Since the recent COVID-19 quarantine restrictions were enforced, social media has been filled with images of employees working from home, students transitioning to home-school learning, and friends and family socializing via Skype calls and Zoom meetings. With the outpouring of tips for how to work from home, and how to keep a regular routine during these certain times, many people are questioning how to create a long term plan for online studio design instruction.
This article aims to provide some practical tips to schools and students around the globe based on our experience with online design studio teaching in our Master program at Tsinghua University’s School of Architecture since February.
Our studio is a 16-week long design studio that is broken up in two parts, an 8-week urban design component, and a 8-week green-building design task based on the output of the first 8 weeks. Consisting of a group of 17 students based in 15 countries on 6 continents, and 4 tutors based in Beijing, our studio set out to investigate the spatial impact of technology and a changing lifestyles in the modern city in the heart of Beijing.
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Preparation of Materials
At the end of the last semester, before the mandatory quarantine was enforced, we were able to do an initial site walk through with our students. Since students are now no longer able to conduct any site visits, we were forced to find alternative methods in order to help the class understand all site conditions.
Dr. Long Ying, a big data specialist, took the lead in preparing comprehensive site-material to compensate for lack of physical experience of the site. He explained, to “better understand the design site and its surrounding area, we gathered and shared site-data on a much larger scale than our actual intervention area, extending to an area about 3 x 3km, an area around 16 times larger than our design site. We compiled three main data sources including very high resolution satellite images spanning various years, street view images collected from Baidu map, and urban big/open spatial data from my Beijing City Lab research group."
This data was made available in different forms, such as offline maps, ShapeFiles, and data visualization layers to facilitate different levels of analysis. We also provided a 3D base map in Sketchup. In addition, relevant in-depth case-studies were collected with academic articles made available through a dedicated university hosted ‘Tsinghua Cloud’-server.
Conducting Online Studio Sessions
Online Desk Crits
We maintained a typical schedule of two studio critiques per week for 3 hours each. Using Zoom as our online classroom, students present powerpoint presentations through screen-sharing. The most important aspect of this was to ensure all students had the right software before the first studio and encouraged them to test wireless connection strengths and content sharing abilities ahead of time.
For us, Zoom has proven to be a great platform for facilitating online studio sessions. As one of main platforms used by Chinese schools and universities, Zoom generously announced that they would provide free premium membership to all Chinese users at the start of the pandemic outbreak. Some of the features include annotation functions allowing various participants to simultaneously draw and comment on the shared screen, and the ability for multiple students to share screens at the same time. I also highly recommend pen-based tablets, such as Wacom or Microsoft Surface, which greatly help the sketch-like guidance we typically find in studio desk crits.
Guidelines for interaction
We did notice some challenges during our tests, therefore guidelines were setup for online interaction:
- Arrive on time, and contact one of the tutors privately in case you have troubles connecting.
- Mute your mic when you’re not presenting.
- Tutors and presenters always have their video on. People that would like to contribute to the discussion can turn their video and microphone on as needed. If you are simply listening in, no video is required.
- There is one, alternating group member presenting on behalf of the group each class. After the presentation everyone can participate in the discussion.
Normally students can share notes and discuss tutors’ sketch instructions right after class, but via an online platform, we found that this was more difficult. Therefore, to facilitate group discussion among students, and to avoid misunderstanding, the design tutors sent a summary of combined comments and sketches in our WeChat group, immediately after our online session. These comments are collected on our web-server as well, so students would always be able to reference them.
3. Facilitating students outside studio sessions
Besides all these practical preparations above, we found the biggest challenge for our students to be the lack of a physical studio environment. Kathrine Huang, based in New Zealand mentioned how through “the lack of interaction and physical presence, we may tend to lose our drive and be less productive, as it creates a sense of isolation”. Tsunxian Lee, based in Malaysia, agreed that, “without the physical meeting and normally intensive studio discussion, we tend to lose drive, become lazy, and eventually underperform, no matter how good we are”. ArchDaily also found in out recent survey among architects that, “one of the main challenges of having to work from home is the inability to connect with colleagues for informal conversations”.
We had aimed to tackle this by having our students work in small groups of 4-5 students, in relatively similar time zones so that interaction would be easy and consistent. In addition, we guided students to find their own methods of online teamwork, through Google Docs for Powerpoint presentation work, and Dropbox file sharing. We also encouraged students to schedule video based discussions outside of studio-hours.
Thomas Mellergaard, a student based in Denmark explains how “in the beginning it was a little chaotic and our group work was actually more like the 5 of us putting our individual work together in the last minute before presentation time. But by improving our skills regarding planning, organization and communication, I think we have turned the situation around, into a good learning experience. We are almost able to work a 24/7 work cycle, due to being in 3 different time zones, when we need to make a deadline.” He adds that, “all together, I believe this situation is teaching us things beyond architecture. We’re learning to be more independent, to plan and organize, communicate with each other and understand the situation we each face. Whether someone is in a country in lockdown, has problems with the internet connection, perhaps even a city without electricity for a day or a city that just got flooded. The group is able to be more sensitive to the situation of a group member.”
Our studio was originally part of a joint-studio with NUS Singapore, as part of the NUS-Tsinghua Design Research Initiative for Sharing Cities. For all of us, it was the first time that we had to conduct our design studio by teaching virtually.
Although this adaptation is not by choice, and it has been quite the challenge, modern technology has allowed us to explore a new interactive way of teaching a design studio. It has required both students and professors to communicate and discuss more visually than orally and it has also given us the ability to quickly pull up references, use online resources, and live annotate on the same drawing simultaneously.
Li Xiaodong, our program director, often sites the aim of our Master of Architecture program to enable “students to see architecture with a holistic perspective, integrating materials, space, program, technology, the environment, culture and lifestyle of the users. Architecture not just as a career, but as a lifestyle.” In that sense, we as designers should be continuously evolving our ways of working and expect to maintain a degree of flexibility to adapt to societal changes. Will the impacts of COVID-19 change the way we will teach in the future on a long term scale? Although we don’t have definitive answers yet, so far the sudden transition has proven to be an enriching experience born not out of desire, but out of necessity.
Studio instructors: Zhang Yue, Huang He, Long Ying, Martijn de Geus
We invite you to check out ArchDaily's coverage related to COVID-19, read our tips and articles on Productivity When Working from Home and learn about technical recommendations for Healthy Design in your future projects. Also, remember to review the latest advice and information on COVID-19 from the World Health Organization (WHO) website.