Doha, Qatar – Graduation is typically one of the happiest days of a student’s life. But ceremonies around the world have been cancelled, delayed or performed virtually as part of measures aimed at containing the global coronavirus pandemic.
Mariam al-Dhubhani, a recent graduate of Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q), said that her graduation experience earlier this month left her deflated.
“On May 4, instead of feeling joy, I felt so down. I didn’t celebrate nor feel celebrated,” she said.
This year marked the second time she came close to attending a graduation ceremony but found the circumstances were not favourable. In 2015 as the war escalated in Yemen, she fled the country, leaving her university education incomplete.
Meanwhile, the class of 2020 faces the prospect of graduating into one of the deepest recessions for generations, as millions of workers lose jobs around the world.
“It’s depressing to be graduating this year. We heard that no one is hiring right now unless you’re in the tech industry,” says Salma Hassan, an international economics major at Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q).
Adapting to the new normal
In March, as the coronavirus rapidly spread across the globe and governments imposed restrictions on movement, universities quickly moved classes online. Among other challenges, educators in Qatar juggled academic integrity and cultural sensitivities.
A key issue they faced was logisitics for examinations. GU-Q had initially considered a proctoring tool that records video of a student’s surroundings. But due to privacy concerns from some female students and parents, it decided against it, says Anjana Jacob, visiting assistant professor of philosophy at GU-Q.
“In a country like Qatar, you don’t want other male students seeing you in your environment. This may not be an issue in America, for instance. The cultural concerns are different,” she said.
Instead, the vast majority of courses are now assessed without live quizzes or proctoring through “alternative assignments,” she added. For a specific course that was hard to adapt, Jacob has once proctored a live exam via Zoom after obtaining consent from students.
Another university in Qatar faced a similar situation. Local female students who cover their hair in public typically prefer to keep their cameras off in counselling sessions, says a psychologist at Texas A&M University at Qatar (TAMUQ), Steve Wilson. Their preference also applies to sitting exams.
“Many of our female students voiced their discomfort with their images being on the computer screen, fearing that other students can screenshot or that even proctors can be recording,” Wilson said.
The administration listened to students’ concerns and decided that proctors would have to be able to identify students by seeing their faces at the beginning of the exam, but that students could then move the camera angle to show their hands or workspace.
Meanwhile, at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q), students consented to show their faces while being remotely proctored sitting an exam, according to Dr Thurayya Arayssi, senior associate dean for medical education at WCM-Q.
“Everybody wants to progress and graduate on time”.
She says students consented following conversations and surveys that helped them understand that facial recognition is crucial.
A number of students told Al Jazeera they found learning more difficult since classes were moved online, despite university curriculums being more flexible since the pandemic.
Among the problems cited by students were issues with internet connections, time differences for students who are in their home countries, screen fatigue and missing the physical interactions with professors and fellow students.
“Sometimes you open the Zoom link and sleep because you cannot focus,” says Abdullah Kheiry, a student at College of the North Atlantic–Qatar.
“It’s easier to engage when you’re physically present somewhere,” Wilson explained.
He said students struggle to focus while social distancing because of isolation, an inconsistent schedule, and inactivity, which can bring emotional and physical fatigue.
“As your mood drops, you become more depressed and lethargic. Your ability to concentrate and your memory suffers,” Wilson said.
Students could also be more distracted than under usual circumstances, especially if any of their family members are at an increased risk, says Dr Arayssi.
“My family back in Yemen are not safe. It’s very draining to constantly worry about what’s happening there,” al-Dhubhani said.