A Semester of Online Education at the School of Architecture, UofU
In architectural education at the University of Utah, we distinguish between lecture, seminar or workshop classes with larger groups of students, and architectural design studios, where the faculty meets in person with a small group of students for an overall of 9 hours during either two or three afternoons per week. While the lecture and seminar classes can be easily translated to an online format, the architectural design studio requires more hands-on training as well as reliable access to facilities such as the wood shop to test the students’ designs and its details.
This report elaborates on the experiences made when teaching an architectural graduate studio with 10 participants and an architectural undergraduate technology class with 45 participants entirely online during the 2021 spring semester. In the first part I describe my experiences through the lens of a professor, in the second part I report on the student’s experiences during the semester.
The Professor’s Perspective
From my perspective as a professor, the teaching endeavor went very well. Despite my initial concerns about moving a rather complex teaching model fully into virtual space, I was able to build my usual instructor-student studio relationship even through a platform like Zoom. The relationship to my lecture series students stayed somewhat anonymous, which is not entirely to be blamed on the online model but rather due to the considerably larger class size and less time that an instructor spends with individual students of such a group. Furthermore, the Teaching Assistant handles part of the teaching load when it comes to labs or exercises.
Advantages of the Digital Format
The major advantage that I experienced during my classes is a different and much more effective way of sharing information in real time with my students, utilizing platforms like Zoom (communication), Miro Board (representation), and Canvas (organization). The information sharing would mainly happen during regular studio or lecture sessions, desk critiques, and even during presentation or formal reviews. Instead of addressing just the student or small work group I would talk to in the regular studio setting, I could instantly extend the circle of recipients to the entire class, which I experienced as a very powerful tool. This effect certainly works in both directions, when students share their information and ideas via the same channels.
Using a common presentation platform like Miro Board, every participant can see what everybody else is working on at any time, and the materials stay on the board for reference, whereas in the traditional studio setting this usually only happens during informal or formal reviews, with the materials not available to the larger group of students before or after the reviews. This also helped to be better prepared when going into studio, because as an instructor I would check student progress before meeting with the groups.
Furthermore, the Miro Board link can be sent to jurors ahead of formal reviews, enabling them to make themselves familiar with the topic and each project’s content. Finally, jurors can be invited from literally all over the world, which considerably extends the scope of feedback for the students.
In a lecture or seminar class setting, an entire course can be set up as ‘automated’ as desired, with a straightforward organization and schedule being highly valued by the participants. In addition, virtual office hours provided a level of flexibility that I haven’t experienced in any of my previous 20 years of teaching.
Disadvantages of the Digital Format
The major downside of fully virtual teaching is the physical disconnection from the students, which makes activities like hands-on teaching, model making, or hands-on labs more difficult. Having my studio students usually work in groups of two, I wasn’t able to detect group-related issues as quick as I would in the in-person setting, yet I had a much better, continuous overview over their work due to the above-described experiences.
Scale plays an important role in architecture, which can be completely ‘forgotten’ when working purely online; this presents a challenge especially for younger architecture students, since their perception of scale has not yet developed. Finally, Zoom fatigue is a considerably negative phenomena that occurs when staring at the screen for an extended period of time – surviving six or more hours of Zoom meetings on a single day is a difficult, demanding, and certainly unhealthy task for everyone.
The Students’ Perspective
To better understand my students’ perception of online teaching, I asked both studio and lecture class participants (55 students altogether) to conclude their class with a 300-word write up that focused on their online semester experience.
Advantages for Students
Generally, students reported saving a lot of time, money, and energy by not commuting to school anymore, with many reporting that this additional time would be used to get more work done. They also appreciated the virtual class format because they experienced less stress and had more sleep, while others reported that the online system improved their way of learning. Another reported positive side effect was the omitted need to print and plot work results, which once more saved students time, money, and resources.
Most students found that the partly asynchronous online format was very accommodating for their personal schedules, to immerse in the information on their own and especially at their own pace. Combining a repetitive and straightforward weekly schedule with deadlines always given on the same day of each week, with a weekly to-do announcement and a mix of prerecorded lectures, tutorials, and actual Zoom meetings, the virtual class allowed for a more effective learning experience. As reported by many students, course material could be reviewed at any time and quizzes and assignments could be worked on during predetermined time periods. The class Zoom meetings were still very important for most participants, to have at least a virtual contact channel to their peers, and to use it as a verbal discussion forum during class sessions.
Disadvantages for Students
On the downside, many students, especially in the lecture class, suffered from isolation and disconnection from their peers and missed the personal verbal exchange between peers and their professor. For some, working from home or a makeshift ‘home office’ was difficult due to spatial constraints. A few students reported experiencing mental health issues and depression, and this year’s very small group of foreign and transfer students had a hard time building relationships with their peers via virtual space.
Many students in both lecture und studio class settings reported on the challenges of not being able to ask a quick question to any of their classmates in person. This issue could be reduced in the studio setting by having the students team up in groups of two throughout the semester, but it still did not make up completely for a face-to-face work environment.
In-class labs and construction site visits, which are important educational tools in architecture, were completely missed, and as a result, the studio outcomes were not as comprehensive as they usually would be. File sharing or working on the same 3-dimensional digital building model, as can be done when shared over the UofU network, did not work as well and effectively in the remote learning environment, which is an issue that could be easily fixed in the future.
In contrast to most of the students who enjoyed the freedom of scheduling their work on their own, there was a small group of students who had a hard time scheduling and organizing their own workloads and/or staying motivated on their own.
In conclusion to the above-described experiences, I would like to state that a full online teaching format can obviously be achieved in the field of architectural education, but is not ideal. Having no alternative during times of a global pandemic, however, many students were thankful that the University and its faculty were able to offer a continuum of classes as required for their degrees, with basically no interruption in the overall process.
I am personally thankful for the learning opportunities and experiences that we all went through over this past year. Projecting these into the future, I see a very powerful, hybrid educational model that combines the advantages of the virtual with the physical learning environments and mitigates their disadvantages:
- Utilizing virtual and communication tools that we already have access to, while considering the students’ need for more flexibility in their demanding lives, this could manifest in a mix of 1/3 virtual and 2/3 physical architectural studio activities and a hybrid model for reviews to invite a more diverse group of jurors.
- For lecture, seminar, and lab class formats, I could see up to a 50/50 mix, which is actually a recommendation made by many students in their reports. In addition to the traditional in-person lecture and face-to-face meetings, an asynchronous video lecture and tutorial format combined with a well-organized class schedule will help students to achieve considerably better results, which became obvious in the final grading of my undergraduate technology lecture class during this semester.
Activities like hands-on learning, site visits, and field trips, as another extremely valuable instrument of a strong architectural education, should not (and mostly cannot) be replaced through a completely virtual learning environment – those are either impossible to conduct or appear to be considerably less effective.
The above statements and experiences are certainly only applicable to a rather specific area of higher education. For a wider application, those have to be analyzed for and adjusted to each specific teaching and learning model to fulfill desired educational requirements and goals, student learning outcomes, and individual preferences.