Posted on March 30, 2020

As the education landscape in Qatar adapts to changing times due to the coronavirus outbreak, the dean of a Qatar Foundation partner university has outlined how remote learning is ensuring learning never stops.

Amir Berbić, Dean of Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar (VCUarts Qatar) says there is “nothing more important we can do” than ensure education continues amid the COVID-19 situation. And while he admits online tuition is “a learning curve”, he also believes it is creating new educational opportunities and insights.

“In addition to staying healthy and exercizing social distancing, the number one priority right now is to continue learning,” he said. “We switched to the remote learning online teaching mode several weeks ago, since the State of Qatar directed there should be no on-campus instruction. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, all our departments already had an academic continuity plan which we had utilized due to other circumstances in the past, such as flooding. The transition was immediate as soon as it was decided that this was what we needed to do.”

Speaking about the interaction between students and faculty through various forms of distance learning, Dean Berbić said this includes ‘virtual’ classes, or professors recording lessons and students then following them. "We're using various methods of engaging our students," he said. "I think it's gone well so far and it's a big learning curve for all of us, both for our professors and our students." "Obviously, we would much prefer to have physical contact. but this is the situation right now. We are trying to adapt quickly, and troubleshoot and adjust.”

Dean Berbić says students and faculty need this adaptability when it comes to virtual learning, explaining: "Studying art and design, as we do at VCUarts Qatar, comes with very specific challenges because of the studio-based component that is at the core of many of our courses." "The work of our students is very physical and tactile. It's highly experiential, whether that is through lectures, conversations, critiques, studio work, or working in the laboratories. We rely on the physical environment as a learning space. That means this is a big challenge for us, but it's one that we are adapting to in various ways,”

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VCUarts Qatar professors are adjusting course objectives or the goals of specific projects or lessons. “They are asking students to work in different ways for example, instead of relying on something that would have been produced in a fabrication lab, they're asking students to maybe work with different materials that are at their disposal in their home,” said Dean Berbić. "Our students have done well to make the best of this situation - they are really engaged. Of course, we would much rather be able to engage them in an immediate way, but the artists and designers are good at adjusting and working within new constraints, and that's at the core of artistic and design practice – exercizing your creativity within very tight limitations or constraints.”

Another challenge art students may face is that their work requires creativity, and this may be difficult to articulate through technology. But Dean Berbić said: "It just requires us to work in different ways and engaging differently with technology. "It's more of a shift or a change in terms of modality rather than losing creativity. In some ways, it might make our students and our faculty more creative, because it further concentrates minds and means you need to come up with innovative solutions. However, it still comes with lots of challenges and uncertainty, and we're looking to manage that in the best way we can.”

According to Dean Berbić, VCUarts Qatar students and faculty are now discovering new ways of teaching that they may not have explored before. "There has been a feeling that it's not easy to teach studio-based art and design disciplines or courses remotely,” he said.

“As we are now forced now to face a new reality, it may give us a new appreciation of the possibilities in terms of how art and design can be taught through a virtual model. There are opportunities when it comes to realizing new methods of communication, of teaching, of making art and design work. And there are also benefits in terms of building communities in new ways that we haven't done before. “Whether it’s a physical environment or this new virtual mode, we must continue to teach and learn, and that's what we're going to continue to do for as long as it takes. With our faculty, we're discussing different ways in which they can improve the virtual mode of instruction, as well as having conversations with students to get their feedback on what is and isn't working.”

And he believes that this experience will make VCUarts Qatar, and other universities, more aware of the challenges and opportunities that virtual learning presents. "In the context of art and design, we now have much more experience than we've ever had of this mode of learning,” he said. “When all this is over, we will have learned lessons and have a lot of information and insight on what does and doesn't work in terms of virtual learning. We can use this even when it's not necessary, as something that adds to education overall.”