Letter to the editor: Distance education

Project by McGill students Gabrielle Goldman and Frédéric Verrier-Paquet, with online markups by Vedanta Balbahadur

I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of making design education available to those who are distant from major cities, part of marginalized communities, or whose work or age does not permit them to easily visit a campus on a regular basis.  With this in mind, Douglas Macleod’s article was so refreshing to read.

As he points out, there is much that online teaching can offer to democratize education.  Furthermore, as some universities return to in-person design studios, we do well to assess the lessons learned from online teaching to determine which of its strengths can be merged with traditional studios into a hybrid that captures the best of both worlds.

Interestingly, the subject of making design education broadly accessible also relates to the McGill Continuing Studies course I teach each year called Physical Environment, Sustainability and Contemporary Culture, which is directed to students in disciplines other than architecture.  The intention of this class is not to teach the students to become designers, as it is in my studio courses, but rather to sensitize non-architects—business and engineering students especially, who tend to enroll in the course—to the arts and built environment.  For many of these students, it marks the first time in their formal education that they are being taught about the role of architects and designers in shaping the urban environment; this speaks to the larger problem that these concepts are rarely introduced to pre-university students in North America.  Were it not for this class, many of these students would continue on their career paths without having been exposed to architecture and art history unless they personally took an active interest in so doing.

Over the past decade, in addition to teaching future architects, I have developed a passion for educating those in other disciplines about the world of design around them. When they tell me that they are beginning to see the city in new and different (and critical!) ways, it’s a wonderful feeling.  Who knows which ones among them will become developers or will, as engineers, deal more sensitively with architects in the future?  But it also raises the questions: if these subjects were made part of curricula for students in their formative years, would our cities be better? And would students otherwise unaware or dismissive of careers in design and architecture be more receptive to the idea that they too can help shape the built environment and their communities for the better?

Typically, I conduct these classes in person, but last Winter, like our McGill design studios, I also had to go online with the course.  The big difference now is that I cannot easily take these students — nor my design students — out of the lecture hall and into different neighbourhoods in Montreal, as was my custom from time to time.  We’ll hope for the best and see how things shape up as we move forward.

-Vedanta Balbahadur, VBA and ékm architecture; Design Studio Coordinator and Lecturer, McGill University