Teaching and Learning Online, By Force

How do you teach a design studio over Zoom?

By Jared Brey

Robert Hewitt, FASLA, at Clemson University leads students and colleagues through a studio project where they designed a satellite city outside Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak began. Image courtesy Robert Hewitt, FASLA.

Even before the latest round of social distancing efforts and shelter-in-place orders began to shut down American communities, colleges and universities were making plans to finish their semesters online. And for some courses, the transition is trickier than for others. Students and teachers in landscape architecture design studios are facing the same day-to-day meeting and communication questions as everyone else. But they’re also facing challenges to the long-standing culture of the studio, where casual interactions are encouraged and friendships are formed, professors give in-person feedback to students in real time, juries convene to evaluate student projects that take months to complete, and students experiment with materials and fabrication techniques. At the same time, educators at nearly a dozen schools of landscape architecture in the United States say the technology needed to carry out the most critical functions of design studios is largely available, and most schools are well-positioned to switch to online learning, at least temporarily. 

“The conversation around the shift to remote instruction has always found this uncomfortable relationship with how you do that for a design studio,” says Roberto Rovira, ASLA, an associate professor and the chair of landscape architecture at Florida International University. “In some ways, I see this as an opportunity to really test that, and see how we can bring about a paradigm shift that is no longer really a choice but rather a need. That is something we all saw coming, but now we have to respond to it.”

Studio leaders have begun using virtual meeting tools such as Zoom to talk with students in group settings and one-on-one. They’re experimenting with the best tools to mock up drawings and perform desk critiques. Rovira, for example, uses an iPad Pro with the apps Notability and Concepts to virtually mock up PDFs of drawings and plans in his professional life, and has been pushing for his school to provide those tools to all faculty as well. Zoom allows live communication and screen sharing, but additional technologies make the process more fluid, Rovira says. 

Some aspects of studio work are particularly challenging in an online setting. Studio leaders are having to curtail site visits and rethink assignments based on interactions with the public, such as community engagement exercises. Instead of in-person discussions with the public, Matthew Kirkwood, an associate professor and program director of landscape architecture at North Dakota State University, is having students conduct “virtual town halls” to get feedback on design ideas, for example. Many fabrication labs are also off-limits as campuses shut down. And though most design work is already done online, experimenting with fabrication machinery is key to understanding how digital graphics translate to plotted media, says Keith VanDerSys, a senior lecturer in landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Much of the concern around conducting studios virtually has focused on desk crits and final reviews. But Karen Lutsky, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Minnesota, says many students don’t realize that evaluation takes place all semester, not just at the final review. Many of the key educational goals of the beginner studio that she’s leading won’t be lost online. 

“The focus [of the studio] is on group learning and site work, and trying to echo the space of an office,” Lutsky says. “But if the space of an office is also changing, maybe we need to be teaching these skills differently anyway.… At the end of the day, the evaluation is, are you able to communicate what you have done? Have you challenged and tested yourself throughout the process? Do you have an understanding of hierarchy in the design?” 

For some, the coronavirus outbreak was shaking up studios even before it began shutting down American institutions. At Clemson University in South Carolina, the landscape architecture professors Robert Hewitt, FASLA, and Hala Nassar are hosting a “World Design Studio” in collaboration with colleagues at Ain Shams University in Egypt and Huazhong Agricultural University in China. The latter school is in Wuhan, where the outbreak originated, and only opened—virtually—two weeks ago, more than a month after the semester was meant to begin, Nassar says. The studio, which grew out of years of collaboration between the three schools, is focused on the design of a satellite city outside Wuhan on the Yangtze River. Clemson students had already acquired passports, and the school had applied for visas when Chinese government began shutting down the city. 

“The plan was, we all were going to meet in Wuhan this week—like, literally tomorrow,” Nassar said this week. 

Instead, students have been doing as much research about the site as possible online, and incorporating health concerns related to the national emergency into the studio work, Hewitt says. They also held their first Zoom meeting with their collaborators in Egypt and China this week. Since Clemson itself began shutting down, Hewitt and Nassar have moved to meeting with students during normal studio hours on Zoom, but are having students log in and out individually to avoid “boring them to death” as the professors talk with other students. They plan to hold virtual pinup sessions once a week with the entire studio as well. 

“This is the plan on paper that we’re organizing right now,” Nassar says. “We can let you know if it’s working or not.” 

Missing out on travel opportunities and site visits is one of the toughest aspects of the transition for landscape architecture students. In the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Master of Landscape Architecture program, a group of third-year students is studying a pair of “sister sites” in Appalachia and Detroit, investigating parallels in urban and rural communities related to phenomena such as abandonment and economic reliance on a single industry. Students were scheduled to visit sites in Detroit and Harlan County, Kentucky, next week. Chloe Reeves, Student ASLA, says that she and many of her fellow students have struggled since the beginning of the semester with questions about the “top-down” nature of their own roles as designers and planners, trying to create solutions for communities they aren’t a part of. Those concerns are amplified now that they can’t even visit the sites, Reeves says. The students are also unsure how they’ll present their final projects. 

“I think in terms of production and doing the work, it’s going to be relatively the same,” Reeves says. “But in terms of what is the best format—boards? PDFs? Do we create a website? What is the best way to communicate what we’re trying to say?—I’m most apprehensive about that part of the process.” 

Reeves and two fellow students, Sue Choi, Student ASLA, and Samuel Irwin, say they’re less worried about finishing the studio and more disappointed to miss out on the sense of an ending to their graduate school careers (commencement has been canceled). And they worry about jobs, though so far, they say, the firms they’ve been speaking with haven’t rescinded job offers. 

“The semester ending—whatever, we’ll figure it out,” Choi says, but she’s concerned about the economy and for people who will be applying to schools next year. “What does the prolonged version of this look like?” 

Still, many faculty expressed optimism about how the forced switch to online learning could improve landscape architecture education in the long run. What studios lose in informality, they may gain in more focused and intentional presentations of work in progress, some studio leaders say. With such a disruptive change in the middle of the semester, it makes it impossible to simply go through the motions. And if nothing else, says Lauri Macmillan Johnson, ASLA, a professor and the director of the School of Landscape Architecture and Planning at the University of Arizona, it will force faculty to embrace certain technologies and digital opportunities that they’ve been keeping at arm’s length. 

“It could actually have a very positive impact in terms of how we change our studios,” Johnson says. “We might not go to a fully online program, but at least some of that fear factor will probably disappear after this, because we’ll become more fluent.”  

Jared Brey is a freelance reporter in Philadelphia. Reach him at jaredbrey@gmail.com.

Have a studio solution or other academic strategy to share? Tell us: lam@asla.org.

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