Academia

USC Architecture Faculty Share Insights on Virtual Learning | Features


USC Architecture Faculty. Photo courtesy of USC Architecture

As institutions of higher learning round out the shift to online instruction, architecture schools also have had to address the pivot. However, the tactile nature of architectural education lends itself to the curious case of duplicating the tactile benefits of studio digitally. There’s no doubt schools of architecture across the country have risen to the task at hand. Archinect has even reached out to educators and students across our international community to learn more about the diverse experiences and approaches to this unorthodox learning model.

In this piece, I had the pleasure to connect with the faculty over at the USC School of Architecture to discuss everything from how they mobilized so quickly, solving this debacle of online learning in design to the challenges they faced along the way. While only a perspective of one institution, this exploration should prove valuable to students, professionals, and educators alike. 

The recent events with COVID-19 have been swift. How has the faculty and staff come together to implement the change to online instruction so quickly?

“We started building our digital resources and tools well before the COVID-19 virus became an issue. We have been utilizing Google Suite software to better coordinate class files, studio assignments and for our student work archives. Since USC moved to digital classes we have been working with Zoom for class meetings and most recently an invited review with the executive director of a local nonprofit. Our online format actually facilitated the availability of our guest.” – USC Architecture MLA Associate Professor Esther Margulies

One of the greatest challenges facing our landscape architecture pedagogy is how to replace field trips and field work. We need students to engage with built landscapes…

“One of the greatest challenges facing our landscape architecture pedagogy is how to replace field trips and field work. We need students to engage with built landscapes and their designers and stewards. Obviously, we all can’t go on these trips together right now, so we’ll look at alternatives, besides individual visits. For example, in lieu of a scheduled field trip to the Madrona Marsh with its fantastic manager, I took the tour with her alone at a generous social distance and recorded it. Next Monday, the class will watch it ‘together’ in our virtual classroom and our tour guide has generously offered to ‘Zoom’ into our virtual field trip to answer questions live, while we all watch. It’s not the same, but with practice we might even find some advantages to these different approaches.” – USC Architecture MLA Associate Professor Alexander Robinson

“I teach a summer class where we travel around the country to various sites and examine their experiential ‘frames.’ Given the likelihood of some social distancing continuing into the summer, it seemed almost certain that I would need to cancel this class. However, upon thought, this presented an interesting challenge. In theory, the class is really about experiencing sites; it is not specific to any one site. My collaborators in this class and I are not considering what it would mean to adapt this class to each student’s local condition. While we would likely never repeat it, we are now thinking it could be one of the most interesting learning and teaching experiences we have ever undertaken and are even a tiny bit excited at the prospect of conducting it this way.” – USC Architecture MLA Associate Professor Alexander Robinson

Doug Noble, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. Photo courtesy of USC Architecture.

As an architectural educator, how has this shift to online instruction affected studio coursework?

“Several faculty commented that the interaction was better than expected, though far from ideal. One faculty member lamented the loss of non-verbal cues in design interaction activities. But we also have not yet tapped the full potential of the online systems. Faculty are offering each other tips and techniques for specific learning strategies.” – USC Architecture Doug Noble, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs

“The early indications are encouraging. USC is currently on Spring Recess so how it affects coursework remains to be seen. However, several members of the graduate studio that I co-teach and coordinate have responded positively to the changes that are being implemented. Students and faculty are communicating via email; we plan to introduce projects, conduct lectures, and do crits via Zoom and email in the coming weeks.” – USC Architecture Professor of Practice Gary Paige

What technology and software is the school currently utilizing?

“We’re using Zoom for online classes and meetings as well as Blackboard.” – USC Architecture Dean Milton S. F. Curry 

How has it worked so far?

“We created a three-day test period for faculty and students to try out the online learning models in seminars and studios. The test period coincided with studio reviews in a handful of cases. During the test period, the studio desk crits and reviews went fairly smoothly  We had a small number of students having trouble getting online, and bandwidth issues occurred a few times. A couple had camera/video feed problems. Overall it was remarkably successful given how quickly we had to switch over.” – Doug Noble, USC Architecture Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Director of the Chase L. Leavitt Master of Building Science Program

I can see some of this modality being something we could keep going post-COVID-19.

“I can see some of this modality being something we could keep going post-COVID-19.”  USC Architecture Adjunct Associate Professor Eric Haas, FAIA

“In our first class using remote learning tools, we had 120 students log in, a speaker in Washington, D.C., and two instructors each in their own space. It was a success based on a few things:

  1. There was a ‘follow along’ slide deck to bring order to the session.
  2. Instructors and speakers were able to contribute freely, as were students.
  3. Real-time survey tools added an element of participation available to all participants.
  4. We gave a real-time quiz at the end.

Please remember that contrary to long held assumptions, design education is much more than studio time, and studio time can be used more efficiently. Dividing studio into smaller groups of 4 or 5 makes desk crits, usually done one-on-one, into several mini group-sessions with the potential of being more useful to the overall studio section. Instructors will learn that they can perhaps do more, for certain instruction material, and be more efficient in their instruction than traditional studio. 

“If they have not been previously, the introduction of talks and mini-lectures are a way to involve more/all students. The survey tools we used last week are a great way to take the pulse of the studio and foster interaction. The key is to look for opportunities to teach in a way that you couldn’t do, or isn’t possible, in person or one-on-one.” – USC Architecture Adjunct Associate Professor Michael Hricak, FAIA

We are very fortunate at this time to have dramatically reduced student/faculty ratios in all our design studios…

“We are very fortunate at this time to have dramatically reduced student/faculty ratios in all our design studios, which are the academic rudder in the USC Architecture studio program. I have been teaching at USC for 50 years and currently teach an Architect’s Sketchbook course, which is at the Heart of what architects do to communicate with the world. Given the current crisis situation, my students have been sending me visual iterations of their work in progress, to which I can review and critique (red-line), individually, then return by PDF, on a daily basis. The absence of spontaneous group review and discussion is compensated by a collective sharing of this visual material and the resultant discussion this promotes! This solution has been provoked by necessity, but ironically, although very time consuming reveals a high level of responsibility and great personal reaction between Student and Faculty. When we return to ‘normal,’ I presume to embody a large part of this personal interaction into my classes!” – USC Architecture Associate Professor Graeme M. Morland, AIA, RIBA

Are students being trained to navigate this new learning modality?

“Training is offered online, but the students seem to have very little trouble with digital technologies like these. Faculty and staff training has been more robust. Our IT group on campus and in our school were very quick to come out with ‘how-to’ memos and cheat-sheets to get us up to speed fast.” – Doug Noble, USC Architecture Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Director of the Chase L. Leavitt Master of Building Science Program

“Of course, there are still glitches, but USC did an excellent job preparing for the switch-over. For several years, we have been reminded that we should be prepared to take our classes online in the case of emergencies. Then a few weeks ago, the faculty and students were told that there would be three days of ‘testing’ the week before spring break. Spring break has given us time to look through our syllabus and discover what needs to be changed. Concurrently, the Center for Excellence on campus has offered many classes, prepared a lot of handouts, and has offered individual help to faculty. Although I am not happy about it, I am ready to teach my classes online. Ask me again on Monday, after the review of my students’ projects with outside reviewers!” – USC Architecture Adjunct Professor Karen M. Kensek, DPACSA

“On a daily basis, our students learn and utilize many different types of software, most of it much more complex than the online learning software we are now using. On the first day of online studio, I watched them teach each other the entire set of tools in about three minutes.” USC Architecture Adjunct Assistant Professor Lisa Little

What has been the response from your students?

“Students seem less concerned about the methods of engagement and the online learning than they are concerned about not knowing the future. USC went from a three-day test to a multi-week online system and then to online for the full semester.” – Doug Noble, USC Architecture Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Director of the Chase L. Leavitt Master of Building Science Program

USC Architecture Dean Milton S. F. Curry. Photo by Sara Pooley.

What is the school’s sense of how the rest of the semester will unfold? Do you plan to resume in-person meetings this semester?

“We do not plan to resume in-person meetings this semester per the latest university guidelines.” – USC Architecture Dean Milton S. F. Curry 

What have been the biggest challenges for the school in making this shift? Have you found solutions yet?

“A significant challenge will be with the tiny number of students who are less extroverted, and who may have been struggling in studio prior to the COVID-19 changes. Faculty are taking a proactive stance to make sure that we continue to engage struggling students. This is probably where the largest risk is. Strong students and faculty are already finding new ways to overcome challenges, but you do not want to lose anyone.” – Doug Noble, USC Architecture Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Director of the Chase L. Leavitt Master of Building Science Program

Faculty are taking a proactive stance to make sure that we continue to engage struggling students.

“As a design studio instructor, most of our teaching methodology comes from one-on-one, individual interactions with the students and their work. So from now on, we are learning new teaching tools, considering an online platform. That will also impact the production of physical models, which is still largely explored by all of us, due to the non-access to important production tools from the students’ end. We are currently revising our syllabus and deliverables requirements moving forward.” USC Architecture Lecturer Luciana Varkulja

USC is continuing its spring program, holding the lectures virtually. Could you share more about this decision? What methods and tools will you use to make this happen?

“We view our public programming as a continuation of our educational offerings. While we were forced to cancel or postpone a few of the planned public lectures this semester, we were able to shift a couple of them, including our Generation NEXT event and our final spring Technology Conversation, to become virtual events. These two events will be held as Zoom webinars and we look forward to being able to share this content with even more people online than we would have been able to accommodate in-person.” – USC Architecture Dean Milton S. F. Curry

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