Guidance for Faculty: Getting & Staying Connected with Int'l Students


Guidance for Faculty: How to Get and Stay Connected with International Students

In response to the campus shut-down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of Cornell’s international undergraduate and graduate students have returned to their home countries. How many? We don’t know. But we do know that working remotely from such a distance will make it hard for these students to stay connected to their Cornell courses. 

Of particular concern are students who have returned to mainland China, due to the many barriers related to blocked US-based websites and government surveillance of online activities. Also of concern are issues related to synchronous instruction, multilingual writing, and online interactions in discussion boards with peers. All of these issues impact Cornell faculty who want to create online courses that are accessible to and inclusive of international students who are now many miles away. Below, we discuss these issues as well as provide guidance.

Is anybody out there? Why Chinese students may not be responding to your emails

If you haven’t heard back from Chinese students who have returned to mainland China, the problem may be related to their Cornell email account. 

You may know that in China, all U.S.-based Google products are blocked. You may not know that many Cornell students access their university email accounts through GSuite (a Google platform). Some students will have anticipated this problem before leaving the US by purchasing a VPN (access to a virtual private network, which cloaks online activity from government surveillance). But these VPNs are expensive, and some provide unstable connections. Further, the Chinese government discourages the use of VPNs (to the point of sending threatening letters to students who use them). Students who are not using a VPN may not receive any communications you send to their Cornell email addresses (including those sent through the Faculty Center roster).

A workaround is to communicate through the course Canvas site. All students are automatically enrolled in Canvas sites (they do not need to accept an invitation). Canvas has two tools for sending messages to students: through the Announcements and Inbox. However, students do not receive notifications about new announcements and Inbox messages in their email unless they select this setting in their Canvas accounts. The default email account associated with their Canvas account is their Cornell email address. Thus, students also need to add a second email address to their Canvas account. Further, students will not receive these notifications until the faculty member has published the Canvas course. We realize that you may have not published your course yet (or have temporarily unpublished a course while you work on it). Our advice is to publish it (even if the course is in flux), but to delay enabling the aspects of the course you are not prepared to share with students (such as  an updated syllabus, new modules, or new discussion boards). You should also keep in mind that students who were in courses that weren’t using Canvas before classes were suspended may not know to check Canvas now. 

Another option is to see if you can find an alternative email address for your student. All students provide non-Cornell email addresses when they apply to Cornell, and these addresses are in their Peoplesoft records. We encourage you to reach out to your department’s administrative assistant with the names and Net IDs of students you haven’t heard from to see if they can access Peoplesoft data to locate these email addresses.

Blocked Websites, Slow Connections, Monitored Activity

Faculty should also be aware that Google products are not the only online websites blocked in China. Also blocked are: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Box/Dropbox, Slack, Skype, WhatsApp, and the websites of many news outlets. Students in mainland China CAN access the following: Zoom, Canvas, iCloud, WeChat, Panopto, and Piazza. (For Zoom, it is recommended that students download the Chinese version: But even though students can access these websites, there are several issues faculty should be aware of. 

First, websites hosted outside of China will be slower. Thus, it may be difficult for students in China to access large files such as videos and slides with high-resolution images. Second, a common workaround is to use a VPN (a virtual private network). In fact, Cornell recommends that students who are off campus use a VPN to access Canvas, as it will speed up the connection. But, as mentioned above, this recommendation is problematic (read: dangerous) for students in mainland China. Please do not encourage your students in China to do this. 

Further, the list of websites that are blocked can change quickly. At any time, China can decide to block another website. There is a way to test whether a site is blocked in China: you can test the URL in sites like Comparitech. But you may need to check frequently, as more sites will appear suspect to the Chinese government as more students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education engage in remote learning. 

The Chinese government engages in a high degree of surveillance to monitor its citizens online. In recognition of this surveillance, the Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI)’s message to faculty concerning students in mainland China included the following warning: “Instructors should know that if students in China are using a non-US cell carrier or internet provider, their course materials may be monitored by the Chinese government.” This is a chilling statement, and one that has implications for both faculty and students.

In light of this surveillance, it’s important to consider not only which platforms students in mainland China will have access to, but also what they can say or write when using these platforms. For example, a University of Minnesota student from mainland China was recently arrested and given a six-month sentence for sending tweets that the Chinese government saw as “denigrating a national leader’s image” (Theisen, 2020). He sent out these tweets while he was still in the U.S. and was arrested when he returned home, a sign that internet surveillance continues to escalate in China (Mozur, 2019). 

We are not recommending that faculty tell Chinese students to watch what they say when interacting with their Cornell courses. Chinese students will likely be aware of the need to monitor their own speech online. But we are recommending that faculty think through the extent to which their writing assignments, discussion prompts, and test questions touch on potentially culturally sensitive topics. In some courses, the topics may be unavoidable. In others, faculty may be able to offer options, 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. We don’t ask that you compromise your courses or instruction. But flexibility (and a measure of generosity) are warranted when assessing Chinese students’ work at this time. 

Considerations for Synchronous and Asynchronous Instruction

This climate of surveillance also has implications for synchronous course activities. Synchronous aspects of a course (such as class meeting, office hours, and groupwork facilitated by Zoom) would already be difficult for students in mainland China due to the time difference (China is twelve hours ahead of the US). But there are further complications. Activities that require students to speak online could be overhead by family members. Activities that require the use of a webcam or microphone could implicate family members whose images and voices are captured (a general fear felt by citizens in China; see Campbell, 2019). We recommend not requiring students in mainland China to participate in activities that require videoconferencing.

Asynchronous classes also introduce complications for international students who use English as an additional language, due to the increased visibility of student writing. Ilona Leki (2007) has conducted case study research on international students during their U.S. university experiences. Leki notes that writing is the place where multilingual students feel the most vulnerable, due to the presence of differences in syntax, differences in cultural rhetorical practices for making and arranging arguments, and “written accent” (i.e. markers that indicate use of English as an additional language). Researchers estimate that 95% of adult learners of English will write (and speak) with an accent (Silva, Leki, & Carson, 1997). In many courses, only the instructor or TA sees student writing. In online courses (especially those that utilize discussion boards), student writing becomes visible to all students.

Not only can peers see discussion board posts made by other students, but they are also often expected to comment on them. Unmoderated discussion boards open students not only to comments and criticisms of their ability to control English, but also to the xenophobia that has been on the rise in the US, which has especially targeted Chinese students since the start of the pandemic (see Weifeng Yang’s opinion piece in a recent Cornell Sun issue on this topic). We recommend that you pay extra attention to creating inclusive online classroom climates, as we discuss below.

Creating Inclusive Online Courses

We recommend that as you move to virtual instruction, you re-establish classroom etiquette as it relates to creating an inclusive environment (see CTI’s advice on establishing “ground rules”). In your syllabus, you might include a statement about the online classroom culture you hope to establish. For example, my syllabus includes the following statement:

In this class, I expect “written accent” (missing articles, incorrect prepositions, incorrect verb tenses) to be treated with respect. While all students in this course are expected to challenge themselves to become more effective and accomplished writers, we will not spend time worrying too much about the aspects of English that take many years to acquire (i.e. articles, verb tense, prepositions), but instead focus on expression of ideas, communicative competence, and rhetorical savvy.

In your syllabus, you might also include recognition of recent attacks against Chinese students in the US and say that racism, in any form, will not be tolerated. 

If you assign discussion boards, you might make a general statement that you do not expect students 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.) 

A final point is that while we focus on students from mainland China in this article, international students from other countries may also have similar restrictions. The Cornell community includes students from all over the world, including Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Venezuela, all of which block some websites and engage in surveillance of online activities. 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. 

Closing Thoughts 

The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting how we all communicate, teach, and learn as an academic community. Now, more than ever, we are being asked to think carefully about modes of communication as well as the stakes of what is said--questions that are more complicated for some of our international Cornell community members. With the larger goal of creating equitable, inclusive, and accessible learning opportunities for all students, instructors may well need to drastically change their pedagogical plans for the remainder of the semester. And they need to do so quickly and sometimes spontaneously. As the Cornell community faces the work ahead of us, faculty must work together to attend to the needs of students, particularly the most vulnerable among them. And let’s count on students to be generous and compassionate as we stumble through this process.


Campbell, C. (2019 Nov 21). “The entire system is designed to suppress us”: What the Chinese surveillance state means for the rest of the world. Time. Retrieved from

Center for Teaching Innovation. (2020). Establishing ground rules. Cornell University. Retrieved from

Conference on College Composition and Communication. (2009). CCCC statement on second language writers and writing. Retrieved from 

Cornell University. (2020). Information for faculty. Coronavirus updates. Retrieved from 

Leki, I. (2007). Undergraduates in a second language: Challenges and complexities of academic literacy development. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Mozur, P. (2019 Jan 10). Twitter users in China face detention and threats in new Beijing crackdown. New York Times. Retrieved from 

Silva, T., Leki, I., & Carson, J. (1997). Broadening the perspective of mainstream composition. Some thoughts from the disciplinary margins. Written Communication, 14(3), 398-428.

Theisen, L. (2020 Jan 22). University of Minnesota student sent to Chinese prison for critical tweets. New York Daily News. Retrieved from

Yang, W. (2020 Feb 6). Salting wounds: Accounts of anti-Chinese xenophobia at Cornell and beyond. Cornell Sun. Retrieved from

Updated April 6, 2020

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