"Design education needs space to explore"

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Dan Hill's Opinion column about design education

Opinion: the internet is about to disrupt education and kill the lecture, which brings together "bored lecturers with hungover students". But, asks Dan Hill, would design students be better off learning in the "gloriously generative cyberpunk favelas" of current institutions?


"'Because,' said Morris Zapp, reluctantly following, 'information is much more portable in the modern world than it used to be. So are people. Ergo, it's no longer necessary to hoard your information in one building, or keep your top scholars corralled in one campus. There are three things which have revolutionized academic life in the last twenty years, though very few people have woken up to the fact: jet travel, direct-dialling telephones and the Xerox machine.'" (From "Small World", by David Lodge, 1984)

So says Morris Zapp, the errant American academic in David Lodge's novel "Small World", the meat in the sandwich of Lodge's campus trilogy. Written three decades ago, "Small World" revels in the campus politics, sexual politics and, well, plain old politics of the time. But in this tirade from the reliably forthright Zapp (think Walter Matthau) we hear a kind of pre-echo of an increasingly vocal meme about educational tech.

We might need a bit more perspective - apologies, Morris - in order to understand what might be going on in design and architecture education, and by extension design and architecture, over the next few years.

For Morris Zapp we can now read Sebastian Thrun. Unlike Zapp, Thrun is real; via Stanford and Google X (the lab that created Google Glass and their self-driving cars) Thrun now runs Udacity, one of several start-ups looking to "radically disrupt" education. (Radical disruption is the obligatory starting point these days.)

These start-ups develop and host MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. In simple terms, they are putting videos of lectures online, within a flexible course structure, adorned with a few loose-fitting social media tropes to enable student discussion and automated in-lecture prompts and quizzes. People sign up to take courses at their own pace, more or less, over the internet.

But those simple terms don't suggest the impact that MOOCs could have on traditional higher education, including design education. Udacity is joined by Coursera (also ex-Stanford), Khan Academy, edX (MIT/Harvard) and many others. They claim millions of users; already more than attend traditional universities in the USA, in fact. (Coursera alone has over four million enrolled on courses.) Bill Gates has called Khan Academy the future of education. Thrun believes that within 50 years there will only be 10 institutions in the world providing higher education (he hopes including Udacity).

(Ah these names. "Coursera." "Udacity." They sound like recently-privatised former state assets. I next expect a slew of social media oriented services, with monickers like Smugly and Learnr, Swotly and Examinr, Cramly and Testr.)

Yet what MOOCs essentially do is replace the lowest of the low-hanging-fruits of education - the common or garden lecture. It represents what we call the "jug and mug" approach to learning: the lecturer is the jug, pouring their knowledge into the mug, aka the student. In fact, we know that most lectures bring together bored lecturers with hungover students. (Or indeed vice versa.) You don't need to watch a Ken Robinson lecture - although you should - to know that this is not what education should be about.

Yet so many education systems are still oriented around the lecture. It is the foundation of timetables, and the lecture theatre still represents the foundations of most contemporary college buildings, spatially. A new lecture theatre is probably being constructed right now, somewhere in the world, as you read this.

And that's a waste, as MOOCs may do lectures much better. This is the component of higher education that the internet will easily swallow. MOOCs are the mp3 of education: the easiest thing to distribute over the internet, will be. Just as the mp3 has indeed disrupted the music industry, but not really music, so the MOOCs will remove much of the lecture, but possibly not broader education.

Design helps us understand this. Perhaps there is a reason that the curricula of these services does not feature much design so far. Perhaps predictably, there is a lot of code, and a lot of traditional humanities and science, but little design.

Udacity will shortly start its first ever design course: "The Design Of Everyday Things", led by Don Norman, the ex-Apple legend, and Coursera's few design-related courses tend to be at the more analytical end of the scale. In the UK, the Open University, which has been doing this sort of thing since Morris Zapp was just achieving tenure, has a new venture called FutureLearn. It has made some smart acquisitions in terms of team and university partners, but again, there is little or no design there so far.

So, could MOOCs have a role to play here? Is design education just late to this new game? Or does design education simply not fit the MOOC model?

Stefano Mirti's "Design 101" course, for Iversity via Accademia di Belle Arti in Catania, indicates some of the promise for design education in this medium. Irresistibly Italian in presentation, Design 101 provides challenging briefs of things to make, with Mirti supplying context and inspiration.

And yet despite attempts to fold in collaboration and sharing, it will tend to a solitary pursuit of those exercises. At least currently. The whole point of MOOCs - one of their core values - is that they are *not* social and collaborative. Their dematerialised and dislocated state means they fit into your schedule, but in doing so, it cannot - by definition - bring you together with people at the same time and in the same space.

Design and architecture education is, I believe, more than ever about collaboration, on working through holistic projects together, face to face, in transdisciplinary teams, learning through doing on real projects with real clients. While digital tools can support this, affording some new patterns of activity, the pull back to the physical, embodied and genuinely social is profound, particularly as systems and outcomes become more complex, more entwined, more hybridised. Schools and research centres like Strelka, CIID, Sandberg Instituut and Fabrica are exploring exactly this, as post-institutional learning environments.

It's difficult to see how MOOCs will really shift that aspect of design education.

The great graphic designer and typographer Erik Spiekermann once said: "You can teach yourself everything there is to be learned by observing, asking, taking things apart and putting them back together again. Teachers can help with that process as long as they stay credible. The only way to achieve that is to keep on learning themselves."

MOOCs will not force teachers to keep learning; rather, they may encourage lecturers to constantly refine their delivery, their execution, to obsessively watch their pay-per-view 'lecture stats' just as most animators now lie awake at night dreaming of a Vimeo Staff Pick.

Yet if MOOCs enable us to select the very best of "jug and mug" mode education, it means only a few have to do it, after all. We could collate a "watch-list" of classic lectures - Philip Johnson on Le Corbusier, Richard Sennett on the city, Paola Antonelli on Italian design - and distribute that. There are thousands of contenders already. Even the yawningly banal TED Talks suggest the possibilities.

Much of the theory of design might be conveyed via MOOCs, and then reinforced in practice. MOOCs might free up teachers for crits, tutorials, studios and the other high value physical exchanges that cannot be distributed so easily. And so too space.

Morris Zapp: "'It's huge, heavy, monolithic. It weighs about a billion tons. You can feel the weight of those buildings, pressing down the earth. Look at the Library – built like a huge warehouse. The whole place says, 'We have learning stored here; if you want it, you’ve got to come inside and get it.' Well, that doesn’t apply any more." (Lodge, 1984)

That may be so, but the thing is, Morris, that space is important for other reasons. Design education in particular needs space to explore, to pin up and tear down, to drill holes in, to knock about.

I recently visited RMIT's new Design Hub building in Melbourne, designed by Sean Godsell Architects, and came away impressed and dismayed in equal measure. It's a beautiful jewel-box that is, at this early stage, not working. Over-designed and over-finished as it is, it will do little to encourage the interdisciplinary research work it supposed to afford. It too needs knocking about a bit.

For me, the ideal design education space looks more like the wonderfully messy SCI-Arc in Los Angeles or Royal College of Art in London. The RCA, especially in Tony Dunne's Design Interactions space, can sometimes feel like some kind of gloriously generative cyberpunk favela.

MOOCs cannot recreate these vital spatial experiences. Put it another way: what do you think the student bar at Coursera is like? But by removing the lecture theatres, perhaps MOOCs can inadvertently create better learning spaces for the education we need now.

The huge opportunity behind non-certified, transdisciplinary learning is that it can be tuned to the 21st century's needs, rather than the last century's. Collaborative project-based learning ought to be intrinsically holistic in nature, with tangible outcomes. This is how design is practiced, and this is how design ought to be practiced in the context of learning. Putting lectures online is really just putting 20th century education on the internet, and there must be more to 21st century education than that.

Morris Zapp: "As long as you have access to a telephone, a Xerox machine, and a conference grant fund, you're OK, you're plugged into the only university that really matters – the global campus." (Lodge, 1984)

Sidetracked by skirt and semiotics, Morris Zapp was too lazy to ask the big questions, even as he stumbled into the "global campus". But MOOCs do give us that opportunity to ask those big questions. The fact that design education is so far largely untouched by MOOCs et al does not mean it won't be. The internet transforms almost everything; there is no reason it won't reorient design education. The question is how.


Dan Hill is CEO of Fabrica, a communications research centre and design studio based in Treviso, Italy. He is an adjunct professor in the Design, Architecture and Building faculty at University of Technology, Sydney, and his blog City of Sound covers the intersection between cities, design, culture and technology.

  • Natalie North

    I agree that MOOC’s should be used to free up lecturers’ time for the more important tutorials and critical discussion but lectures as a viable and useful method of teaching is not dead. Sometimes knowledge does need to be “poured” into students.

    • Lysianne Léchot

      Absolutely – MOOCS should/could function as introduction and provide a possibility for discussion, questions, critical judgement, when people (i.e. students and teachers) gather in auditoriums. Hybridisation between “face to face” and MOOCs in a reflected teaching program seems promising to me, even (especially?) for design.