On March 10, 2020, schools and universities across Qatar closed their doors, as part of the measures introduced to halt the spread of Covid-19. The unprecedented closures heralded a period of rapid change for the education sector. Six months on, the faculty and students at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q) were asked how they adapted to the shutdown, the effect that remote learning has had on education, and their hopes and fears for future. A CMU-Q student and a faculty member reflected on life under lockdown.
Fatima el-Sallabi, Business Administration junior
When I heard that our university would have to close, I initially felt very scared and nervous. I always try to plan for the future and structure my life in an organised manner, but I was suddenly put in a position where that was clearly no longer an option – at least for the first few weeks of the shutdown. Like most people though, I thought we would return to classes within, at most, a month.
I used to stay on campus for a long time but with the closing of the campus, I was forced to be active within the walls of my home. Now, I can stay at my desk for up to six hours, while only taking occasional five-minute exercise breaks. One positive aspect of the change was that I started spending more quality time with my family.
I struggled to maintain relationships with faculty, staff, and peers. I knew everybody was dealing with the pandemic differently, so I became disconnected at times, as I would never want to burden anybody. The shutdown largely affected my perception of the passing of time. I sometimes reflect and wonder how I was able to balance my academics, extra-curricular activities, job, social and personal life.
I feel the online format has been more demanding in terms of academic and extracurricular activities, and even social life. To cope with this, I redecorated my room over the summer. I have definitely become more adaptive but this still doesn’t take away from the fact that Zoom fatigue is real and impossible to combat at times.
CMU-Q has done a great job in delivering a seamless transition to remote learning. Having the option for asynchronous and synchronous classes has been really valuable. Some professors changed the background of Word documents from white to yellow out of consideration for our eyes. Many others have transitioned from testing to project-based classes. Though, most classes have become more demanding, faculty and staff are now much more accommodating and understanding.
Asynchronous lessons have been a blessing because we can explore and complete the material at our own pace. Some professors upload recordings of the lectures which would have never been an option while attending classes physically. Professors are making efforts to increase engagement in class by using the poll option on Zoom, breakout room feature, and the white board annotations. The pandemic has conveyed the true meaning of the phrase ‘getting out of your comfort zone.’ All have recognised the importance of adaptability, flexibility, creativity and innovation.
As a business administration student, I have realised the relevance of my programme now more than ever. I saw how firms dealt with fluctuations in the economy, and how companies put emphasis on the value of organisational behaviour and structure. I have realised importance of data accuracy and communication, discovering how an economic understanding of the world is essential.
The last six months have taught me to depend less on structure, focus more on living in the present, and to understand the importance of expressing love and appreciation. Ultimately, I have realised that I will never stop learning.
Serkan Akguc, Assistant Teaching Professor of Finance
I was initially a bit nervous as I had never before taught an online course, and I did not know how long the situation would last. I however quickly realised that I had to re-structure my lessons to adapt to an online environment, while trying to ensure that my students received a similar learning experience to one they would get in the classroom. Working from home has made my workdays run longer. The first thing I had to do was set up a home office, so I could be more focused and productive.
Online, students still need a lot of support and I had to adjust. As an alternative, I offer students the option to choose from various open windows of Zoom time on different days for office hours. This took some time getting used to, but affords the students a bit more flexibility in dropping by as questions arise, as they would during normal in-person office hours.
In terms of challenges, they were two-fold: family-related and teaching-related. My wife also had to adjust to working remotely at short notice, so we had to work hard to juggle our workloads and our six-year-old daughter’s home schooling. In regards to teaching, the biggest challenge was quickly shifting from in-person to remote instruction during the last seven weeks of classes. This is the busiest time of the semester, when class projects and advanced topics are presented.
I reached out to individual students and tried to understand the challenges they were going through, so that I could tailor my classes accordingly. For example, I had some students who left their dorms and travelled back to their home countries in the middle of the semester. I tried to account for their individual circumstances, such as being in different time zones, having reduced access to Internet, dealing with anxiety, moving in the middle of the semester, etc. I did this by fine-tuning the relevant course material and assigning more targeted, but fewer assignments, and offering them any support I could. It took a lot of energy and hard work, but it was well worth it.
It is sad not to welcome students back to campus in person after a long summer. It is always fun to hear about their experiences of interning or traveling. Fall semester is when I teach all incoming Business first-years - about 50 students this time around. Seeing the excitement in their eyes when they first set foot on campus and into my classroom is one of the highlights of teaching. One does not get that same level of satisfaction or engagement from students when conducting lessons virtually.
Nevertheless, the teaching experience is still rewarding, and students’ attitudes are – if anything - even better than they were when Covid-19 first broke out, as they have now accepted and adjusted to their new reality. Even though we did not have the in-person start this semester, our preparation over the summer made the transition back to online schooling much smoother and more enjoyable. The Business Administration faculty and staff hosted a fun event online during which students competed in a trivia quiz to guess personal facts about their teachers. We even made a video for them with pictures from our college years.
Remote learning almost always includes asynchronous content, which allows students to learn at their own pace. This is a big advantage for students. Their group meetings for projects appear to be more productive, as they can select the time together and make most of their virtual discussions.
I have also noticed that students -- even the shy ones -- participate more actively during online sessions. This could be due to the fact that they don’t feel like they are under the spotlight, from the comfort of their homes. The switch to online learning was enforced and unavoidable, yet ironically, it will result in some improvements for the long-term. I think short instructional videos that cover some key concepts before the actual class meeting are here to stay. I find that recording a 10-minute video to explain a challenging concept and having students watch it and answer questions before class improves interaction in class and appears to increase students’ retention rates.
One of the most rewarding parts of being a teacher is sharing my students’ excitement when they learn a new skill and apply it to real-life problems. This excitement is all too apparent in the sparkling eyes of the students. I miss observing it first-hand in person. Cameras don’t reveal the emotions in quite the same way.