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A Change is Gonna Come

Design education hits fast-forward


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At our neighborhood Starbucks recently, my son and I sat down at a long family-style table to quaff our morning liquids. We were joined by a charming German woman who shared with us—quite without hesitation—that she was none too happy with recent alterations to the Starbucks decor. It turns out that the large communal table (seats eight, somewhat uncomfortably) had replaced three easy chairs. An idealized simulation of domestic living space is key to the coffee chain’s success, and by altering it to increase seating capacity, management had carelessly assumed that the changes would be welcomed as progress. But our friend didn’t see it that way at all. She was conscious only of the absence of the comfy chairs, not of the new opportunities for conversation that the big table offered.

Our coffee companion isn’t the only one worried about change, and possibly missing out on its potential for upside as well. As both the academic and popular press have noted, dramatic changes are coming to higher education, as online pedagogy reaches a tipping point and begins to transform the university as we know it.

One of the market oddities of the higher-education industry is that all undergraduate degrees cost roughly the same amount, irrespective of the prospective financial returns of the chosen field. When students and their parents are preparing to spend such a large sum of money, they cannot help but think of it as an investment in their economic future. And when the rate of increase in architecture salaries is not keeping up with the rising cost of the education, something has to give. In architecture schools, this is going to mean a lot of change.

The engine driving this change is pretty simple: The twin forces of rapidly advancing technology and unsustainable costs are combining to make dramatic changes throughout the industry. Although these changes will be dramatic, they will affect various academic areas in very different ways. Online education seems to adapt very easily, for example, to computer science or electrical engineering. In the fall of 2011, Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig taught a course called Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, and 160,000 people worldwide enrolled in the course. Surely quantitative courses (where there are clear distinctions between right and wrong answers) lend themselves to computer-based delivery most easily. But architecture schools offer a mix of quantitative material (math, physics, structures), cultural material (history, theory, professional norms); and skills (creative problem solving, diagramming, communication, analysis). Not all will lend themselves to online delivery right away.

We can probably best understand the changes in the following categories: new modes of delivery, obstacles to change, opportunities for the discipline, and, to paraphrase Dick Cheney, unknowns.

The new modes of delivery have been well documented. The biggest and most significant is the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC (as in the Stanford example). Here, one can easily imagine a single leading faculty member teaching the dominant lecture portion of a critical architectural history course. What if, instead of Yale’s Vincent Scully lecturing only to students in New Haven, Connecticut, he were lecturing to half the architecture students in the country? In such a scenario, only the smaller discussion portion of the course would be taught “in person.”

Research already has shown that some kinds of knowledge are in fact better taught online, with quick and regular feedback greatly enhancing comprehension and retention. Quoted in the MIT Technology Review, Thrun sees lots of advances coming from online courses. “We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg,” he says, because the immense data sets available to computer-science researchers from the MOOCs mean that courses will continue to develop to maximize student learning outcomes.

It is harder to imagine how the design studio, seen as the core learning experience in architecture school, would easily transform in the new environment, but it could. Currently there are long periods of time spent in the studio with other students, periodic pinup reviews with outside critics, and then short, intense periods spent discussing an ongoing project one-on- one with an instructor. In the online world, the studio time might remain unchanged, while reviews could include participants from all over the world. The one- on-one studio portion is the only existing aspect that should remain unchanged.

One of the most frightening aspects of these changes for faculty is the notion that our job might no longer be to develop replacements for ourselves. Rather, the models for new faculty roles in this uncertain future may be quite different. There will likely be fewer full-time faculty positions in some areas (such as lectures). But there should also be an expanding need for people to teach small sections that require lots of contact and hands-on work, whether in the design studio or at the seminar table.

That’s because the part of education that isn’t vulnerable to these new scalable efficiencies is the development of real understanding. Analysis, reasoning, writing, explaining, contextualizing, and communicating are all critical skills that seem not to be ripe for these changes in how information is delivered. At least not yet.

The online revolution also may be able to make an architectural education shorter. Lowering the cost of onsite instruction has proved to be difficult, so perhaps we can reframe the time to degree instead. In architecture, we have an apprenticeship-based profession, in which we could transfer responsibility for more of professional training to the profession. At Northeastern University, for example, students spend two six-month periods in paid, full-time employment at architecture and design firms (known as co-op, or experiential education), where they learn a great deal about architectural practice, often in ways vastly superior to the classroom.

But can this advantage be parlayed into a shorter route to a degree? It should be. Because right now, young people interested in becoming architects are asked to carry a large part of the cost of professional education. What if that cost were more equitably shared as it is through co-op?

The success of this option depends on other players as well, however. Among the potential obstacles to change are the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) and the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB). Both, along with the American Institute of Architects, will have a say in how these changes affect the transition of young people from students to architects. If they do not accept the need to shorten the education process, and more equitably distribute its costs between students and firms, they will be seen as preventing the proper development of the next generation of designers at a moment when they are very much needed.

Interestingly, universities, never much in the vanguard of change, will adapt to the online education world faster than the professional organizations will. NAAB will need to hear from the schools of architecture whose accreditation it oversees to reduce the amount that it requires of students to learn in school, and NCARB should allow more to be taught in firm offices.

The opportunities associated with this change seem enormous to me. The most important is working to make what we teach in architecture school less idiosyncratic and site specific, and more scalable. At Northeastern University, we have been moving the intellectual center of the School of Architecture toward more scalable ends for some time. In our design studios, lectures, conferences, and research, we actively seek problems that are endemic, rather than one-of-a-kind situations that require a completely custom solution. We think that today’s problems of affordability, flexibility, and sustainability are significant enough to warrant this attention.

One consequence of moving toward more scalable delivery is that schools will need to define their methodology more clearly for prospective students. Today the stand-in for a clear method is often the promise of proximity to a single, famous practitioner, but this may not be satisfactory when dealing with larger numbers of students, especially across large physical distance.

Instead of being everything to every student, schools may be encouraged by this new model for architectural education to focus more completely on a particular topic, and more rapidly develop true expertise. At Northeastern, we have chosen to create an online library, and we envision adding to this as a way of more effectively disseminating our research. All schools use the Web for communication, but our goal is to reinforce our commitment to the prototypical solution over the one-of-a-kind situation.

Many of these changes will be discomforting, as they will challenge long-held approaches to the education, socialization, and preparation of our young people for careers and lives beyond. But as with the creative destruction that often benefits the business world, this transformation of architecture schools will bring exciting new opportunities.

And like our friend at Starbucks, we may not always like the first onset of change. Maybe we really like the comfy chair. But it’s time to move up to the big table and start the new conversation. We’re taking analog architectural education into the digital, scalable generation. Who knows? Maybe the next thing is an architecture course going viral online, and wouldn’t that be interesting?

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