buellj
Community Contributor

Support for Online Students in China

Hi All,

Seattle University is expanding online course offerings, particularly during the summer. We have a number of international students who return home and report issues with accessing Canvas in the People's Republic of China. Sometimes it seems that they are not able to access Canvas at all, but most reports seem to indicate issues with 3rd-party applications such as embedded YouTube videos, LTIs, etc. In the past students have reported some success using VPN software but it appears that the state has announced that it cracking down on VPN usage. A couple of questions come up:

  1. Does your institution have an official policy regarding support of online students in China? For example, if a student is unable to access course content are they able to get a refund? Do you warn or restrict students when they register for courses?
  2. What issues have your students experienced, and which Canvas or 3rd-party applications seem to be most affected? What work-arounds have been successful?

I saw this thread but am hoping to get more information and a sense of school policies around this. Thanks in advance for your help. 

John

23 Replies
dengpan_huang
New Member

This message comes from Joint Insitute in china, we couldn't access to visit canvas now.

tdw
Instructure
Instructure

Hi  @buellj ‌,

I can't address your first question, but I can speak a bit to the second.  I was the LMS admin (among other things) for a small consortium of international schools in mainland China from 2009-2015.

Unfortunately, the question is much more difficult to address than a list of impacted websites or IP addresses.  Many variables are at play including the student's region, the student's ISP, the time of year (e.g. is it close to June 4th?), other filtered activity within a shared end-user IP range, other filtered content within the server IP range, whims of the government for enforcement, etc. etc.

As your students are geographically distributed there's no easy solution for "use this" or "don't use this".  However, the website GreatFire.org offers an analyzer of websites being blocked in China with a historical view. To date, https://aws.amazon.com hasn't been blocked and neither has https://canvas.instructure.com, but you'll notice that there are "contradictory" data points for both.

While the great firewall has become more technically advanced in the last few years (e.g. doing deep packet inspection to sniff and shut down VPN traffic), VPNs are still the best bet for a way around it.  However, it's generally accepted that the Chinese government itself maintains subscriptions to a wide array of VPN providers to sniff and blacklist their exit node IP and/or domain name - effectively preventing the successful connection to the VPN in the first place.

What we ended up doing was spinning up a VPN server out of a provider in Hong Kong (where the internet is not filtered) and configuring each school's firewall to route all outbound traffic out over the VPN, providing an on-campus VPN.  This was about 80% successful, and we played with a variety of VPN types: L2TP, PPTP, OVPN, and we ended up settling on Cisco's implementation as the most "stable".  It might be possible for your school's IT team to set up a VPN server somewhere on your campus and give students a client which can log in using a university ID.  Of course, you'll have to do a cost/benefit analysis of this - as well as a legal analysis, as it's my understanding that not only are VPNs blocked, they're actually illegal for Chinese citizens to have/use, but I'm not a lawyer.

Sorry I can't provide you more help, hopefully somebody else can chime in.

buellj
Community Contributor

 @tdw ‌ - a huge thank you for detailing your experiences! 

hallmans
Community Contributor

Thanks  @tdw ‌

We have received reports from our group at Xiamen University over the last two days that they have lost all access to Canvas. Looking at workarounds right now- your post is a great help.

hallmans
Community Contributor

Just an update - Canvas is blocked in China- here is the response from our rep:

Cloudfront is a distribution network that we use for delivering content.  It appears this has been blocked by a firewall in China.  We are not in a position to change that CDN right now as it could potentially have major impacts to users all over the world. We are exploring options, the most promising of which is that schools leverage VPNs in the meantime while we look for something long term.  

jj_pierce
New Member

Has there been an update on the situation?

Thanks,

--jj--

jj_pierce
New Member

Robin Leeson from South Puget Sound Community College in WA state checked their site, and I with our Pierce Canvas site using greatfirewallofchina.org which indicates neither are being blocked.

If anyone has contacts within China that can verify it's a total country vs local or regional issue, that would help a bunch of us out.

Thanks!

--jj--

Hi jj_pierce‌,

My current understanding of the situation is not that Canvas is blocked, but rather that Amazon Cloudfront, the CDN used to deliver static assets, is blocked.  Greatfire.org has an excellent tester with historical data.

Now, functionally, the Great Firewall does not actually (usually) block requests, instead it ends up poisoning DNS, which means that a user spends about 300 seconds waiting for the Canvas CSS file to load (then it times out), then spends about 300 seconds waiting for the Canvas JavaScript to load (then it times out), then they spend 300 seconds waiting for icons/images to load (which then time out) then the dynamic parts load and the page looks terrible.  And this happens on each page, making it functionally unusable.  None of this would be revealed by seeing if "school.instructure.com" is blocked or not, unfortunately.

If "school.instructure.com" were blocked as facebook/twitter are as opposed to the above (which is how google is blocked) then their browsers would almost immediately receive a "connection reset by peer" error.

Of course, all of this is subject to the same caveats I listed above.

buellj
Community Contributor

Thank you for the detailed explanation  @tdw  - we recently had a report by students and an instructor that they could see Canvas but none of the javacript, CSS, etc. was loading and none of the buttons were working, so they couldn't log in. This explains why. 

jj_pierce
New Member

Thanks, Danny.

https://en.greatfire.org/https/pierce.instructure.com  indicates all is well, however, if I understand you correctly, that's still pretty meaningless.

Do you have any recommendations on an acceptable method(s) of determining if access is being blocked at any given time? While we do not currently have any students or faculty (that we know about) in China, I believe there are some plans for later in the summer/fall.

Thanks!

--jj--

Unfortunately I do not have a good method of determining if access is being blocked, beyond somebody reporting it.  Of course, this is by design on the part of the creators of the Great Firewall.  They have several methods of blocking/interfering and they use them in an (apparently) random manner in order to decrease the likelihood of it being defeated.

I am in Beijing, China, now. I teach online course via Canvas and I can get in Canvas, but many of the components don't work. I can read inbox, but I can't read discussion, announcement, grade, etc.

Sometimes, it displays normally as I see in U.S., but somethings the whole display is completely different and many of the functions are not accessible. Right now I cope with it by going online through T-mobile' data plan through my phone. It's very slow, but at least I can grade students' work, answer student's questions, and post discussion, announcement, etc. I am having great difficulty accessing Canvas through local network.

Thanks much for the personal update, Sue. It helps confirm some of the issues we've heard about. I'm sorry you're experiencing the issues, but thank you for sharing.

Regards from lovely Washington State,

--jj--

jayde_colquhoun
Instructure
Instructure

Hi everybody, 


Thank you for sharing your status for Canvas access in China. 

I wanted to touch base, and see if there are any updates on how this is going at the moment? We are currently conducting some research into accessing Canvas within China, so your input would be valuable! 

 @wangsue ‌  @tdw ‌ hallmans

Hi  @jayde_colquhoun ‌,

Unfortunately I won't be able to provide you any additional info, I'm back in the good ol' US of A now.  Though, I think that mostly what I wrote will remain true for the long term.

I will agree, thank you for writing such great information, it's been really helpful for us! 

Hi  @jayde_colquhoun ‌

Our colleagues and students in Xiamen are still reporting the same issues with pages timing out. I had some good conversations at Instructurecon about workarounds and such, but it seems that there is nothing on the immediate horizon that is a true fix.

Not that its any consolation, but it does make it easier when explaining to people that its not a Canvas problem (like  @tdw ‌ points out) but rather an Amazon problem. Somehow its more acceptable if it's not solely a Canvas problem...

Wish I had better news- it's really impacting the way we run our global program when one of the 5 schools is an outlier.

I'd be happy to have an offline conversation with you as well.

j_c_turner
Community Contributor

Hi

I'm guessing this is not news to anyone following this page but I just want to add out findings. Our partner in Shanghai has similar issues. They now run a local copy of the content downloaded from Canvas on moodle to help the students access the content. 

Jim

jjohnson1361
New Member

Hi everyone,

I am hoping to get an update on the situation in China. We will be offering an online class to a sister institution in China for Spring. I'm concerned about the students accessing content, assessments, and Panopto-based videos.

Can anyone verify if access is being actively blocked? We won't have an option of placing a local copy onto any platform, so am hoping things have gotten friendlier since this thread was last active.

Thanks!

--jj--

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Hi James:

I wish I had better news, but our students in China are still having the same issues. Basically, the pages only partially load or time out. It seems like the behavior is inconsistent., but it's frustrating to our students. VPN is the really the only way they can access the server. They also run a shadow site that will serve up the files. They can get the teaching material's, but we've given up on timed quizzes and anything interactive.

Steve

Hi Steve,

Our college is currently exploring a partnership with an institution in China as well, and I'm wondering when you say you've given up on anything interactive if that includes discussions? And you mentioned timed quizzes, but what if they are not timed? How are you able to assess learning under these circumstances? I really appreciate all the information you and everyone here have shared already. It has given us a lot of insight into this venture. 

Donna

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Hi Steve and all who are following this discussion.

We've an update to share. So far Panopto and Kaltura, if part of your Canvas deployment, are working. We're continuing testing, but it's looking positive so far. YouTube and Vimeo, as expected, are blocked and the participant in the Canvas course did not even see them.

We'll expand our testing to assessments, but think as long as it's part of the course it should not be a problem.

Regards,

--jj--

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prakash0450
New Member

Hi All:

With the travel restrictions from China in effect indefinitely, we are preparing to offer courses to a large number of students who are currently residing in China.  I have been following the discussion threads and blog posts about problems in accessing Canvas from China.  So far I have learned that there is limited success in accessing all features of Canvas from China.  It seems that any streaming content OR user-generated content is blocked (even if using VPN). 

Does Canvas have an official guideline OR best practices on how to structure the content OR conduct courses for students based out of China / Russia or other countries with restricted internet access policies?  We need Canvas's leadership in enabling distant learning for students who will not be able to attend colleges in the US during Summer  & Fall semesters.  

This is going to be new normal going forward even after the COVID-19 crisis is over.  

Prakash Teli

CTO | Meteor Learning Inc.

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