SAH Blog

Distance (and) Learning: Thoughts on Online Tools in the Teaching of Architectural History

By Amanda Reeser Lawrence and Lucy M. Maulsby
| Oct 31, 2014

With the ever-rising tide of online education now seeping into the sacred precincts of the American university campus—if not having broken the levees altogether—many academics find themselves struggling to adjust to the newly fluid landscape of higher education. Indeed the parallel to the effects of global warming is intentional and instructive. Academics, with responses ranging from Chicken Little sky-is-falling hysteria to willful disbelief, now confront the certainty of change along with uncertainty about the degree to which online tools will affect the structure and aims of college and university systems. Coverage in the academic press as well as the mainstream media reinforce the notion that education has become a battle ground and that the continuing investment in online courses has prompted a crisis, even as it has created opportunities.

As two assistant professors in the School of Architecture at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, we find ourselves in the midst of this transformation and have sought to address the changing expectations of our students and take advantage of new technologies as they become available. Already online content is expanding within our classrooms; in our large history survey courses we quiz students regularly through the Blackboard site, as a way to take attendance and measure comprehension; in large and small classes alike we ask students to post responses on class blogs and listservs; and we use an ever-expanding archive of images and videos available online—truly one of the most radical changes in the teaching of architectural history over the past generation. We have been asked to help consider which courses in our department might lend themselves to an online platform, and have attended seminars and workshops about the development of online courses. We have learned a new vocabulary—instructor neutral, MOOC, SPOCs, modules, and the “flipped” classroom—and shared this information with colleagues.

But throughout this process we have had little time or opportunity to consider more global questions that move past a narrowly reactive set of responses to a more proactive position. How can these new online tools further and potentially even help clarify and enrich our goals as educators? Since many online course models favor content that is oriented toward learning a skill or mastering information, what are the online opportunities for areas of study traditionally based on a process of inquiry and critique in which human interactions (between students and between students and teachers) are at the center of the learning process? What does online teaching mean for disciplines, like architecture, that encourage students to appreciate and understand the world around them with the goal of responding innovatively to current challenges? How can we best participate in the growing number of conversations about how (as well as what) to teach in the context of a rapidly transforming educational landscape?

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Slide Lecture on St. Peter's Basilica, 1897. From T. H. McAllister Company, Manufacturing Opticians, New York, catalogue, 1897. 

In April 2014, we convened a group of architectural historians from area institutions to address some of these questions. The workshop, “The Practice of Teaching,” brought together faculty—some of whom have little to no experience with online education—and doctoral candidates, nearly all of whom are intimately involved in the construction of online courses. Each presenter was asked to respond to a distinct but related set of questions, which were given in advance. Our aim was to bring different perspectives to bear on some of the challenges as well as opportunities made possible by the online teaching of architectural history, as well as establish a basis for conversation among the larger group assembled. While the focus was on the concerns particular to our discipline, our hope was that the conversation would open up perspectives on online teaching more broadly.

What emerged from the presentations and in the discussion that followed came as a surprise. Not because of any radical new findings about online teaching, but rather because the questions and issues raised are consistent with those that have always been at the center of our efforts to be more effective teachers. If anything, the conversation reinforced a shared commitment to teaching and a desire to employ any number of tools (online or otherwise) to foster an environment in which understanding is gained through an active and critical engagement with the material presented. In this context, an expanding array of visual material, which might include a flythrough of a digitally reconstructed Roman forum, a photograph of an original drawing held in an archival collection in Paris, or a live webcam from an archaeological dig underway in rural China, allows us to present a richer, more complex, and more immediate picture of the material remains of the past. Online discussion forums provide all students with a means to express their opinions, ask questions, and craft their responses, not just those that are the first to raise their hand. These tools, with their remarkable diversity, flexibility, and interactivity, evidence ways in which online approaches can overcome some of the limits of the traditional classroom

Indeed, as Associate Professor Marc Neveu made clear in his presentation, changes in the kinds of tools available have historically altered the contours of the discipline. German art historian Heinrich Wölfflin’s now iconic pairings of projected images played a critical role in the development of formal analysis as a cornerstone of art and architectural history in the first decades of the twentieth century. In more recent history, the transition from lantern slides to 35mm slide projectors to digital presentations has enabled instructors to include multiple images as well as text and videos on a single ‘slide.’ The abundance of information reflects the quantity of material now available to instructors as well as the expectations of an information-rich (perhaps overloaded) generation. Although we tend to think of these changes as largely progressive, there are mishaps and miscalculations and certain things are lost. One of the most frequent laments of those who teach online classes is their relative lack of flexibility and the speed with which they become, in whole or in part, obsolete, despite the extraordinary effort dedicated to their making. In addition, while we have for the most part eagerly incorporated new visual material into our courses, there has been little reflection about how this material has shaped students’ engagement or comprehension. Does a multimedia slide bewilder students new to the material, or encourage memorization rather than critical thinking? Is there such a thing as too many images? How do we teach our students (or ourselves for that matter) to investigate where an image comes from, and how that affects our understanding of it? 

One of the most consistent threads in the conversation had to do with shifting our focus from how we teach to how our students learn. How can we best use new technologies to reinforce “learning objectives”? A multimedia classroom experience may provide new opportunities, but those opportunities are only as valuable as the instructor’s ability to direct them toward meaningful goals. How might faculty engage with the growing literature about students’ retention and comprehension? How can we better measure students’ understanding of course material? What role should new technologies play in this process? The pairing of new technologies with educational platforms intended for large numbers of students challenges educators to think about increasingly heterogeneous student populations with a diverse range of skills, backgrounds, and ambitions. What role might these technologies play in smaller classes? In seminars and colloquia? Or even design studios?

The concept of distance, which was introduced by Assistant Professor Paolo Scrivano, provided a powerful lens through which to consider many of the challenges facing instructors. The traditional lecture hall establishes and reinforces the physical and intellectual distance between the teacher and students. The instructor transmits information (sometimes equated with knowledge) to students, typically rendered anonymous by their sheer number, with varying degrees of success. Among the challenges of this model is overcoming the distance not only between the students and the teacher but also between the students and the course material. Smaller lecture classes or seminars present a different but related set of challenges. What is the value of learning about the settlement patterns that structured life in ancient Mesopotamia for first year students who have only just decided on their major? What is the connection between vernacular building traditions employed in some countries and the glass residential towers that define urban life in other regions of the world?

In some respects, online teaching has the potential to decrease this distance. Although massive online open courses (or MOOCs), with their thousands of students, represent the loss of the human dynamic brought into play when students and teachers occupy the same physical space, they also, paradoxically, have the potential to bring the instructor and the material ‘closer’ in a number of ways. MIT Professor Mark Jarzombek’s Global History of Architecture—the first architectural history MOOC—provides novel means for students from around the world to share, through photos, videos, and text, with instructors as well as fellow students their response to the material being taught. As Ana Maria Leon Crespo and Jordan Kauffman, both doctoral candidates at MIT and active participants in the making and operating of the course, explained, the ability of students to share local knowledge through photographs and first hand accounts, often from remote locations not covered in scholarly literature, dramatically expanded the scope of the course. Distance was decreased between student and professor as well as between student and the material under study.

The design and implementation of online courses demands the commitment of significant financial and human resources and the talents of a range of experts. These experts might include not only education specialists and professors but also instructional designers and technologists, project managers, and producers. As Marikka Trotter made clear in her presentation about the tremendous effort that went into the creation of “The Architectural Imaginary,” a small private online class (SPOC) for incoming students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, developed with HarvardX, the process, while rewarding, is costly and time consuming. As a result, rather than put the full course online, the Harvard team instead opted for a hybrid model in which a portion of the course material is presented online before students gather in the classroom.

The hybrid model perhaps offers the most powerful opportunity to bring together the ‘closeness’ of traditional teaching models with online tools that engage students in novel ways. Indeed, the inherent variety, flexibility, and adaptability of the hybrid model makes it uniquely resilient in an educational and technological landscape defined by rapid change. Within this context the focus of inquiry should be less on whether or not to teach courses online (most of us already incorporate online tools and will do so increasingly) but rather on more clearly articulating our goals as educators. How can online tools help us to develop courses that respond to the many different ways in which students learn? How can we better draw on the particulars of our disciples to direct the learning process not only toward specific areas of knowledge but also toward the development of essential skills? In short, how can we best equip our students to address the challenges they will face in the coming decades? In this context, developing resilience in the face of the dramatic changes facing higher education requires intelligently deploying all of the tools at our disposal—online or otherwise—as a means to bring our students closer. 

Amanda Reeser Lawrence
Lucy M. Maulsby
Northeastern University

Amanda Reeser Lawrence holds a Ph.D. in architectural history and theory from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. She is an assistant professor at the School of Architecture at Northeastern University. Her book, James Stirling: Revisionary Modernist (Yale University Press, 2013), was funded by the Graham Foundation and the Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art. A licensed architect, Lawrence is founding co-editor of the award-winning journal, Praxis, which was selected as Deputy Commissioner of the 2013 Architectural Biennale in Venice.

Lucy M. Maulsby was trained as an architectural historian at Columbia University.  She is an assistant professor at Northeastern University where she teaches courses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century architectural history. Her book, Fascism, Architecture and the Claiming of Modern Milan, 1922–43, was published by University of Toronto University Press 2014.

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  1. Helena | Dec 05, 2014
    Cynthia, the SAH Roundtable, "The Built Environment: Resources for the Next 75 Years," will include discussion of digital tools and technologies. The roundtable is part of the 2015 SAH Annual Conference program. Abby Smith Rumsey, chair of the SAH Digital Humanities Taskforce, will moderate the discussion. More information can be found at sah.org/2015/program. 
  2. Cynthia Field | Nov 19, 2014

    I have found myself consulting with my self about just these questions.  The experiences you describe I have experienced, using various aspects of new technologies and classroom arrangements, but not reaching any point where I could say I had achieved a much better result.  I would welcome having colleagues with whom to discuss these musings.  Is it possible to have a few hours at the Annual Meeting to do a session on these topics?  Alternately I would love to hear more about the speakers at this meeting you had.

    Cynthia R. Field

    Adjunct Professor

    School of Architecture

    University of Maryland

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