bonds and work through cultural differences together, but those opportunities are not available on a virtual platform. Rather than trying to find replacements, there should be new ideas and channels of communication.
Hope Parker is reporting from Penngrove, California.