To Use or Not to Use Virtual Private Networks

Requiring your students in China to stay connected to your classes through them is unethical, argues Bob Eckhart, who suggests some ways to avoid it.

September 17, 2020
 
 
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A lot of scrambling is going on right now as colleges and universities consider how to offer online courses for international students this fall. Many are contemplating the use of virtual private networks (aka VPNs) for their students in China.

When I go to China, I use a VPN, of course. It’s required to leap over the Great Firewall and use Google products and social media and stay connected while I’m there.

I’ve been to China 39 times since 2004, have taken more than 250 American K-12/higher education teachers there, and I have run summer language programs at five of China’s outstanding universities. I make sure everyone downloads a VPN on their devices before they go.

When I’m there, it’s apparent that many Chinese people are using VPNs to stay connected to the world outside their country, as well. An article that PC Magazine cited in 2019 suggested that as many as 31 percent of internet users in China use VPNs.

But for American colleges and universities to offer their students in China online courses this fall that require them to use VPNs is deeply unethical and equally unwise.

For all practical purposes, the Chinese government forbids the use of VPNs. In an effort to clean up the internet and limit access to sensitive content, it even fines people (up to 1,000 RMB, or about $150) for using unauthorized VPNs.

So, college leaders, in your haste to create an online solution for course offerings this fall, do not let professors simply require students to use VPNs to access course content on YouTube or collaborate on shared documents hosted on sites that are blocked.

For one thing, your students can get in trouble without realizing the severity of unlawfully entering forbidden spaces on the internet. They aren’t necessarily going to contemplate the current spat between the U.S. and Chinese governments over Huawei, which is happening at the highest levels of government.

And for another thing, if thousands, or tens of thousands, of Chinese students in China are using VPNs to access course content in the United States, you better expect that, at some point, the Chinese government will shut off access to the VPNs themselves.

A senior staff member of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing told me a few years ago that Chinese government officials consider the internet to be something like a spigot that they can turn off and on at their whim -- just to send a message to Chinese netizens not to get too comfortable with certain aspects of it.

They frequently do that before the Chinese Communist Party meeting every five years or at other sensitive times, as they did when trying to control local accounts of the COVID-19 crisis earlier this year.

It is unethical to expect students, who themselves may be in the party or whose parents may be party members, to break national laws to participate fully in our classes. In a survey of Chinese students at Purdue University, 13 percent of Chinese students reported membership in the CCP, and 47 percent had joined the Chinese Communist Youth League.

If the Chinese government decides to crack down across the board, it could charge many young Chinese students with an infraction that could come back to haunt them -- or could even be used against their parents.

The stakes for this decision are sky-high, so please don’t take the shortcut some colleges and universities are taking by requiring, and even providing, access to VPNs for your students abroad.

Chinese students are already under intense pressure at American higher education institutions, and that pressure will intensify if they are taking classes offered with a 12- to 15-hour time difference.

Instead of using tools that require VPNs, some simple strategies you can employ include:

  • Create courses using Chinese platforms like Youku (similar to YouTube), Weibo (Twitter), VooV (Zoom) and QQ (a wraparound suite).
  • Scale back assignments requiring lots of bandwidth, because, especially outside the big cities, "the connection to the internet can be annoying" and students might find themselves struggling to watch or upload larger files, like videos.
  • Don’t expect your learning management system, already susceptible to bugs when interfacing with other platforms, to function smoothly for students in China, either. Most students will try to interface with their LMS through the app on their mobile device, but at Ohio State, all students are encouraged to use their device browser for “high-stakes activities" such as taking a quiz or submitting an assignment.
  • Allow students to email assignments. This is maybe the most obvious and easiest solution to LMS woes. In an article in Ohio State's student newspaper about difficulties completing coursework while in China -- coping with the time difference for synchronous courses and so on -- the university's students report having difficulties with the internet, particularly uploading assignments.

These are just a few generic tips. The important message is that faculty members and students must be creative in their pursuit of desired learning outcomes. Across-the-board solutions do not exist. Every course and every professor might need to develop distinct and personalized workarounds in order to teach their students in China efficiently and effectively.

Institutions of higher education in the United States are in an unprecedented situation as they begin the fall semester. But the ethics of this situation are clear: requiring VPN usage for students to complete coursework is unethical, and myriad convenient alternative solutions exist -- many of which you may not be familiar with. A lot of help is also available, particularly from your previous standout Chinese students, who might actually be your best resource.

Bio

Bob Eckhart is a former executive director of the combined ESL programs at Ohio State University. He has managed summer language and culture programs at various universities in China since 2005 and has also served as the director of the Wuhan University-Ohio State University Center for American Culture, funded by the U.S. Department of State.

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