Academia

Using Optimism to Guide Online Education with Karl Daubmann, Dean of Lawrence Technological University College of Architecture and Design | Features


Karl Daubmann, AIA, FAAR – Dean and Professor at LTU College of Architecture and Design

Archinect’s Deans List is an interview series with the leaders of architecture schools, worldwide. The series profiles the school’s programs, pedagogical approaches, and academic goals, as defined by the dean–giving an invaluable perspective into the institution’s unique curriculum, faculty, and academic environment.

For our latest installment, Archinect spoke with Karl Daubmann Dean of Lawrence Technological University College of Architecture and Design (LTU CoAD). What makes the university unique is it is one of four American universities that is accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) to offer an online Master of Architecture degree.

During our conversation, Daubmann unpacks the program’s decade-long experience in providing an online master’s education. Together we discuss common misconceptions about choosing an online degree, online studio culture, and building trust with students. According to Daubmann, the beauty of the school’s programming is in its ability to be nimble. Daubmann explains, “We don’t have that pressure. We’re small and we have to be a bit scrappy. We have to be optimistic and that makes it really exciting. We’re excited to find moments to manage risks.”

Image courtesy of Lawrence Technological University CoADHow long has the online M.Arch program been running? 

The LTU online masters in architecture degree began in 2009. 

How large is a regular online graduating class?

Our typical graduating M.Arch class is about 40 students. Last year we ramped up our Track 3 (students with a non-design undergrad background). We had 17 students enter that track last year which will be an increase in our graduate population.

How would you describe LTU’s online M.Arch program?

We’ve tried to position ourselves as a program and as a faculty that’s tied to practice. Historically, or rather I should say there is a “legend” and I’ll have to check the facts on this, but a large portion of Michigan’s practicing architects are graduates from LTU. Here, people come from metro Detroit and they stay in Detroit. Our students and alumni are tied to practice and we’re connected to practice that way. 

For us, our program revolves around three things: practice, design, and technology. Practice is our legacy. Design is something we look at more broadly within the college because of our other design-related programs. Here at LTU, our programs range from the design scale of an app to the scale of designing a city. Each program, down to our online Master’s program, ties right back to practical application in the field. 

When you bring practice, design, and technology together that brings us a unique focus. I’d say 90% of our graduate students are working full-time while they’re going to school. 

Image courtesy of Lawrence Technological University CoAD

We’ve discovered it’s this type of flexibility, although different, is ideal for individuals who don’t have to leave their homes, leave their jobs, and move across the country to finish an M.Arch degree.

It might be safe to say the program seems like the perfect catalyst to support and foster the “working student”?

When we meet with students they might be sitting in the conference room of their office taking some time to do a desk critique. Or you’ll find them at home working at their kitchen tables. There’s this formality on one hand and an informality in the other. Our students are practicing when they’re in school and they’re exposed to work life. They must also confront the work/life balance early on.

The other thing that’s unique for us is how we address the diversity issues within the profession. It’s something we really want to take on. We have students that come from so many different walks of life, from different parts of the world. I particularly appreciate the mother bouncing her newborn on her lap during desk crits.

Can you breakdown LTU’s master’s programs? 

We have three tracks within our M.Arch program. One is the undergrad 4+2 model where a student completes their undergraduate degree with us on campus and then switches to online learning as they complete their M.Arch. Then there are the students who complete their undergraduate degree in architecture somewhere else and then complete their M.Arch with us. And then there’s the 3+ program. It’s the program for graduate students who have an undergraduate degree in something else other than architecture. Other schools call it a 3+ program because it’s usually a little longer. At LTU it’s part-time and can take longer. 

We’ve discovered it’s this type of flexibility, although different, is ideal for individuals who don’t have to leave their homes, leave their jobs, and move across the country to receive an M.Arch degree.

Image courtesy of Lawrence Technological University CoAD

This “difference in model” is a great way to put this type of learning into perspective. It doesn’t stress one program is better than the other, rather it enables for a blend in learning options, where each school is addressing these types of constraints for students who aim to achieve an M.Arch.

Early online education didn’t necessarily help us as a profession or necessarily help the notion of online education. I think there’s this perception that it was “distance learning.” I always say the first form of the online education model was like “correspondence school.” We aimed to make our online M.Arch program at LTU different from that. There may be some things that have this process of, “Okay submit your work through a portal, post something to the message board, and get a response from a faculty member.” But for us, our teaching model is very much like practice. We’ve been using Zoom for a long time so that is nothing new to us. When I first came to LTU teaching an online studio was something I wanted to do.

The amazing thing is that when online learning started, everyone tried to replicate the classroom experience. Now what we’ve found is that some of the physical studios are trying to emulate aspects of online studios. 

What I think we’re going to find after all of this [transition from remote learning back to in-person teaching] is that we’re going to be much more deliberate and careful when we meet in person. We won’t squander those moments of face to face contact. Hopefully, we’ll aim to have more engaging conversations and I believe education is starting to make these adjustments. 

Image courtesy of Lawrence Technological University CoAD

What I find interesting is at the beginning, before the pandemic shifted academic teaching, many people almost disregarded or wouldn’t have thought twice about an online M.Arch education. However, after our office has had discussions with institutions who have been doing this for awhile, it’s important to highlight this type of learning.

I think what’s amazing is that this form of virtual communication and virtual collaboration, it happens in practice all the time. For many years large firms who share work between time-zones. When I was brought into teaching at LTU I didn’t have any fear of this method. 

I worked at Blue Homes for 4 years and I was in Michigan leading teams that were in Boston and San Francisco. For me, this was just how we worked and this was back in 2010. I can remember having interns working with me in different locations and when I had to approve their IDP credits NCARB didn’t know how to deal with it. At the time they were confused with how this could work.

The location of where they receive their education shouldn’t affect the quality of the program. It’s not a “different degree” it’s the same degree. When they get their diploma it doesn’t say their degree is an online master’s degree, they have a Master’s degree just like everyone else. For us we simply had to show that the learning objectives were being met and the goals were the same. 

That’s an interesting point you bring up about granting credits or accreditation with work that’s done outside of an area you’re licensed in. A remark some might have about a program like this is that “there’s no way it’s accredited” or “how can it be the same as a traditional masters program”? What was the process like getting NAAB to accredit the program?

I know we had to consolidate a couple of things, but for our graduate students who do the program online, it’s not that they’re prevented from coming to campus or setting up a hotspot at school. The location of where they receive their education shouldn’t affect the quality of the program. It’s not a “different degree” it’s the same degree. When they get their diploma it doesn’t say their degree is an online master’s degree, they have a Master’s degree just like everyone else. For us, we simply had to show that the learning objectives were being met and the goals were the same. 

I always think about it that these types of systems of education are always evolving and it’s these incremental steps of accreditation that help it become normalized. However, if we bring this back to practice, this form of virtual work and communication is so common.

Project by Lukas Blair. Image courtesy of Lawrence Technological University CoAD

What I want to do is leapfrog from what these firms are doing and realize, where can we be in 5 years? Again it comes to this concept of “defining” an online education. It’s still education, and I think it’s really us. We as faculty, as leaders we were educated in one way yet the world has quickly evolved.

The other question people often as ask is the “model aspect.” How do students show their work in model form? Is that a requirement for students to produce physical models of their work?

There is the model aspect. I know one of our faculty members (Aaron Jones) had a project where the students had to submit their models using a Fedex box. So the studio was building things and they’d use the constraints of the box to understand space and design objectives. If you think about practical application in practice, professional practice rarely build physical models either. 

I feel like there was a point in time where firms would come to universities and ask for “the latest and greatest thing” and I feel like when it comes to technology, professional practice has outpaced higher education. For example, we realized we wanted to do more with virtual reality in our instruction. So we reached out to firms who use VR in their work and we asked them what equipment they were using so we could implement it for our students.

Textures from LTU CoAD CritPrax 2019. Image courtesy of Lawrence Technological University CoAD

What do you aim for LTU to do in terms of pushing the boundaries for blending academia and practice?

What I want to do is leapfrog from what these firms are doing and realize, where can we be in 5 years? Again it comes to this concept of “defining” an online education. It’s still education, and I think it’s really us. We as faculty, as leaders we were educated in one way yet the world has quickly evolved. Those of us who are in higher education, including myself, seem to have “self-selected” this perspective. Academia is a conservative place, often protected by tried-and-true methods.

Take tenure, for example. For someone who’s not practicing or working for a firm, it’s practitioners who have to perform and maintain this sense of advancement. Compared to someone who has tenure and things are set because things tend to move at a certain pace. When you’re in practice and you learn there’s new technology out there it’s like “Ok, let’s get it, let’s implement it. Our clients want this, so let’s adapt” 

For us here at the school there is this mentality of trying to bring in new things and new technology into the way we teach. We want to try something, and look at the curriculum and test out these prototypes for learning. 

Image courtesy of Lawrence Technological University.

And that’s the thing, these “traditional” non-online schools have the reputation, they have the prestige. Students will continue to want to go to those schools, if they stay the same. For us, at LTU we had to innovate to stay alive. We have to innovate because we’re tuition driven so we have to find those new models to test.

That’s great you remind us of LTU’s technical foundations. The focus is “to the future” and what can be done. So it’s an interesting juxtaposition to have within academia.

And that’s the thing, these “traditional” non-online schools have the reputation, they have the prestige. Students will continue to want to go to schools if they stay the same. For us at LTU, we had to innovate to stay alive. We have to innovate because we’re tuition driven, so we have to find those new models to test. It’s interesting now, because of recent NAAB changes, it feels like there is more room for schools to be “different than one another” and for them to showcase their value through that difference.

It seems that schools like LTU, BAC, and SIU’s online learning curve isn’t as steep as it might be for these other institutions that are still adapting. Do you think there will be large shift in transitioning to online master’s programs?

I think there are a lot of schools that might not have the need to transition to online, or it doesn’t align with what they’re trying to do. So for us, being so tied to practice, it makes sense. And for other schools, they might not have to do it. It’s different and it really depends on the school.

The one thing I always think about is understanding the ecosystem of things or the history of things. We try to be really nimble. We don’t have the prestige and I think sometimes there’s positives and negatives to that. Because of this we don’t have this “legacy” to interfere with our chances of “screwing something up.” 

Discussions like this really provide us with a better understanding of the ethos of the school. So, it makes me curious, what would students be able to do and use if they participated in a program like this?

Some schools don’t have to worry about self-assessment too much because of their status or prestige. But we have a rigorous self-assessment process. What we started doing last year, is having the faculty create survey rubrics to assess each course and student success. Once all of those surveys were completed we ended up with a mound of data that we could then use to assess ourselves and the program. 

This process is great because we started to review things with data, and eventually after three years of data like this we’ll be able to develop a robust curriculum map. We’ll be able to see trends and learn from them to make our programming that much better and more beneficial for the students who are participating.

LTU CoAD Critical Practice Studio. Image courtesy of Lawrence Technological University CoAD

It sounds like measurable results seem to be a big factor here. To your point, if we looked at things quantitatively, a traditional school’s measurable results would be, (x) amount of students entered the program and (x) amount of students graduated. It’s more of a straightforward approach to “measuring success.” Granted there are more variables involved, but with a school like LTU, that form of data, driven by self-assessment, is really interesting.

Yea, it also happens in different ways. When it comes to higher education and how we do things in terms of recruitment and enrollment, we only get that data once a year in the fall. So it takes that much longer to get actionable data and then find the changes that need to be implemented. It takes about three iterations to put something out there to see how it works for us to adapt and then triangulate if it works, if we need to break it, if we need to change it. 

One of the unintended things we realized was that when we talk to students during their exit interviews they’re telling us things got better since they started and they say they are jealous of the classes behind them. And it’s a great thing. In this environment LTU is in, there’s a pressure as a small, private institution to figure out how to adapt and understand new spaces to operate in. 

I’m sure common misconceptions about online programs like this come up. Can you talk about a few that come to mind to?

The one thing I always think about is understanding the ecosystem of things or the history of things. For us we try to be really nimble. We don’t have the prestige and I think sometimes there’s positives and negatives to that. Because of this we don’t have this “legacy” to interfere with our chances of “screwing something up.” 

LTU CoAD Critical Practice Studio. Image courtesy of Lawrence Technological University CoAD

I think that’s a really optimistic way of looking at things.

I have colleagues at institutions that I absolutely respect and sometimes there’s this fear of wanting to change something because the alumni would be upset or because the legacy is so strong that changing things would disrupt the program. But for us we don’t have that pressure. We’re small and we have to be a bit scrappy. We, like you said, we have to be optimistic and that makes it really exciting. We’re excited to find moments to manage risks. 

Starting to see that we can do a lot online is hopefully going to bring more credibility to what we’ve been doing but it can also bring more competition and we have to be ready for that.

The proposition of having things online is now on the table, everyone is adjusting. This opens the doors for people to think they can do a program like this online. Is there anything the department might look forward to?

In some ways it’s both. If everyone could do it, then do we still have the niche that we had before? But online programs have always been niche because it’s not widely accepted. Starting to see that we can do a lot online is hopefully going to bring more credibility to what we’ve been doing but it can also bring more competition and we have to be ready for that.

Has much changed for the institution as the COVID-19 situation progressed over the last few months?

We quickly transitioned to remote teaching just after spring break. I feel like not much has changed since we made that quick adaptation. Our students have been pleased and our faculty did an incredible job. LTU has a laptop program for the undergraduate students so every student and faculty has the same hardware and software – making collaboration quite easy. We added some more collaborative work so that students would not be working in isolation but could have a design buddy. This was done more for mental health than for professional skill building but there are obvious additional professional benefits. Our hope is to not lose the positive outcomes created by the pandemic related to higher education and general ways we operate and engage in our daily activities. If we could go back to the way things were, I imagine we consider what is the criteria for a physical face-to-face meeting and how do we incorporate more technology benefits into our traditional on ground courses.

Architecture in Landscape (ID1//Wong) Designed by Abdelnour + Byl. Image courtesy of Lawrence Technological University CoAD

In your opinion, what are some of the long term impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on architectural education?

There are two that come to mind immediately. First is the impact of recessions on architectural enrollment. We know that the AEC industry gets hit early and hard by recessions. Post-2008 we saw national trends of dropping enrollment as a result of negative press related to unemployment in the industry and that architecture was a bad degree choice. A strong case can be made for the pandemic’s impact on the built environment and the need for thoughtful and skilled design professionals as we all work to make sense of the pandemic guidelines. The second long-term impact will be that of the close quarters model of the one-on-one desk crits and studio environment. We are discussing what the design studio looks like during the pandemic.  We know that a faculty member can not sit side-by-side with a student at their desk. Additionally we are concerned about the density of students in the studio and the unregulated nature of the design studio – most schools do not allow janitorial staff into the studios for fear of throwing out projects mistaken as recyclable materials.

How does LTU approach traditional end-of-the-year activities like final reviews, thesis exhibitions, and graduation?

We adopted many of the same approaches that we see happening across the county. Final reviews were on Zoom and allowed for open dialog and viewing by students and faculty not in the specific course. The zoom format allowed for reviewers from all over the world which we typically wouldn’t be able to afford under normal travel expenses. Our final projects and thesis work will be posted online as part of an end of the year exhibition. Our traditional graduation ceremony was postponed until December with video messages and zoom celebrations occurring in the short term.

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