3 Questions about MOOCs and the Architecture Studio.

As a long standing studio teacher I don’t want to be replaced by The Massive Open Online Courses or MOOC. The MOOC has rapidly become a new mode of online teaching in higher education. For myself, as an architect and an architectural educator, the MOOC raises three questions: Firstly, how might the MOOC impact on architectural education in general? Secondly, will the MOOC reinforce or erode the production of architectural knowledge via design research? Thirdly, will MOOC’s threaten the architectural studio as the central component of architectural education?

MOOCs have now been devised across every domain of knowledge including fields as diverse as Bioinformatics, Interactive Computer Graphics, Teaching, Programming and Coding, Animal Behaviour and Welfare and even the Beatles. MOOCs are seen as a way to democratise higher education and bring new knowledge to students who would not normally have an elite education. Since 2012 when one of the main MOOCs provider’s Coursera launched there has been phenomenal growth in the MOOC market. There are now countless MOOC platforms, providers and courses across the globe.

As the first wave of MOOC’s were being developed neoliberal university executives started to panic and MOOCs  suddenly became the thing to foster. This because this group saw the MOOC as the next disruptive technology. It was argued that MOOCs would disrupt the Higher Education sector by being an alternative service delivery model to traditional university teaching. Some pronouncements were ominous: An Ernst and Young Report entitled University of the Future published in 2012 predicted that universities “would not survive the next ten or fifteen years” unless they adapted to MOOCs.

Is the MOOC, as well as other types of virtual studios, too easily seen as a glib substitute for face to face studio teaching? We considered this when I put in an application at my university to develop a possible MOOC around architectural design. We presented our work at the Bartlett research symposia in 2013. In thinking about how to develop an architectural design MOOC the obvious difference to studio is the disparity between in size. A traditional studio is a small team of creative individuals and the MOOCs has ten’s of thousands of students. The difficulty of translating the studio to this global format may be why there are only currently a very few architectural design studios delivered by MOOCs. Many of the current MOOC offerings related to architecture focus the history of architecture rather than studio teaching.

In 2013 The ‘Developing Cities’ course developed by the Leuphana Digital School, led by the American architect Daniel Libeskind,  offered a design  based on a  group design competition.  Students worked in teams of 5. The MOOC employed  video lecture keynotes, online forums, a messaging system which enabled virtual classroom discussions. Feedback was provided to the students across a range of categories such as: architecture, economics, social science, cultural history, sustainability, infrastructure and public health. The winning team produced a design for a  port city in Paranagua Brasil.  The final proposal described a Masterplan which was described mostly by text but simplistic photoshopped images and sketches.

I would certainly be interested to hear of more examples of architecture related MOOCs.

I don’t like to see the domain of architectural design diminished as a field of knowledge and practice; in the same way that I don’t like my design students to bury themselves in computers. I tend to agree Michael Jemtrud of McGill who states that architectural education should not be an “impoverished simulacrum for the profession.” He argues that for students design studios are about developing a critical position and understanding different design methodologies. For me the most important element of studio teaching in a architectural school is teaching the “continuous cycle of critical reflection.” A “tick the boxes” approach to a architectural teaching doesn’t really cut it for me. A syllabus in architectural design teaching is worthless unless experimentation and critical reflection is built into the studio. As David Salomon of Cornell, notes that the design as research studio through “experimental process of making and testing risky propositions with recursive trials and errors, that has the potential to move architectural thought and action beyond the dual mythologies of objective reason and individual genius.” I am not sure MOOCs can do this at the moment.

In this context it is useful to compare the MOOC to a Virtual World like the online game Minecraft. The MOOC is also a game world. Like Minecraft it is immersive, individualised and digitally delivered. Minecraft encourages the formation of social networks and has over 40 million users world wide. It is a global game, perhaps a step up from the MOOC, a territory for students of architecture to build in. Minecraft, like the MOOC, is inherently multi-scalar, user friendly and there are substantial resources online to facilitate new users. Most importantly, it fosters sociality the key element that has been observed as missing from many MOOCS. Minecraft is well suited to group collaboration and collectivism for design. As a  component in a MOOC It would allow participants to see and respond to each other’s design exercises as they progress; It allows for architectural projects, and indeed worlds, to be rebuilt and remade. It is easy to imagine how Minecraft design exercises could easily form assessment tasks and would provide students with a basis for developing a Minecraft architectural portfolio.

But playing Minecraft is not the same as designing architecture. Just like the MOOC, there is a problem when the medium of delivery becomes a poor simulacrum of design practice and the production of architectural knowledge in the real world. Living in the game isn’t really architecture.


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