VCUarts Qatar Dean Amir Berbić believes that virtual learning presents challenges but also opportunities – and the lessons learned from it could influence education beyond COVID-19

As the education landscape in Qatar adapts to changing times due to the coronavirus outbreak, the dean of 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 to 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 exercising social distancing, the number one priority right now is to continue learning.

Dean Berbić said they switched to remote learning online teaching mode several weeks ago, since the State directed there should be no on-campus instruction. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, all departments already had an academic continuity plan which they had utilised due to other circumstances in the past, such as flooding. The transition was immediate as soon as it was decided that this was what they needed to do.

Dean Amir Berbić Image 3

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. 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.

He said that obviously, they would much prefer to have physical contact, but this is the situation right now. He said they are trying to adapt quickly, and troubleshoot and adjust.

Students and faculty need this adaptability when it comes to virtual learning, as studying art and design, as they do at VCUarts Qatar, comes with very specific challenges because of the studio-based component that is at the core of many of their 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.

VCUarts Qatar professors are adjusting course objectives or the goals of specific projects or lessons. Dean Berbić said 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 work with different materials that are at their disposal in their home. The students have done well to make the best of this situation – and are really engaged.

Another challenge that their art students face is creativity, and this may be difficult to articulate through technology. The dean however, said this is more of a shift in terms of modality rather than losing creativity. And in some ways, it can make students and faculty more creative, because it further concentrates minds to come up with innovative solutions.

But it still comes with lots of challenges and uncertainty, and we’re looking to manage that in the best way we can.

VCUarts Qatar students and faculty are now discovering new ways of teaching they may not have explored before.

As they are now forced to face a new reality, it may give them 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 realising 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, Dean Berbić said they must continue to teach and learn, and that’s what they’re going to continue doing 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.

He believes that this experience will make VCUarts Qatar, and the other universities, more aware of the challenges and opportunities that virtual learning presents. In the context of art and design, they now have much more experience in this mode of learning.

When all this is over, he said that they will have learned lessons and have a lot of information and insight on what does and doesn’t work in terms of virtual learning. This can be used even when not necessary, and as something that adds to education overall.