harvardgsd bullpens via thoughtco

Is Online Learning Really the Future of Architectural Education?

Higher education is on the cusp of a major transition. It’s extremely likely that professional training, including that necessary to become an architect, will be conducted primarily online in the relatively near future. This means that design studio classes, a hallmark of the architect’s experience, will also happen online, likely without the in-person, face-to-face contact that defines that experience. The shift will eliminate many self-defeating aspects of today’s studio culture, but there’s also potential pitfalls that need to be addressed, before an online version of that culture acquires its own bad habits. We can do this by pro-actively devising new teaching and working methods that leverage the capabilities of digital education to promote constructive social dynamics between students.


For a good sense of how architecture education can occur online, consider the handful of NAAB-accredited online architecture degrees currently available in the U.S.: Boston Architectural College, Southern Illinois University, and Lawrence Technical University, to name a few. In these programs, students are divided into online groups, similar in size as campus-based studios, and are prompted to interact with each other and their professors in weekly cycles of lessons, assignments and discussion. Lessons are largely video-based, but assignments utilize multi-media uploads of drawings and models students produce offline to conduct an online version of a traditional pin-up. Feedback is given by professors through written comments or online chat, and students are often sorted into small groups to give feedback to each other.


The aspect of these programs that frequently earns them the label “low residency,” as opposed to “online,” is that students are typically required to gather on campus once a semester for an intense week of traditional, in-person studio classes. While this reveals a lingering dependence on a physical classroom, these program’s resourceful use of the internet to translate teaching that’s otherwise heavily dependent on place is impressive.


Now consider the strides being made in the field of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), still fledgling as a format, though expected to replace low-residency distance education when online-only degree programs begin to be recognized by national accreditation bodies (this has already happened in France). MOOCs focused on architectural education are flourishing on platforms like EdX, which hosts noteworthy institutions, such as Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and the University of Tokyo. Most of these classes are lecture-based but some emulate a studio format. TU Delft’s “Urban Design for the Public Good: Dutch Urbanism”, for example, handles unusually large numbers of student project uploads with group Pinterest boards, and professors offer weekly video feedback to the whole class on select submissions.


Given the ever-increasing costs of higher education, as well as the tech industry’s penchant for “disrupting” traditional aspects of daily life, it’s likely that low-residency degrees and MOOCs are the first iterations of an online education format that will soon eclipse campus-based learning, including architectural studies. What’s worth noting is that almost every aspect of architecture school’s current studio culture, which silently drives the work students produce, is entirely dependent on face-to-face contact between classmates. At a cursory glance, this culture stands to be erased—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.


Presently, architecture education emphasizes independent student projects, produced in small groups set in specific classrooms—the studio format. Because this format ensures students spend far more time alone with each other than with their instructors, it often breeds a preference among students to put forth self-justified design solutions drawing on little to none of the institutional knowledge being imparted to them in lecture classes. This means late nights spent working alongside each other in studio, beyond the reach of a professor’s guiding hand, drives intense competition between students over things they know little to nothing about yet. This unchecked one-upmanship often leads to undue focus on matters completely unrelated to lessons the professors in the curriculum are attempting to teach in concert.


In an online-only degree program, where students produce work at home, by themselves, this condition doesn’t exist. Thus, a transition to online education in architecture is a realistic opportunity to discard the aspects of today’s studio culture that promote a disconnect between architectural knowledge and its implementation.


The benefits of physically separated architectural education, however, also come with a major drawback: it lacks direct exposure to the thoughts, values and working processes of other people. This could lead to a future where all but the best programs are conducted in a cost-effective, online manner, while pupils who can afford face-to-face education pay full price for a premium, in-person experience. To avoid such a schism among future architects, we need to look to the methods of online education for advantages that in-person teaching can’t match.


The essence of this opportunity is to view new technologies as a means for devising new teaching and working methods, rather than substituting existing ones. Because everything transmitted through a device or over the internet can be traced, tracked and recorded in a way face-to-face interactions cannot, digital education offers many advantages that have yet to be fully realized. In architectural education, this means future advances in areas such as automated text and voice recognition could be harnessed across a massive swath of students to keep activities like professor feedback and small-group peer review aligned with a curriculum’s goals. Overtones of privacy invasion are obvious in such a notion today, but that bias might pale in the face of an education system so efficient that nearly anyone interested in becoming an architect (or anything else, for that matter) can pursue their goal without the small fortune or massive debt currently required.


Further along the lines of democratization, another strategy for improvement could be to use this transition as an opportunity to change the primary delivery method of students’ work from independent projects to group projects. This might help mitigate a lack of face-to-face contact in an online platform, though it may also contain a much larger opportunity. Online group working tools, such as Dropbox’s Paper and Google’s Sheets, Docs and Slides, are an area of the tech sector currently seeing massive amounts of development. The particularly intense nature of studio work means architecture education’s embrace of collaborative digital creation could direct the evolution of such tools to realize some truly innovative capabilities. Such a move is also in line with reforming the social culture of design schools by halting perpetuation of the myth that architects should strive to be singular geniuses rather than part of a multi-talented team.


Perhaps the most important attitude we can adopt is that the transition from in-person to online education is bound by forces larger than an architecture curriculum. In this light, it seems likely that today’s studio culture will simply transition into an online version of itself which, if the recent history of the internet is considered, might be difficult to change once it’s defined. This is why right now is the time to shape the social dynamics of tomorrow’s architecture schools in a way that could make the whole profession stronger.


Architectural educators should take it upon themselves to drive this change, lest it drive them instead.


Featured image of Harvard’s Gund Hall,  via Thought Co.


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