How QF universities adapted to distance learning

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a crippling effect on education systems around the world. With millions of students affected globally, the demand for online learning skyrocketed. QRM finds out how Qatar’s universities adapted to this new norm of teaching and learning. 

TEXT BY AP Muhammed Afsal

Noorudeen Pattasseri, an MA Islamic Civilization and Societies student at Qatar’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University, feels distance learning is better than the classroom. On March 18, three days after the university introduced distance learning in the wake of Covid-19, he left for India, his home country. The only difference is, he says, the physical absence from the classroom. “Now we have better classroom discussions through groups in Webex,” he says.

The university started the online classroom on March 15 on the popular video conference platform Zoom, gradually then changing into Webex. When the fall semester began on August 23, there was an additional change. ‘Face to face’ interaction with the professors was reduced to two hours from the earlier three hours. The extra one hour was instead devoted to weekly assignments, where students could use the time to work on tasks given to them by their professors.

“Most of the students are now home and living in many different time zones far away,” Pattasseri says. “The discussions taking place through the class chatroom groups are a blessing, especially since the professors are now available more often. This was something we lacked during the regular classroom hours,” he adds.

HBKU has made the scanned versions of all hard copy books available in its library upon student’s request. The university is also taking feedback from all the stakeholders periodically as it changes its distance learning methods frequently.

“The discussions taking place through the class chatroom groups are a blessing, especially since the professors are now available more often”

Paints, canvasses, sewing machines and tailor’s dummies

Meanwhile, the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar (VCUarts Qatar) sent paints, canvasses sewing machines and tailor’s dummies to the homes of its painting and fashion design students. Apart from the university’s effort, students, too, adjusted with the new norm.

Those in the middle of their final projects sometimes had to re-think or re-work their ideas when labs were no longer available. When some students told instructors that the parents didn’t like the smell of oil paints used in their assignment, the assignment was shifted to acrylic paint or other media.

For students who were concerned about how their grades would be affected by the change in instruction, ‘Pass-Fail’ options were offered, though few took them.

The university has always used Zoom for meetings between the Qatar campus and its home in the US. But after Covid-19 the home campus purchased a licensed version with fewer restrictions, an unlimited time limit and a 300+ people meeting capacity. “Individual classes also use Adobe Suite as necessary, while some classes use social media sites such as Google+ for sharing design work,” says Nadia Abudayeh, senior manager, media & PR, communications for the university.

“We encourage students to reach out to both their teachers and classmates, and to network with other students in the programme. There are weekly programmes where they can interact with their classmates and students from all years. The dean also attends these gatherings on Zoom,” Abudayeh adds.

The majority of VCUarts students are Qatari, and thus still in the country, a change from last semester where many were out of the country on exchange programmes.

The teachers have created an online teaching support lab for each other called TeachLab, providing examples of best practices. Daily classes are now held for between one to three hours, while most students generally take 12-18 hours of study or studio work per week.

Distance learning enables art and design students to work from their home studios, but learning a fine technique in art requires meeting one-on-one with the faculty, which is provided. However, proper masks and social distancing is always mandatory.

Library usage has increased with book lending, reference questions, and librarian research consultations steady and comparable to previous semesters. Students can now request books and pick-up within 24-48 hours, but in the case that the library does not have a print book available, they look to interlibrary loan from other Education City libraries or purchase a digital copy of the book.

Simulations and virtual labs for medical education

Educators at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar, (WCM-Q), a medical training school at the QF, faced multiple problems in the beginning. Some international students had joined their families in their home countries, where poor internet connection isn’t rare and where some families had only one device. Different time zones were another issue.

However, WCM-Q’s faculty have overcome the difficulty through pre-recorded lectures from previous semesters and other strategies to ensure that the students’ learning was uninterrupted.

“Typically, in a face-to-face environment, faculty can decipher non-verbal cues in the classroom and strive to engage quiet or reserved students. But in an online environment, non-verbal communication posed a serious impediment to the engagement and the warmth of a physical classroom,” Dr Marco Ameduri, Associate Professor of Physics and Senior Associate Dean for Pre-Medical Education told the Peninsula, a local newspaper.

Unlike humanities or even other science subjects, giving medical education to students wasn’t easy. “However, through recorded and live demonstrations, simulations, and virtual labs, students could conduct meaningful laboratory investigations,” he says.

To keep the students engaged during Zoom sessions, the faculty introduced gaming and polling and made the chat box open for in-time interaction.

“Throughout the college closure, our curriculum committees continued to function. Student representatives attended these meetings and provided feedback,” said Dr Thurayya Arayssi, Senior Associate Dean, Medical Education, and Continuing Professional Development, WCM-Q in the same interview.

PHOTOS: Cover – FilippoBacci/Getty images, 1 – Maskot/Getty images, 2-3 – VCUQatar/Facebook, 4 – Weill Cornell Qatar/Facebook

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