Texas Tech University

COVID-19 Cuts Professor's Fulbright Program Short

McKenzi Morris

April 30, 2020

Nick Bowman virtual reality research

Nick Bowman planned to spend the semester in Taiwan and now is finishing his research and teaching projects at home.

For Nick Bowman, the semester was supposed to be one of new experiences and milestones in his career.

After receiving a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program award in October, the associate professor of journalism and creative media industries in Texas Tech University's College of Media & Communication was going to spend six months in Taiwan researching virtual reality and teaching at the National Chengchi University (NCCU) in Taipei.

"It was meant to help me get integrated into my research on gaming and virtual reality, and doing it in a completely different cultural context," Bowman said. "The expectations of the program were really to fully immerse yourself in another environment – to mentally, culturally and physically put you somewhere else."

In his 15 years teaching, Bowman had done workshops overseas and led some study abroad courses, but he never taught at another institution outside the U.S. for a full semester. He said he was excited to work with students and faculty who might approach situations with a different philosophy than himself, especially in a country where virtual reality is more prevalent.

"It was a chance to expand a little bit," Bowman said. "You can only learn so much by reading, writing and watching things. At some point, you really do have to go somewhere else to not only learn a cultural comparison from 7,500 miles away, but also learn about your own culture."

Life in Taiwan

In Lubbock during the winter break, the city is rather quiet since most students have gone home for the holidays. When Bowman left Texas in early January, he landed in an entirely different environment on the other side of the world.

"There's something fascinating about going to Lubbock Preston Smith International Airport and, two planes later, being in Taipei, Taiwan," Bowman said, "coming out and having an apartment in a city of several million people."

He arrived in Taiwan as the country was gearing up to celebrate the Lunar New Year. When he told people he had never experienced the holiday, they gave him maps and told him everywhere he had to go and the things he had to see. He said it was like the entire country was serving as his welcoming committee to Taipei.

Bowman arrived in Taiwan as people were celebrating Lunar New Year, creating a welcoming atmosphere throughout the country.

However, Bowman's friends in the country told him that, despite the craziness leading up to the holiday, when the New Year actually happened, the city was going to be quiet because everyone was going to spend time with family. With the semester at NCCU not starting until February, it gave him time to explore his new home.

"So, basically, I had the entire city of Taipei as my playground," Bowman said.

COVID-19 hits Taiwan

When Bowman arrived in Taiwan, there already were discussions taking place about a novel coronavirus spreading in Wuhan, China. However, Bowman said in many Southeast Asian cultures, people tend to wear face masks and take more precautions when they're sick, so it wasn't a big deal yet.

"They were aware there was a virus, but nothing really changed," Bowman said. "By the end of January, that changed."

Numerous cases of coronavirus were being reported from three different cruises, one of those being the Diamond Princess cruise ship. In late January, that ship docked in Taiwan and the passengers had an excursion in Taipei.

After the country was notified of the outbreak among the ship's passengers, Bowman said the Taiwan Center for Disease Control issued alerts that contained maps with bullseyes over all the places they were able to trace the tourists to and when they were there.

"They said, 'If you happened to be in any one of these places on Jan. 31 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., we need you to self-quarantine,'" Bowman said. "And of course, I was in several of those places."

Bowman had only been in Taiwan about two weeks, then had to spend two weeks quarantined in a studio apartment about the size of one bedroom. After the alert was sent out, he went through the rules of quarantine as instructed – he checked his temperature several times a day, recorded it and wore a face mask whenever he was outside. He wrote about his quarantine experience on his blog, as well as other parts of his trip.

The view from Bowman's neighborhood.

While people in self-quarantine were not prohibited from leaving their houses, Bowman said they were asked to avoid large crowds. He had to cancel his trip to see the National Lantern Festival, and instead stayed inside and continued reading more news about the virus. He also began taking Chinese language courses.

"While I had been studying the language, I don't speak Chinese or read Chinese fluently," Bowman said. "But when you're watching the news about something like this, you'd be surprised how much translates."

During his two-week quarantine, COVID-19 started hitting other Asian cities and countries. Despite the outbreak, Bowman said social distancing wasn't a phrase that was really used, in part because there were too many people in a city the size of Taipei to socially distance yourself. Instead, businesses began taking more precautions to fight the spread.

"I remember going into restaurants and they would scan my temperature and spray me with disinfectant," Bowman said. "It was like going to a cologne counter at the mall, except this one smelled more like cleaning supplies than Chanel."

NCCU delayed the start of its semester by two weeks to give the university time to prepare for students coming back to campus. As a result, classes didn't start until the very end of February, forcing Bowman to make changes to his course and research plans.

Originally, he and his research team were going to conduct laboratory studies with virtual reality. Bowman said that had to change for two reasons – people didn't want to go into a lab during a virus outbreak and, since his team consisted of students, they didn't know when they would be able to return to campus.

"I felt like I didn't have a purpose anymore," Bowman said. "I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I thought, 'I'm here to be a professor and there's nothing to profess. I'm here to be a researcher and there's no data to collect.'"

Getting in the classroom

The semester finally started at the beginning of March, but the campus experience was different than normal. Bowman said on the first day back, there were signs everywhere telling people they had to wear a mask and check their temperature. By the third day, he said there were thermal scanners at all campus entrances.

National Chengchi University in Taipei

When people arrived on campus, they were scanned multiple times. Bowman said you got a stamp on your hand after going through the thermal scanner at the campus entrance, then had your temperature taken again when you went into a building.

"To put that in perspective, this is a campus in the mountains," Bowman said. "It's almost designed like a national park, so you can basically stroll through campus. Imagine putting a fence around Texas Tech's campus. It would be hard, but they did it."

The process of getting on campus was an adjustment, especially for his students, but Bowman said it was relatively easy for him because he didn't know what the normal flow of campus was before the outbreak.

That adaptability also helped him in the classroom. He said he had more hybrid content that could be done online and in-person than he normally would in a similar class. This flexibility helped him get right to work with the students, rather than focusing on the virus.

"I could tell the students were tired of talking about it," Bowman said. "I got the impression they were getting asked by everybody all the time how they're handling it. To me, they just seemed like they wanted to get to work, like the class period was a point of stability in their life. So, from 9 to noon on Tuesday and Thursday, they could just focus on class and not think about all the stuff happening around them."

Teaching from Texas

Three weeks into the delayed semester, Bowman got an email from the Fulbright program telling him he needed to go home and the program was over. The email came on a Friday afternoon. By Sunday, Bowman was landing back in Texas.

"The hard part really was leaving the classroom," Bowman said. "I really was getting to know these students. Not only did I have to leave, I didn't even get to tell them in person."

Even though he was now a world away, Bowman didn't want to stop teaching. The students were past their drop deadline and he didn't want them to lose a class in the middle of the semester. Instead, he figured they could use technologies to avoid canceling the course. Because the NCCU campus was still open, Bowman worked with the university, and they figured out a way to do online streaming so course could continue.

At the beginning, Bowman said there were some technical difficulties that were frustrating. They switched to a few different platforms for a while until the university asked professors to halt all face-to-face classes. At that point, they switched to a hybrid model where half the class was live lecture and the rest was online work.

"Our conversations are still very fruitful," Bowman said. "They're actually pretty engaging. They're on par with what we were getting in the face-to-face class."

The 13-hour time difference between Lubbock and Taiwan has been an adjustment for Bowman, especially when it comes to the live lectures. Originally, when he was doing the entirety of the class through live stream, he was teaching from 8 to 11 p.m. He said to stay awake he would get a cup of coffee at 7 and then not sleep through the night, so he was essentially keeping himself on Taiwan time in Lubbock.

Now, he does two 90-minute lectures twice a week. Bowman said he turns on the camera at 8 p.m. Monday and Wednesday nights, which is the equivalent of 9 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday for his students. He hosts these classes from his home office and occasionally, from his back patio.

"They get a giggle out of it, because at 8 p.m. in Texas, the sun is still up to the point where I think they think I'm faking it," Bowman said.

The shorter time frame for the 90-minute classes allows them to have better conversations, Bowman said. After the live lecture, they use the time difference to their advantage.

"What I told them is, 'While I'm sleeping, y'all use the discussion board,'" Bowman said. "Then, when I wake up in the morning, I grade the discussion, and they seem to like this. It's a funny way to leverage a 13-hour time gap."

Research plans

Bowman was looking forward to studying virtual and augmented reality in one of the leading countries for these technologies. Originally, the plan was to conduct experiments by having people use virtual reality helmets and measure the extent to which they felt fatigued by the content. Once he was sent back to Texas, it was clear that research plan wasn't going to happen anymore.

Bowman's original research plan was to conduct virtual reality experiments to measure how fatiguing the content was to people.

Instead, they altered their plan to be more descriptive and survey based. Bowman said he previously had developed a tool that measures people's perception of how cognitively, emotionally, physically and socially demanding video game and virtual reality technology is. They are now translating that to Chinese and putting it to use in a new culture.

The translation process requires more than just switching the language, Bowman said. They have to ensure the meaning and the context of the questions remains the same to avoid confusion. Once this process is complete, he said it will help take research that tends to be heavily Westernized and allow for data gathering in new cultures and countries.

"We know a lot about American college sophomores because we do our research on undergraduate classes for extra credit," Bowman said. "But if we can get better measures in different languages and different cultural contexts, we start to really understand if the things we're seeing published are generalized for everybody. Or maybe those findings work very differently in the U.S. than they work in another country."

During his brief stay at NCCU, Bowman also was invited to participate the Taiwanese Communication Survey. This is a project that the Taiwanese government funds in which scientists from different fields study national trends in media consumption. In this survey, he plans to ask about their video-game play and what they get out of those games, from emotional intelligence to coping mechanisms and inspiration.

"I'm geeked out about this because, what that means is, I'm going to have 1,600 responses that are representative of the entire nation of Taiwan," Bowman said.

Looking forward

Though he is now considered a Fulbright alumnus, Bowman said he is glad he got to continue his teaching and research with NCCU. Though it doesn't look promising, he's holding onto a little bit of hope that he can return to Taiwan at some point and finish out the semester.

"In the back of my mind, I'm like, 'Maybe, just maybe, I can hop on a plane,'" Bowman said. "I doubt it's going to happen though."

While he likely won't be able to return to Taiwan before their semester is over in June, he will still get to leave his mark on the country. Through the Fulbright program, Bowman was named the Wu Jing-Jyi Art & Culture Fellow. As part of this recognition, he was invited to make a cultural artistic contribution for the country.

Even though the virus is on the top of most peoples' minds right now, including his, Bowman said he wanted his contribution to reflect the culture and spirit of the country, not the pandemic. He also wants it to reflect his own work, so he is combining the two in virtual-reality sculptures, a project inspired by Jiawei Gong, an associate professor in the Texas Tech School of Art.

Though his time in Taiwan wasn't what he planned for it to be, Bowman said this experience gave him a better perspective on the world, and he hopes the pandemic will do the same for others.

"It's incredibly important that we realize that the world is not a scary place," Bowman said. "And the more we understand the world around us, the better we can all handle these things."

For more details of Bowman's Fulbright experience, read his blog online.