The New Normal for Universities

The New Normal for Universities

My Thoughts as a Tutor

The coronavirus is having a huge impact on the way in which universities operate across the country. Having negotiated the difficult task of makeshift reorganisation in the middle of the academic year just passed, universities now face the even greater challenge of reorganising the way in which they run their campuses and deliver their teaching in response to the impacts of the coronavirus for the upcoming academic year.

In addition to these administrational challenges, universities are also facing a significant drop in revenue due to the possibility of low admission rates for the coming year as it’s expected that many prospective students will elect to defer their university places due to perceived concerns over the impact of the coronavirus on their university experience. But what does all this mean for both new and returning students studying architecture?

Prospective students considering embarking on a course in Architecture face a difficult dilemma; whether to take a chance and enrol for the upcoming academic year without knowing exactly how the course will be run, what resources will be available to them or even whether the course they are enrolled to will end up meeting the requirements of the Architects Registration Board (the statutory body which provides academic accreditation), or whether to defer for a year or two.

Returning students face a similar conundrum, albeit, they have the advantage of already knowing the university and the expectations of the course and will have had experience of working and learning during the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year.

Giving objective advice here is difficult as there is a considerable amount still to be decided about how architecture courses will be run this year. However, universities will have learnt a lot during the final term of the academic year just passed and will have lots of strategies in place for the start of the new term to ensure that the courses on offer will be delivered to an equally high standard as in other years.

In-person vs. Blended learning

Architecture courses are traditionally reliant on teaching delivered in-person, both in groups in the form of lectures and seminars as well as one-to-one tutorials with design tutors. This is particularly important for an education in architecture as it involves an understanding of three-dimensional spaces which are easier to convey and examine in person rather than online. Architecture courses are also heavily reliant on indirect learning which involves the student body working as a group and sharing knowledge with each other between the structured lectures and tutorials.

These conventional in-person teaching practices may be under threat this year as university faculties are likely to be carefully controlled to manage the number of people allowed within them on a given day to manage the risks associated with the coronavirus. As a result, most universities are likely to replace their traditional teaching methods with a blended learning approach. Blended learning is essentially a combination of regular in-person teaching with digital learning techniques as well. So perhaps in a given week, you may have two lectures and a seminar online in addition to a one-to-one tutorial conducted in person.

This may have some negative effects as it is likely to reduce the amount of time students spend together at university and therefore the amount of indirect learning that is going on. It also may have an impact on how successfully architectural concepts are conveyed by the teachers and understood by students, as these are easier to convey and understand in person rather than online. However moving some aspects of the course online may also have some benefits. It is likely that the in-person student community may in part be replaced by an online community.

Whilst that may have certain social drawbacks, it does allow for greater connectivity with a larger student group which could provide a more inclusive, dependable and supportive environment for peer learning. Towards the end of last term, many university groups had built a strong online forum for themselves made up of students and tutors alike which provided a fantastic platform for sharing knowledge, providing inspiration and asking for help.

What to expect from online design tutorials and crits

Design tutorials and crits are perhaps two of the most important components of a course in architecture. Whilst the majority of these should remain in person with social distancing measures, it is likely some of them will also be conducted online. Tutorials and crits tend to be very personal where students are required to present their work and explain the decisions that they’ve made. In reply, the criticism offered by design tutors and guest critics will often be very detailed and specific.

Getting the most out of tutorials and crits relies on careful preparation and presentation by students followed by clear and critical examination and self-reflection. Whilst this may be easier in-person where models can be inspected from all angles and drawings can be examined up close and drawn over, there are also now techniques to ensure that the same freedom of inspection and communication can happen on a digital platform.

Many universities will be set up on communication and collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams which will be used for video tutorials and crits. Over the past 6 months, teachers have become more experienced at using software to conduct tutorials and crits online which will help to ensure a smooth transition for the next academic. Furthermore, there are now lots of additional features which can help to make online tutorials and crits more interactive. These include plug-ins to help create digital pinned-up presentations, the video and sound recording of tutorials and crits for future reference and tools to allow tutors to digitally annotate drawings, all of which can be extremely useful.

What about the human experience

Human interaction is a fundamental and irreplaceable part of the university experience. Both for the social value and wellbeing it brings in making students feel welcome and part of a vibrant collegiate community as well as for the observations and insights it brings to the study of architecture. Jan Gehl, a famous Danish Architect and pro-cycling advocate, once said:

“Only architecture that considers human scale and interaction is successful…” 

Jan Gehl

Thus understood, the study of architecture is in many ways the study of people and how to design buildings and cities which address their needs. In order to do this well it is important that students spend lots of time in the company of people as well as visiting buildings and spaces in person. Whilst in some ways these important facets of architectural education have been somewhat undermined by the impacts of the coronavirus, in other ways our new relationship to each other and to the buildings and cities in which we live and work has brought us closer together. And whilst this new social proximity may not be physical, it is certainly full of humanity and can become a great source of architectural inspiration for the architects of the future.

This article was written by a community member!

Ned Scott, architect and teacher at Greenwich University and University College London.

Learn more about Ned Scott on our Writers page.

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