Fatima El Sallabi and Serkan Akguc reflect on the past 6 months.
Fatima El Sallabi and Serkan Akguc reflect on the past 6 months.

How CMU-Q innovators learn lessons online

In Qatar Tribune, September 14, 2020

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, we asked faculty and students at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q) how they adapted to the shutdown, the effect that remote learning has had on education, and their hopes – and fears – for the future.

In the first of this special two-part series, a CMU-Q student and a faculty member reflect 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 organized 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 pandemic shutdown. Like most people though, I thought we would return to classes within – at most – a month.

I used to stay on campus six or seven days a week from 9am to 9pm, but with the closing of campus, I was forced to be active within the walls of my home. Before the shutdown, I would never stay in the same place for more than three hours without getting bored and looking for a change of scenery, to maintain my productivity and focus my attention. Now, I can stay at my desk for up to six hours, while only taking occasional five-minute exercise breaks.

One positive aspect of my daily routine changing in this way was that I got to spend more quality time with my family, by simply being in the same physical space together.

However, beyond the challenges that arose as a result of the disruption to our academic structure, I also struggled to maintain relationships with faculty, staff, and peers. There were definitely mental and social challenges resulting from enforced social isolation which made this experience very difficult. I knew everybody was dealing with the pandemic differently, so I became disconnected at times, as I would never want to burden anybody.

One of the most noticeable effects of the shutdown – and the sudden change to our daily routine – was its effect on my perception of the passing of time. I feel like my spring semester morphed into my summer, and now into the fall semester. I sometimes reflect, and wonder how I was able to balance my academics, extracurriculars, job, social and personal life, and even cafeteria procrastination in the past, whereas now many of those aspects are missing and I still find myself racing against time, trying to be efficient and on top of my work.

I definitely feel like 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, with the goal making my study environment more pleasant and enjoyable, hopefully boosting my productivity. I have definitely become more adaptive as this structure has become our new norm, but this still doesn’t take away from the fact that Zoom fatigue is real, and impossible to combat at times.

Having said that, I feel like 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, because it also gives us a break from Zoom. Also, some of my professors have changed the background of a Word document from white to yellow out of consideration for our eyes. Meanwhile, a lot of professors have transitioned from testing to project-based classes, which yields higher learning objectives and considers student anxiety in an unconventional testing environment. Despite the fact that most classes have become more demanding, I definitely feel like faculty and staff are much more accommodating and understanding – and it’s refreshing to witness.

The option to have some asynchronous lessons has been a blessing, because we can explore and complete the material at our own pace. More classes are shifting to projects, as opposed to tests, which I feel like I can learn more from. Some professors upload recordings of the lectures, which would have never been an option when we attended classes physically. Crucially, I feel like professors are making more of an effort to increase engagement in class beyond assigning a participation grade, by using the poll option on zoom, breakout room feature, and the white board annotations.

The pandemic has forced everyone to realize the true meaning of the phrase ‘getting out of your comfort zone’, as we have all recognized the importance of adaptability, flexibility, creativity and innovation. I think we have also learned to accept mistakes as learning opportunities, and placed more value on collaboration, which will hopefully result in permanent enthusiasm amongst students for opportunities to learn together and overcome challenges as a team.

As a Business Administration student with a concentration in business analytics and a minor in economics, I have realized the relevance of my program now more than ever. As businesses mitigated the disruption caused by COVID-19, I saw how firms dealt with fluctuations in the economy, and how companies put different emphasis on the value of organizational behavior and structure. As more companies filed for bankruptcy, furloughed or layed off employees, and paused operations, it became clear that efficient operating structures are essential for a company’s sustainability. In terms of data science, I realized the importance of data accuracy and communication, discovering how an economic understanding of the world is essential to proficiently discerning the true meaning of high inflation, dropping S&P 500, strategic interactions in a high stakes environment, and consumer behavior.

So yes, some positives have resulted from the terrible societal effects of the pandemic. However, I can’t wait to witness the rush of the cafeteria, the serenity of the majlis, and the busyness of the ARC, once we are able to return to the CMU-Q building. I can’t wait to see and connect with friends, faculty, and staff that I have been physically disconnected from. Most importantly, I can’t wait for the Thursday Majlises, as we all conclude our stressful weeks with a fun and engaging event as one CMU-Q family.

The last six months have pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me to depend less on structure, focus more on living in the present, and to understand the importance of expressing love and appreciation to the world, environmentally and socially. Ultimately, I have realized that I will never stop learning.

Serkan Akguc, Assistant Teaching Professor of Finance

I was initially a bit nervous when the university closed its doors, as I had never before taught an online course, and I did not know how long the situation would last. I quickly realized 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.

I used to do all my work at the office and bring minimal work home, but now I work from home and 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.

When I am in the office, I have an open-door policy, so students can come in anytime they have a question. Online, students still need a lot of support – sometimes more – but the concept of open door does not exist anymore, so 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 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. On the family side, 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. At her age, our daughter cannot make much sense of what is happening in the world, and why she has to stay at home and not see friends or go to parks. This has necessitated that we provide her with more emotional support to cope as a result.

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 the 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 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 (which now feels like forever ago!).

We have received an unbelievable level of support that makes me the envy of some of my professor friends at other U.S. universities. It certainly made a big difference. All of this was possible under the leadership of our wonderful Dean Michael Trick, who was always available whenever we needed personal or professional support, along with the support of CMU’s outstanding teaching and educational resources.

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.

My area is Finance, and this has helped me and others better understand people’s spending and investment behavior during a pandemic. At times like these, many companies – both mature and early-stage – attempt to enter a new market, for example by developing a new vaccine, or developing a service-based operation that makes online delivery smoother. Private equity that flowed into these types of companies during the pandemic increased, despite global slowdown in economic activity and job losses.

A majority of the world’s population stayed home and worked from there in the past six months. People who did not lose their jobs had more disposable income, since they did not travel or go on a vacation. This has led to an increase in young, small-time investors entering the stock market and getting their feet wet at investing.

Last but not least, many companies, such as airlines and restaurants, struggled due to a significant loss of business, which highlighted the importance of a strong balance sheet to survive tough times like the one we are experiencing.

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.

Above all else, I pray that this pandemic will come to an end soon before more people lose their lives.

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