Face to Face vs. Online Teaching: The destruction of culture in architectural schools.

Why architecture students and even university managers should go to design studio. 

I went to my Archi school reunion recently. It had a kind of 80s theme. It was great. The pitch for it went like this:

If you remember the days of set squares, Rotring pens, dyeline machines, compulsory Charles Jencks text, cardboard models and scratching out your mistakes with a razor blade….

Today it is all different of course. No more adjustable set squares covered in masking tape, no more broken 0.18mm Rotring nibs, no more inky hands (with ink smudges all over the house), no more sleeping under the dyeline machine at the back of the Master’s office, no more sniffing the dyeline ammonia to get high, no more scratching, scratching and scratching on thin tracing paper. Worst of all  Charles Jencks and the Language of Post Modern Architecture is now a weird curiosity piece.

Digital and mobile computing has changed everything. Of course, we all love our mobile apps. The speak directly to us.  They deliver content and information specifically tailored to our needs and personal pathways in life. Weather, traffic, entertainment, personal fitness and even relationships (tell me about it). I even did a online Coursera MOOC last year delivered on my mobile phone. Although, I did not finish it. But it all seems a good reason to skip class and opt for the online lecture. Its easier, you can raid the fridge and hang out in your pajamas and watch the course online.

Nowhere is technology  and so called disruption innovation more seemingly apparent than in tertiary education.  For those of us who work in tertiary education the spectre of so called disruptive technologies in the sector is real. There is even a book about it. All the executive managers and Dean types have read the Innovative University by Clayton Christensen which discusses the issues around innovation in the sector.

The narrative is a little predictable and hence easily taken up. As it states in the book:

The downfall of many successful and seemingly invincible companies has been precipitated by a disruptive innovation—that is, an innovation that makes a complicated and expensive product simpler and cheaper and therefore attracts a new set of customers. 

Of course its all about “customers”:

In higher education, online courses now typically offer lower-end and more convenient access to courses that can improve students’ credentials or help them switch careers, which is often precisely what the students customers want to accomplish by enrolling.

All of this is about doing things cheaper and the book claims to establish:

How universities can find innovative, less costly ways of performing their uniquely valuable functions and ensure their ongoing economic vitality, thereby saving themselves from decline and possible disruption.  

Thats enough to scare the pants of any university corporate manager or strategic executive in the ivory tower.

So what does all this imply for architecture? Should architecture students go to class? Or should they work at their low paying retail and hospitality jobs and catch up online on lectures when they can? Why even go to class when you can earn a part-time income and get a qualification from a premium branded institution?  How will architectural education fare given the rise of these so called online disrupters and lower cost educational innovators. Should universities migrate architectural studio teaching, or any of the architectural syllabus, to online platforms and delivery? Will this diminish curricula?

I think architects and architectural educators need to resist and question simplistic calls for whole-of-subject shifts to online teaching. Design studio teaching and design thinking is best taught face to face. I think future architects get more out of face to face teaching for the following reasons.

 Design studio teaching is unique 

For a start, studio design teaching is a mode of teaching that is unique and particular to architecture. It is one of the central elements of architectural discourse and its associated canon. Face to face studio teaching is the strong intermediate link between local and increasingly global architectural practice. The design studio is the crucible of design research. It is also itself a place of disruption where desires, expectations, and ideas are generated, regenerated, critically considered and creatively destroyed. The architectural studio thrives on creative destruction.

With all the talk of customisation via marketing channels and delivery portals its good to remember that face to face studio teaching is already customised to the individual. Nowhere else can individual gestures, vocalisation, tone and temperment be part of learning and the teaching equation. The teaching and learning of design processes is very much an individual, and even emotional, exchange between teacher and learner.

 Face to face collaboration teaches leadership

It is essential that we teach our future architects about face to face collaboration. After all that is mostly what architects do in the real world outside of the academies.  At the moment there are a variety of Project Management and web tools which enable collaboration in the virtual realm. But, in advanced procurement research there has also been a return to physical co-location and face to face relationships. For example, an increasingly popular tool for scheduling collaboration in the new Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) projects are physical maps which allow project teams to discuss schedule sequencing as an integrated team in  large ‘Big Room’ environments as they are denoted. These maps appears to be closely related to the lean construction philosophy where construction processes are conceptualised as “flows.” In the IPD model “value stream mapping” appears to have been borrowed and adapted  from Toyota’s lean manufacturing process. It all hinges on in person collaboration.

NASA’s Team X at the Jet Propulsion Lab is another example of advanced design processes and face to face design innovation. JPL created the first concurrent engineering team in the aerospace industry. Team X as it was called started in 1995 and since then it has carried out over 800 studies, dramatically reducing the time and cost involved, and has been the model for other concurrent engineering teams both within NASA and throughout the larger aerospace community. Team X relys on the physical co-location of different engineering disciplines; alongside, an advanced  networked spreadsheet intensive system with real time parameter updating ( See here and Warfield & Hinh 2009). Architects are not rocket engineers or scientists but again problems are very often solved face to face on building sites and on manufacturing floors directly with craftspeople and tradespersons.

Whether it be done using technology or systems such as those borrowed from Toyota, JPL, or a Building Information Model and rapid prototyping, these tools shift the decision making to integrated teams. These teams, at some point, rely on face to face collaboration. Educators and managers who wholly opt for the virtual dream are doing just that: dreaming. I fear that the current fashion for online teaching and so called university innovation is just another version of corporate managerialism gone wrong.

Mostly, these days my students like to watch the lectures online at a time of their choosing after it is recorded. In this nice new neoliberal age of tertiary education they are too busy to come to class.  That’s because they are probably also working hard to pay their fees. This has destroyed and is destroying the culture of architecture schools.

If as a student you want real value for money then its best to come to class and engage with face to face. You will end up being a better architect.

The same goes for university managers. Most of the university managers I know, with a few exceptional exceptions, have never been to a design studio crit session. Yet they are intimately involved in architectural education. My experience is that often they don’t appreciate, and frankly whilst it sounds harsh, I wonder if they even care about the value of building a culture around a discipline or a cohort. It’s too hard to build a culture, in a discipline you are not trained in, when its is so much easier to cut costs, outsource staff, manage up and apply rules and policy regimes.

For strategic and executive managers further up the food chain in universities it’s easier to opt for the new cheaper lecture delivery technologies and spout off mantras about “innovation” and “disruption” and the “future.” If anything Christensen’s earlier work would show that simply adopting the latest technology does not necessarily ensure success.

Interestingly, enough, Frey and Osborne’s seminal paper on AI and which future professions will be “least (probability 0) or most computerisable (probablity 1) ” ranks Teachers at 48 (.0095) something that is not easily computerisable. Architects are ranked at 82 0ut of 702 (.018) employment categories (Telemarketers are last of the 702 occupations modelled in this study).

In more practical research a recent paper in the Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education asks if  “the use of online video mini-lectures, intended to complement in-class teaching by allowing students to review the more technical aspects of the course (in this case a Washington USA micro-econ0mics course). It is concluded that:

“online lectures improving student achievement, but that this improvement is mostly achieved by the lower achieving students, and exhibits significant diminishing returns to the number of times the videos are watched. As such, the videos are shown to help students who were struggling with the material, but that there is little value to exclusively watching the videos multiple times.”

A cynic like me, would again say, that the students are probably struggling with the material because they are too busy working part-time to pay for their degrees.

As Frey and Osborne argue creative intelligence and the processes of creativity are difficult to specify. Indeed, the ability to formulate architectural ideas, concepts, schema, systems, forms, compositions, theories and ways of knowing in practice is best taught through a vibrant educational culture. A culture which understands and puts face to face teaching first is central in this endeavour. In our universities and architecture schools architects will need to fight to preserve the integrity of their education systems and their canon against the onslaught of mindless managerialism disguised as “innovation.”

Authentic innovation as most architects will know is about destroying any idea just before it threatens to become a commodified and generic product.

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.