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TEACHING. AND ONLINE. AND DESIGN STUDIO

TEACHING. AND ONLINE. AND DESIGN STUDIO | IE Building Resilience

Four “tools”, born out of intents for understanding the differences between the more traditional educational environment and the relatively.

By Romina Canna, Professor at IE University School of Architecture and Design

 


 

A few days ago, I read a text from someone that with a certain solemnity explained why it is impossible to teach architecture, and especially Design Studio, online. “God save us all!” the article seems to say, in between lines. I won’t say that certain arguments did not make sense. They not only sounded relatively convincing but also that out of romanticism or disciplinary rigor, there are some “virtues” of sharing a table, drawings and models that I still believe in and deeply enjoy. Getting rid of a tiny piece of cardboard that represents a wall but also an obstacle for modeling space, folding time after time a piece of trace paper for studying a sequence of sections, pinning drawings up at the walls and other pedagogical maneuvers are the very heart of “studio culture”, two words that only the “initiated” seem to understand. Studio culture refers, in practical terms, to the huge amount of energy and exchanges that happens when professors and students engage in dialogues, critiques and unexpected conversations under one roof. Almost like in a play, students and professors “perform” their choreographies, in an attempt to engage, intellectually and physically, others in the acquisition and exchange of knowledge. Under this idea, the walls that shape the studio space seem to be not only physical boundaries, but rather a fundamental foundation for architectural learning. But we live in strange times, where the value of physical encounters has been quickly run over by the still somehow uncertain, somehow suspicious, virtual space. Then we might ask, is it really impossible to teach design studio online? If the studio, as a space for exchange of knowledge is not an option at least for now, and perhaps for a while, are we unable to teach architecture? Manicheism sounds to me as an excuse to perpetuate models and shut down curiosity and possibility. Changes are usually tough and uncomfortable, but almost never impossible to achieve. Changes just require an open attitude, readjusting tools, redirecting methods, and as everything, it also requires starting with a question that replaces the “it is impossible” for a an almost naïve “how can we do this”?

Eight years ago, my tasks as a professor at the School of Architecture and Design at IE University pushed me to a then-challenging experience. Students in our university, during the second part of the Spring semester, go for internships all around the world, shifting radically the traditional relation between student-professor and studio as the place for encounter. I was asked to teach in that semester, and the skepticism around that model of education was truly penetrating. Seeing my students through a screen, having them all there, or navigating a new set of tools and rules were already many changes, but the least of my challenges. Understanding the new calibration of times, engagements, and the new “shape” of the conversation, was. Having my students engaged and me being engaged, was. Knowing how to change from a fully sensorial experience, the tact of cardboard, the smell of laser cut wood, the noise of a hammer nailing a model, to a purely visual and verbal, was. Since then, I have learned many things on how to occupy, perform and play in this new “space” of the virtual. I do not know it all, every year something makes me revise my online behavior and performance, but these are some of the things I have learned that I will share for converting the skeptical (or to make them even more), and perhaps, only perhaps, help the new ones in a strange, but nevertheless interesting and enjoyable, way of teaching.

Below, four of my “tools”, born out of intents for understanding the differences between the more traditional educational environment and the relatively, and today extremely relevant, new virtual environment.

ENGAGEMENT

There is certain emotional and intellectual comfort on seeing each other and sharing one meter of a table and being surrounded by others. Instead, in this mode of online education you are alone with your screen, feeling awkward as the camera points to you, and listening your voice echoing in the room. In this mode of online education, we are all together yet separate. I always start the class, with a short chit-chat conversation, something that can unite us in the “universal” concerns about the weather, the political figure (or joke) of the moment, and so on. These small talks are not about architecture nor very sophisticated pedagogical tools, they are, simply, a strategy to feel connected, to throw some laughs and sense we are all together in one place. After all, we are all people. Rather than boringly waiting for your time to present on the screen, we start with the sensation that even if I am in Spain, Daniella in Venezuela and Xinyi in China, we are all together in one, nevertheless particular, space for interaction. These chit chats are repeated during the class, as for trying to keep us all engaged in the moment, and in this particular “room” we all share.

POINTS OF CONNECTIONS

In our online classes, all our students are connected at the same time, looking at the same screen and therefore, the same project. But being virtually connected does not always translate into truly and fully being there. A very effective tool as for increasing the engagement of the students with the class but also with the course is to find points of connections. Usually, as the students work under the same brief, finding similarities or even contrasts happen frequently. I try to point out the specifics of those points of connections and ask for them to chat, sometimes during the class. Those bridges are usually effective tools to trigger a conversation, and why not, to steal, to share, to evolve together. I learned by doing it that these bridges not only work well in keeping my students awake and engaged during the courses, but also increases their critical skills. Being able to articulate a rapid response to my question and invitation to participate in the chat, or to think about why was I putting those two projects together truly works as for connecting with others while connecting with their own critical self.

COMMENTS TWO WAYS

It might be sometimes challenging to be able to make all the comments the students deserve, draw with them, and manipulate the material in this new “studio” environment. The times on the screen often seem shorter for me, between technological issues, connecting with each one, and the adventures of Wi-Fi connection depending where we are at, the clock seems to accelerate. Years ago, I started to ask the students to submit their work a day before our class. With the time on my side, I review the work, I made comments, leave references, and make some red marks before returning the work to them some hours before our class. When we meet, they have seen already my critique, and we engaged in much longer conversations that are not about the minutia of plans, sections and some other drawing, but rather about the strategy, the general picture, the narrative. Having this two ways comments allow me to be in a more efficient control of time, and to them, to be able to focus the conversation with me in what is crucial for the development of the project, as the other “stuff” is already there waiting for them.

AUTONOMY

Online education requires discipline. Distraction or procrastination is as far as a click! Not sharing the space, and for instance, not feeling the pressure of the context, could be a risk factor for the development of a project. However, there are ways of helping avoid the attention diversion, by simply laying out the times. I usually make a timeline, as much appealing graphically as also specific in the relation between time, content and production. Students are not always skilled in time management and organization, and they might sometimes, miscalculate how to be at good shape at each week. This practice, at least in my experience, is not only good in terms of making clear for them what it takes to arrive to a good final review, but also help them to consider the model as for organizing their own times. Having the “original” timeline, they now can shift things around according to the needs of their specific projects. Understanding time, being able to administer it, and managing production in your own terms and without the social pressure of the context translate into acquiring autonomy.

These are a few of my tools. Every year, every group is a different creature, and little nuances and adaptations are needed. I am far for having an online pedagogy manual, after all, this was born merely out of practice and the seek for understanding a then new environment for me, for challenging my skepticism, and for how not to reject it as for being different. As such, I hope that these simple quick notes help other to get inspired in many other pedagogical maneuvers I am sure are out there, and for the skeptical, to think that perhaps it is possible to teach architecture online. It is not impossible, it is just different, and perhaps, in the way the world moves, a fundamental skill to develop for the new “normal” we might face as a society, but fundamentally as educators that might have to learn to learn again.