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From left are University College, Soldiers Tower and the University of Toronto Students' Union., in Toronto on May 20, 2020.

Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Canadian universities are warning professors that students enrolled online while living abroad in China and other countries may not be able to access materials that run afoul of domestic censorship and could have their internet activity monitored.

The restrictions could place a burden on professors to avoid some subjects or alter their teaching for students in some countries. Some universities are asking professors to be aware of the restrictions students may face and to be accommodating where necessary.

A large number of students will be enrolled at Canadian universities while living abroad this year as the pandemic makes travel difficult. That has created complications for courses delivered entirely over the internet.

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China, the largest source of international students at Canadian universities, restricts internet content, particularly information or views critical of its government. Some other countries also have a more restricted internet than in Canada.

At the University of Toronto, professors have been advised to be aware of potential difficulties such as questions of “privacy, surveillance and free inquiry,” the university said, “among students who reside in countries with different laws, cultural norms and monitoring by law enforcement.”

“We encourage instructors to be thoughtful about where students are located,” said Susan McCahan, vice-provost of academic programs and innovations in undergraduate education.

The U of T is one of several Canadian universities to have engaged China-based Alibaba Cloud Enterprise Network for students to access course materials from China. On its website the university warns that Chinese companies must comply with Chinese security laws and there is “an inherent risk of monitoring for individuals in mainland China.”

The U of T faculty association said the remote teaching of international students abroad is an important issue with implications for equity and academic freedom.

“Professors very much want to maintain standards of excellence while understanding that some students may be in danger if they access course materials,” president Terezia Zoric said.

A teaching assistant at U of T, whom The Globe and Mail is not identifying because he is not authorized to speak publicly, said he was warned that when moderating online group discussions there will be ethical concerns around teaching students in China. He said he was advised to steer discussions away from controversial topics that could run students into trouble.

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He said the university is putting instructors in a position where they could face difficult choices about teaching and discussion on issues such as politics, human rights or the environment.

Prof. McCahan said the university stands by the principle of free expression and the pursuit of truth, and that experts are continuing to work on “the pedagogical challenges” involved in delivering online education to students abroad.

The University of Waterloo has been using Alibaba’s service for its students in China for the past several months.

Emmet Macfarlane, a political-science professor, said in a Twitter post that Waterloo warned staff that the service is subject to Chinese law and surveillance by authorities. Prof. Macfarlane said he would not change the content of his courses on the basis of what the Chinese regime allows and asked whether just by holding a course the university could be placing students at some risk if the regime can monitor class discussions.

“We have not and will not give our faculty guidance to alter their course content,” said David DeVidi, an associate vice-president at the University of Waterloo.

He added that students accessing university materials are no more or less open to monitoring than any other internet activity in China. The information contained in the internet traffic is encrypted from end to end, and there is no security threat for instructors in Canada, he said.

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Dan Brown, president of the Waterloo faculty association, said decisions about course content should rest with the instructors. But how to accommodate students who are facing restrictions is more complicated.

“A key issue for us is that our students can’t come [to Canada] right now," Prof. Brown said. "It would make life much easier, even for online learning.”

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