The 2020 coronavirus pandemic is already creating change in every part of society. Harnessing this change should be the impetus for a long-overdue overhaul of the educational system and, in particular, the way we teach architecture.
Each day during the pandemic, we are suddenly finding what was once impossible is now suddenly possible. As Thomas Friedman said of online learning back in 2012, “Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.”
We now find ourselves in a position where we have to re-think everything to fight this virus. This pandemic will cause us to re-think learning as entire educational systems are forced to move online. In general, most formal education institutions are not producing the creative thinkers the world urgently needs. Solutions to the coronavirus pandemic require creative thinking, and how we currently teach in institutions today produces groupthink. Our path-dependent education does not get the best from individuals.
The move to online learning during the pandemic offers architecture schools the opportunity to redefine the learning experience. Great teaching can happen through any medium. It will be a matter of adapting and inventing new methods and tools, and perhaps even changing out educators who cannot adapt to meet these new challenges.
I am sure there will be professors adamant that architecture cannot be taught online. This lack of creativity and flexibility will not lead us to where we need to go together! Moving entirely online is a challenging but not impossible task among traditional courses such as architecture that also have accreditation requirements through boards such as NAAB. The accreditation boards will only change if the universities force them to change, as they are a level removed from the universities on the front lines. Moreover, the architectural profession will also need to change to face this crisis and, more importantly, the next global crisis—climate change—for which much of the built environment is responsible.
To be a success, educators that produce engaging and creative learning experiences need to be recognized and spotlighted so that those educators having difficulty creating online content can themselves learn. This forced move to online learning is a real-world example of the future of work and life-long learning in action. Faculty are not immune to either, and this pandemic is speeding up the process of this realization.
We cannot continue to create the same ineffective online experiences we currently have, such as talking over static lecture slides or reading from bulleted lists. Generation Z has completely grown up with life online, and much of the online learning material we produce is not meeting their expectations of an online experience. Online learning allows information to be presented in various forms to stimulate the different types of learners, whether it be visual, auditory, reading/writing, or kinesthetic. This is a moment when successful, distributed learning platforms such as YouTube and Khan Academy can inspire and inform traditional learning institutions.
The tools currently being used may not be the right tools for the occasion as they often lack the bi-directional interaction and spontaneity of in-person learning. Any teacher that uses other online means to produce effective and engaging learning content should be encouraged and not bureaucratically hindered by contractual obligations to their institutional online services. There are many more creative tools such as Mural for group collaboration and problem solving or Slack for group communication that could be piloted instead of the standard educational packages.
Asynchronous teaching will become a focus as students struggle with managing their families being at home all at the same time, students with children facing the prospect of long-term home-schooling, and those quarantined or sick and unable to study.
Asynchronous learning allows students to learn at their own pace. The arbitrary time constraint of a four-year degree may not produce the best learning experience. Those who learn fast become frustrated with the perceived slow speed of classes, and those struggling with material may need more time to absorb the information. Asynchronous learning can resolve both of these problems.
Individualized learning plans will need to be a priority. There must be flexibility in degree paths to foster creativity and lateral thinking. If there is an online course offered elsewhere that can fulfill a degree requirement, whether through partnerships like Pathstream, continuing education through professional organizations, or certifications pertinent to a student’s learning path, why not encourage students to take such courses.
From my own experiences, there were many times when my decades of professional experience, the many professional certifications I have achieved within the architectural field, and my passing the national and required Architecture Registration Exams (ARE) needed to become a licensed architect, were wholly ignored by professors and leaders. For example, my call for classes to be waived in which I could prove my experience and had the support of the professor teaching the class were dismissed outright. The reasoning: if the school lets one person waive a class, everyone will be asking for it. Perhaps everyone should be asking for it! Students proactively figuring out ways to define their path forward through a degree is a sign of creativity, dedication to learning, and leadership.
I also wanted to take a double Masters in Architecture and Landscape Architecture. I was not allowed to pursue this because it was “against the rules.” Bureaucratic rules, as we are seeing, are melting away during this pandemic crisis, allowing a fantastic opportunity to remove some of the inflexible bureaucracy that has built up over decades. Tailoring individual learning experiences that match the future of work in this country can become a cornerstone of the architectural learning experience.
There is no reason that online learning, asynchronous learning, and individualized learning cannot continue when we reach the other side of this pandemic! NOW we have realized what is “suddenly possible.” This will place future architects on a firmer footing with the creative thinking and “big breakthroughs” that are “desperately needed.” This is the future of work for the architectural industry.