Viewpoint (September 01, 2009)

September is the time of the year when classes resume at architecture schools–and this semester will see little change from the last. In view of the many ways in which online technologies allow social networking sites, streaming videos and blogs to alter the ways in which we learn, perhaps now is the time for architecture schools to revisit their approaches to education.

Architecture is one of the disciplines best suited to smoothly adapt to current online resources and learning technologies. Just about any architect, building, technology, or material can be easily sourced on the Web. Furthermore, most architectural firms have developed their own websites complete with photos, design methodologies and even drawings containing detailed technical information. Add to this the countless websites devoted to student blogs, and personal photo sites containing images of recently visited buildings or cities, and we must ask ourselves how we can reduce some of the inefficiencies experienced in most of today’s design schools by shifting a larger component of the education process online. Could the non-linear process of educating an architect–drawing heavily from precedent-setting projects from around the world along with peer-to-peer critiques of studio work–be enhanced through Web-based platforms?

Enter the “edupunk,” a term first coined in 2008 by Jim Groom, an “instructional technology specialist” at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. Edupunk is a do-it-yourself state of mind whereby you think and learn for yourself, on your own terms. Why spend $150,000 to attend a top US design school when you can download all of the course material for free and talk about it with your colleagues online? In an article entitled “Who Needs Harvard?” appearing in the September 2009 issue of Fast Company, Groom was quoted as saying that “Edupunk is about the utter irresponsibility and lethargy of educational institutions and the means by which they are financially cannibalizing their own mission.” To Groom, it’s not about bringing new technology into the process of education, but about using technology to lower the costs of education and to improve access to learning. As Cathy Casserly, a senior partner at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching noted in the same article, “We’re changing the culture of how we think about knowledge and how it should be shared and who are the owners of that knowledge.”

Extending Groom’s argument, even the most ambitious edupunk will need guidance. Since architectual education is becoming increasingly standardized and tuition costs are rising, why not cobble together the best structural engineering, site design and urban planning courses from the universities of your choosing–either for free, or through a licensed educational facilitator operating out of an accredited school? For example, MIT began putting its coursework online in 2001. Today, anyone can download the syllabi, lecture notes, class exercises, tests, and some video and audio for almost every course MIT offers. Students around the world can learn how to solve the problems of designing a new curtain wall, or a post-hurricane New Orleans.

Unfortunately, all this information is useless without good mentors to provide a meaningful education for students. Such mentorships have already begun on several open education platforms. One example is Peer2Peer University which allows students to schedule classes, meet and tutor one another online, and engage with facilitators who manage the individual courses. Over time, free online platforms will become increasingly valuable to students, and a more common option for mainstream academic institutions. It will then be possible for architecture schools to devote more energy and resources to teaching students about enhancing their leadership skills and acumen in design, research and practice.

Ian Chodikoff