When Kirti Krishan returned to his home in Patna in January after having spent over six months in Beijing, he was thrilled to be able to eat dal and rice again. Having finished the first semester of his management programme at Peking University, the 23-year-old was delighted still when his vacation was extended due to the spread of Covid-19 in China.

But this pleasure, he confessed, evaporated soon after the university reopened in mid-February and virtual classes began in full swing. Travel restrictions mean that Krishan must continue to attend his classes online from a timezone different to that of his professors and peers, and seven months on, he said, the changed routine is beginning to take a toll.

“My learning has declined and my motivation has gone down,” he said. Not being a part of the classroom ecosystem means he needs to summon great self-determination to daily sit in front of his laptop in his bedroom to attend classes. Since he has to abide by the university’s time zone, he also has to be up at 5 am.

The difference in time zones has been especially difficult for 21-year-old Vaishnavi Dandekar who has been attending virtual classes at Canada’s University of British Columbia while stuck at her home in Mumbai. Since classes continue till 4:30 am, she said she has not been sleeping for more than four hours a day.

“I have to stay up the entire night with mugs of coffee,” she said. “Basically, I’m paying Rs 10 lakh for studying online – and doing so is having an adverse effect on my health.”

This high cost of a foreign education minus the benefits of campus life and interactions with students from the world over have prompted many in India to defer their courses by a year.

But for those like Krishan, who had already completed a part of their programme, and Dandekar, who remains optimistic about being on campus in Vancouver in a few months, foreign education is taking place from their bedrooms in India which is posing a number of challenges.

Virtual classrooms

Peking University, according to Krishan, has seamlessly adapted to a virtual classroom environment via DingTalk – a communication platform developed by Alibaba Group. “It’s possibly what WhatsApp would look like 20 years down the line,” he said. While the platform has made video and live sessions highly fluid, it’s far from being a substitute for in-person learning.

During projects, for instance, after the groups have been divided and timelines set, the next step is to carry out discussions on video calls. “It takes a whole lot of time to convince someone of an idea when they’re facing a network lag,” he said. “We’re not able to have the same quality of discussions had we been together.”

However, since the students are required to meet a deadline, they skip the brainstorming bit and end up only assigning tasks. “I can see that it has really affected the quality of the projects that we have been doing,” Krishan said.

One major impact, he said, has been on his learning of Mandarin. “The classes are still happening, but the learning has gone down because now I’m speaking more of Hindi and English at home,” he said.

For Suha Gangopadhyay, a PhD student at Michigan State University, the greatest challenge has been procuring the required readings. “A number of prescribed books are of American publications that are not available in India,” said Gangopadhyay, who has been attending virtual classes from her home in Kolkata since late August. “If I need to have them shipped to India, they’re very expensive.”

For her first semester, the 28-year-old said, she has had to “beg people for books”.

Notably, Gangopadhyay’s research is focused on digital education – a field that has exploded in the last few months due to the spread of Covid-19 pandemic. “In some twisted way, it’s actually good for my research interests since I can directly observe the kinds of things that I wanted to look out for,” she said.

While Gangopadhyay has previously worked in the field of e-learning, helping develop the digital curriculum at an ed-tech organisation in India, now being on the other side as a student has given her a reality check. “It has made me think about the aspects of education that I had not thought of before, but that is really important – and that is physical proximity with other people,” she said.

Gangopadhyay admits the teaching staff has gone out of its way to make the adjustment easier, especially for international students. However, she said it is difficult to shake the awkwardness that accompanies virtual interaction with people one has never actually met.

“I think having your teacher present in front of you just makes it easier to ask clarifying questions and grasp certain ideas as opposed to having them halfway across the world in a different time zone,” she said.

Since she has also not met her fellow classmates, Gangopadhyay said it adds to the anxiety around asking questions on Zoom. “You’re anyway in a space where you’re conscious about saying something because you don’t want to appear uninformed in front of your cohort members,” she said. “That kind of gets exacerbated because you’ve never really met these people. They’ve always been these little faces on your screen.”

‘Zoom parties’

Rudrani Dasgupta relies on her past experiences when saying that the most enjoyable part of studying abroad is making new friends – which she got a taste of while studying in London a few years ago. “I made friends over running to some shop for cheap half-price sushi at the end of the day,” said 32-year-old Dasgupta who is enrolled in online classes for a four-month executive certificate programme at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Now we have a Telegram group to chat with each other.”

The extent of her social interaction over the last few weeks since the course began has been complimenting her classmate on the picture of a dog that she has used on her profile. “It has been a bit disconnected. Just the other day one professor was talking about how the students would tend to hang around after classes, just chatting with each other or getting a cup of coffee,” she said. “But those little in-person encounters are not going to happen.”

The start of the semester is typically filled with social activities: picnics, barbeques and pizza nights. Since none of those is possible at the present, universities have been trying to adapt and host virtual social events.

“There are no picnics and breakfasts happening right now, so what the university has done is to hold Zoom parties,” Gangopadhyay said. “They are acknowledging the fact that, of course, it’s not as intimate as an actual event, but they’re still not wanting to let go of whatever tradition they have of welcoming new students.”

For Krishan, who described himself as an extrovert, the lack of in-person social interactions with his peers has been challenging. While he was on campus last year, Krishan said he would make it a point to regularly network with people through meet-up apps. “I would go out and meet people every weekend, now obviously that is not happening,” he said. “All interaction has moved to WeChat. But that’s the new normal.”