Image: The rooftop of the California Academy of Sciences Building designed by Renzo Piano
Teaching studio-based design courses online has numerous advantages to the student not available in the traditional classroom. As an instructor with over fifteen years of landscape design teaching experience, I have found that translating classroom learning to an online class actually enriches the experience of a landscape design class. An online forum provides a custom experience for each student at that student’s pace as his or her project develops, step by step and week by week. At the Boston Architectural College, online classes have a high student to faculty ratio, keeping the classrooms small and tailored to the individual like a seminar.
Design education concentrates on guiding each student as they explore the process of conceptual and spatial design applied to a program and a project site. For example, the project might be to design an urban plaza. Each student will develop a unique approach to the plaza design. In my class, weekly assignments throughout the semester focus on different aspects of this project and push the design concepts. As the instructor, I present information to the class, guide the conversation, and work individually with each student, developing that student’s design ideas and execution.
Activities in the traditional classroom are synchronous, the class is together as a whole, working simultaneously. For the class to interact effectively, each student must be at the same place developmentally as all the other students. Studio courses require discussion between students, developing skills to critique and identify potential design solutions. These essential discussions are richest when students fully understand the issues at play through the readings, the lessons, and each other’s work.
Patricia Bales Van Buskirk teaches landscape design courses both online and onsite
In an online class, many communications and access-to-information problems are alleviated. In my online class at the Landscape Institute at the Boston Architectural College, Introduction to Landscape Design, students watch the lecture at a time and place of their choosing. They have the ability to return to previous lectures or assignments more than once. Each student shares his or her progress weekly by uploading visual images this or her work with audio comments using a tool called Voicethread.
Example of a lesson in action. Here model building is demonstrated.
I review these presentations and add my audio comments right onto the presentation. When I comment on a student’s work, I am focused only on the work of that student, without the distractions of a classroom. I can pause — for a moment or longer — to reflect on the work of that student without holding up the class. The other students also watch the presentations, at the time and place of their choosing, and see and hear both the designer’s and my comments. They add comments or questions of their own to their classmate’s presentation.
The designer receives an email alert when comments have been made on his or her presentation and will know to log in and check it out. In a traditional classroom, if a student gets off track and needs additional instructional guidance, this intensive assistance is given at the risk of losing the attention of the other students. In Voicethread if I should linger too long with a particular student, others can fast-forward to those parts of the presentation in which they are interested.
The online classroom also encourages the exchange of ideas through the “coffee”, an internal blog where the studio participants can share readings and articles related to what the class is discussing in studio. They share jokes, personal challenges, and encourage one another. The online community is personable and supportive despite physical distances. What has delighted me the most about the online classroom is that student participation is very strong. Discussions, although happening at different times for each of us, are perceived as happening in real time once we are online. Since discussions are logistically flexible in time and place, the content is rich, insightful, profound and lively.
Patricia Bales Van Buskirk is an instructor at the Landscape Institute at the Boston Architectural College. She teaches both on-site and online. Ms. Van Buskirk has a B.S. in Architecture from the University of Virginia and a Master’s in Landscape Architecture from Harvard University. She is currently in private practice in Hingham, MA.