Teaching From Another Time Zone
By Tracy Seipel
How a far-flung SCU faculty member is rallying distance learning during COVID-19.
Thank heaven he brought his laptop.
That was one of the best last-minute decisions Prashanth Asuri MBA ’18 made as he walked out his front door in mid-March, his young family in tow, for a long-planned vacation in India.
“I thought I would just carry my iPad, for myself and my daughter,” recalls the associate professor of bioengineering. But as he was packing the tablet in his laptop case, Asuri figured he might as well lug his portable computer along in the same bag.
Two months later, the Santa Clara University faculty member is still in India, caught by COVID-19 shelter-in-place restrictions but using that laptop to teach four online courses in bioengineering to eager SCU students back in the United States.
The remote classroom format meant Asuri had to execute a different kind of logistical plan, since morning in America for his West Coast-based colleagues and students means it’s pitch black in Hyderabad, known as the information technology capital of India. That is where Asuri and his wife, a group leader at Genentech, now begin their work days at night while their 4-year-old daughter and baby son sleep in the home the family has been sharing with his in-laws.
“I’m following California time, not their time,” says a surprisingly good-natured Asuri of his twilight teaching to students, many of whom live in the Bay Area, though a few are on the East Coast, Hawaii and even in India. “It’s a flipped schedule.”
To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
The director of SCU’s BioInnovation and Design Lab, which partners students with industry to address complex healthcare problems, was always an early riser. Now, however, he must sleep during the day in order to stay awake at night to teach mid-morning and afternoon classes on California time. He records some of his lectures but still does most of his coursework synchronously.
As a member of SCU’s selection committee that is reviewing candidates for the position of vice president of Enrollment Management, Asuri attends those meetings as well, once every other week.
But the associate professor has organized his schedule using methods similar to other academics and international students caught in these kinds of overseas predicaments.
For example, to manage his 10-student project-based bioinnovation class, which normally meets every week for two hours, Asuri pre-records his lectures. This method, known as asynchronous learning, allows students to listen and review material at their convenience. Every other week, Asuri meets the student teams to discuss and track project progress.
Once a week, he also teaches advanced tissue engineering to 12 graduate students for two hours.
“It was hard for me to imagine how the class would go honestly, because it’s a graduate class and during many of the classes, we spend about half the time in student-led discussions,” Asuri says. But the students have risen to the occasion over Zoom, he reports, enthusiastic and engaged with plenty of questions for each other and their professor.
In addition, he teaches tissue engineering to 29 students twice a week for two hours, where Asuri records the main highlights of his lectures. Students are encouraged to review assigned pre-readings before their class time with him.
Innovative Solutions for Everyday Problems
And once a week for an hour he teaches 34 bioengineering students enrolled in a senior design capstone class, though the time commitment has exploded for Asuri as he guides them toward their final presentations later this month.
“It’s a big deal,” he says of the bioengineering projects each team will present to alumni and industry judges during SCU’s first-ever virtual Senior Design Conference. (You can watch the live-streamed student presentations on May 28, at 2:10 p.m. PDT. Details here.)
During the winter quarter, the students in the bioinnovation class were asked to identify a health care problem and create a solution. Reducing the number of bed sores that many sedentary diabetic patients develop, or finding a better way to prevent nosebleeds, are a few examples.
Every spring quarter, the students are then challenged to build high-quality prototypes. In the case of the diabetic patient, students might design some type of device that would improve the patients’ blood circulation.
But because the students no longer have access to the labs on campus, Asuri has asked them to develop low fidelity prototypes to quickly iterate ideas and design alternatives. (Low fidelity prototyping is a quick and easy way to translate high-level design concepts into testable and tangible artifacts, used to check and test functionality rather than capture the visual appearance of a product.) One team has even created a customer journey map through a series of illustrations in a storyboard format.
“The projects are progressing well,” says Asuri. “The students are still working together as a team, even though they are separated from each other.”
Watching the Sunrise
Still, there are many times when teaching between time zones has led to sleeplessness, and on those occasions Asuri will work straight through a 24-hour period, and try to catch up later with naps.
“Teaching class without sleeping all night has its difficulties,” he says, “but I have to say, I really enjoy watching the sunrise as I teach class.”
At the end of the day–in Hyderabad time–he gathers with his family on the terrace to play hide and seek with his children.
“We’re still in lockdown, so we cannot go anywhere,” he says. “It’s a nice time to get some physical activity and relieve stress.” (Every so often, for example, his Zoom classes can be interrupted by India's weather-related power outages, or from limited internet bandwidth.)
But what Asuri misses most from his home-base in south central India–besides being on campus with his students–is his preference to stand up in class and talk with his hands, often throwing his arms up for emphasis, which he can't easily do on the Zoom web conferencing platform.
Teaching in front of a computer “has been really frustrating,” he says. Yet throughout the experience, he describes his students–who are training for jobs in the medical device, pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, or planning to attend medical school or graduate school–as being “a resilient bunch” during this difficult time.
“Classes can be taken as pass/no pass this quarter,” he explains. “They could have adopted the attitude that ‘we don’t have to learn anymore,’ but not one of them is doing that.”
The same could be said for Asuri, who was told that because of his far-flung circumstances, his department could ask a colleague to teach one of his classes for him this quarter. He quickly declined the offer.
“Ten percent of your life is sort of these important moments,” Asuri says of events like the pandemic, “and 90 percent is how you react to them. I would like to say I reacted well.”
May 20, 2020
The Charminar monument, built in 1591 A.D., is the most famous building of Hyderabad and also one of the most famous buildings in India.