The Trials of Learning Across Time Zones

by Guest Author

Rinka Shimizu Guest Blog by Rinka Shimizu

This past winter quarter, I attended my undergraduate classes remotely like every other student during this pandemic. The only difference was that I was doing it from the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Honolulu, Hawaii is where I call home, and this is where I ended up staying while classes remained remote. Like many students navigating these difficult times, I made the decision to stay with family in my hometown and connect to classes from a different time zone. While I missed seeing my friends and studying in the library until the wee hours of the morning, I found that there was a much more formidable problem standing in my way. 

While many students participate in online classes from different time zones, what makes things more challenging for me is that I was four hours behind Evanston (now five hours due to the fact that Hawaii does not take part in Daylight Savings Time). Although this does not appear to be a big difference, many undergraduate courses are held in the morning. Imagine going to 9 a.m. classes, already the bane of all college students, at 5 a.m. instead. Rather than going out for a jog as one might so early in the morning, you are staring at your computer screen in a dimly lit room. I tried to go to bed earlier at night, but it was hard to shake off the habit of staying up late to study, especially when family members also stayed up late. During course registration, I tried as much as possible to schedule my classes during times that were reasonable for me. However, being an upperclassman, there were required courses held in the early morning that I needed to take to graduate on time. 

I lost a lot of sleep trying to keep up with the rest of my class. In addition to attending lectures and trying to absorb the course material, I also took synchronous quizzes and was graded on how often I made thoughtful comments during class. My brain was not working at full capacity so early in the morning, and my grades would bear the consequences. Not only that, but my health declined as well. I took naps at odd hours of the day and my appetite diminished as a result. I changed my lifestyle to make up for the time difference and had to sacrifice my learning and wellbeing in the process. 

My experience with remote learning is similar to that of international students who also had to stay home due to various circumstances. While few in number, I believe that more accommodations need to be made for students like us who are doing our best to continue attending college during these unprecedented times.

Cornell University is one institution that has implemented accommodations to make learning conditions more equal during the pandemic. For their online courses, their academic policy states that the “course is delivered online, delivered synchronously (live, in real-time) during scheduled meeting times. Students are expected to participate synchronously as long as the scheduled meeting time is between 8 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. in their local time zone.” This means that students whose classes take place outside of this time frame do not have to attend synchronously and that asynchronous alternatives would be made available to them. While asynchronous participation can seem less engaging, creative methods make it a much better option than putting students through lectures when they should be asleep.

There are a few tools and strategies that instructors can use to implement asynchronous alternatives in synchronous courses. 

  • The simplest way is to record live lectures and make them available to students for later viewing. This not only accommodates students in different time zones but also those who have spotty internet connections or distracting learning environments. 
  • Frequent low-stakes asynchronous assessments such as quizzes and short writing assignments can engage all students including those who are unable to attend synchronously. Students are also able to receive feedback asynchronously, so those unable to participate synchronously do not miss out on valuable opportunities to improve. These methods also allow instructors to see where the students are at and adjust the course accordingly to suit their learning needs. 
  • Discussion boards are another great way to engage students with the course material and with each other. Here are some tips for creating successful online discussions

While these are just a few, simple tips for making a synchronous course more accommodating for students living in different time zones, they go a long way in creating a more equitable learning environment.


Cornell University. (2020). Academic policies & Instruction Modes: COVID-19 and Reactivation Planning.

Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center. (2021). Strategies for Teaching Students in Different Time Zones.

About the Author

Rinka is a Course Development and Digital Accessibility Aide assisting in the Northwestern School of Professional Studies Distance Learning department. She was born in Japan and grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii. She is a third-year undergraduate student in the Weinberg School of Arts and Sciences majoring in Philosophy and Political Science. Rinka is passionate about human rights, immigration, and refugee policy, foreign policy, prison reform, global protest movements, and East Asian politics. She aspires to attend law school to become a better advocate for social and environmental justice.   

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