Tracing the impact of COVID-19 on design education

With the coronavirus disrupting education and taking learning to virtual classrooms, STIR explores how effective and challenging this shift has been in the creative discipline of design.

by Devanshi Shah Published on : May 29, 2020

Where are we now?

As education has moved online, it is naive to think that the nature of lessons being taught has not been impacted by the shift. The design studio has always been a space that allowed for experimentation and exploration to facilitate learning that goes well beyond a lesson plan. There is an innate familiarity that grows around these spaces and work-stations between students and faculty, almost like incubators for free thought and idea development. This intimacy of space, thought and learning have always been considered an integral part across design disciplines like graphics, fashion, and architecture, to the process of knowledge building. While this contemplation may seem didactic in nature, there are some real transformations that urge design educators to further evaluate what really constitutes the spirit of design learning. It is a curious situation, where on one hand there has been a comfortable transition to digital classrooms, but on the other there is no way to measure its effectiveness. In lieu of this we have talked to different educators, functioning in different capacities, to try to present a comprehensive understanding of the design studio going forward.

A thesis workshop with fourth-year students going to the fifth year | Transformation in design education | STIRworld
A thesis workshop with fourth-year students going to the fifth year Image Credit: Courtesy of SEA (School of Environment and Architecture, India)

The initial digitisation was developed rather quickly and was done as a quick fix to keep to a schedule. However, as we move forward there is a constant uncertainty to when campuses would be able to welcome students back. Professor Prasad Shetty, Dean, School of Environment and Architecture (SEA), India, encapsulated this trepidation by explaining that “the question isn’t when we start, it is how we start”. He further elaborated SEA’s tripartite approach to address these new classrooms - lecture, field and design exploration.

There is an innate familiarity that grows around these spaces and work-stations between students and faculty, almost like incubators for free thought and idea development | Transformation in design education | STIRworld
There is an innate familiarity that grows around these spaces and work-stations between students and faculty, almost like incubators for free thought and idea development Image Credit: Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Lectures and conversations

While a multitude of platforms were able to facilitate the move of lectures online, institutes still have to address two major concerns in this regard. Schools need to be mindful of the different monetary capabilities of students who are not on campus. This is not a situation unique to a specific country; Eduardo Alfonso, Adjunct Lecturer, CCNY (The City College of New York, USA) explained CCNY’s program to loan laptops to help equip students within the five boroughs of New York City. At the same time, as a college that hosts students from across the globe, there are logistical problems like varied time-zones that needed to be accommodated. The other concern, which Melissa K Smith, Program Chair, Bachelor of Urban Design, CEPT University (formerly Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, India) shared was the shift in the tonality of the classes. Most modern design schools encourage open studios and free movement to enable break-out discussions and spaces for informal debates amongst students, or even with the faculty. It’s built into the architecture and planning of these institutions, while the digital classrooms take us inside the students’ homes. There is a breach of privacy, one that makes the interactions slightly more formal, and in some cases more distant.

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expérience humaine :The social way in modernized forms Project by - Harsh Shah @mr._.shahh Unlike conventional designed neighborhoods, this project is an attempt to create an ideal place where human experience acts as the focus while building spaces in harmony with the social & cultural lifestyle through urban forms & design. Hence, the true spirit of a place establishes when there is a constant level of communication between the space and its people. The project is inspired by two place making theories of Urban Design i.e. Cities for people by Jan Gehl and Phenomenology of space by Christian Norberg Schulz. Bansidhar Neighborhood is a residential area in the heart of the city of Ahmedabad. The design objective frames itself by purely using the outcomes derived from the site conditions and its analysis. Three major questions were answered to structure the basis of the design concept. They are as follows. What? : Efficiency in everyday life activities concerning its type, speed, and built form designing through human psychology for a spatial and an experiential placemaking. Why? : To make spaces more experiential and personalized by identifying the activities, which are to be foresighted in them, for enhanced user experience. How? : By structuring places in the neighborhood based on certain set parameters, which can define how the orientation of the space can be. Level 3 Studio : Humanizing Urban Spaces - Social production and Speculative Design of a Neighborhood Place Tutor : Rajiv Kadam TA : Bhagyashree R. @ceptuniversity1 @cept_theuntold @cept_told @fpcept @koozarch @act.of.mapping @axo_madness @illustrarch @urbandesign.lab @letsshowitbetter @gehl_citiesforpeople @cebra_architecture @bealavedesign @udc_gram @sanjay_puri_architects @archohm @actorsofurbanchange @ourfuturecities @pps_placemaking @citylab @urbandesignforum #urbandesign #neighborhoods #humanizingcities #archisource #urbanredevelopment #illustrations #urbanism #urbandesign #community #placemaking #citiesforpeople #Ahmedabad #amosrapoport #jangehl #ChristianNorbergSchulz

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As students and faculty stay at home, Instagram and other social media platforms have become an interesting method to express themselves and their work. Image Credit: Courtesy of urbandesign_cept

The expanded field

The global lockdown went into effect, more or less, towards the end of most semesters. Faculty had a base to work with when adapting the program and had set precedents for their lectures, this potentially includes site visits and other field activities. As students come back, metaphorically, for the next academic year, colleges have pre-emptively adapted their curriculum to teach the same lessons but in a completely different context, the field is now one’s neighbourhood, one’s home, one’s own body. Field studies and site visits are an integral methodology of design academia, which leads itself to a more holistic understanding of design. While all disciplines and grades of design have found a way to adapt to the situation at hand, institutions are integrating some of these tools into their programme. Diana Marian Murek, Director of Education, Istituto Marangoni Mumbai, elaborated, “Design is experiential learning, so there is only so much that can be done online. But when we are back in school, the teaching will be different, in that we will have a lot more digital support, for example using tablets for the illustration classes.”

Istituto Marangoni Mumbai even started an online campaign #IMunstoppable as a tool to help boost student morale and create a sense of community within the student body, while physically apart Image Credit: Courtesy of diana.marian.murek

Exploration within limits

As modules were adapted some classes saw a complete re-imagining, as Eduardo Alfonso elaborated in his revision, which saw the class jettisoning their model-making to re-orient the class as a design intervention that “You are not supposed to be teaching people home craft, you are supposed to be teaching people professionally oriented, specific modes of production.” While it may be very nuanced, the materiality of design experiments is a very potent aspect of the design process. The ‘make-it-work’ approach that has been the backbone of studio life when confronted with a lack of resource, like a material laboratory, workshop, equipment and tools, requires a systematic revaluation of the profound importance of the design exercise. Prasad Shetty also spoke of a similar modulation at SEA, where all subjects were re-configured as design reviews. Istituto Marangoni’s Diana Murek even discussed the amalgamation of a new software that would allow fashion design and styling students to test the materiality of their designs. The urban context, however, takes on a new kind of consideration as Melissa Smith remarked, “The relevance and the importance of urban design has been thrust into the spot light in a way that, at least in India, was absolutely not happening before this. The fact that urban design is of critical importance to the city, that it is not just an aesthetic intervention, can by clearly seen by people and leaders today. How we move forward depends not only on quick fixes for social distance, but also on a deep rethinking of the role of public space, and how it is accessed by the public.”

The digital classroom however allows for a more diverse global interaction, with visiting jurors partaking in design reviews from across the globe - screen shot of a review featuring Eduardo Alfonso and Devanshi Shah | Transformation in design education | STIRworld
The digital classroom however allows for a more diverse global interaction, with visiting jurors partaking in design reviews from across the globe - screen shot of a review featuring Eduardo Alfonso and Devanshi Shah Image Credit: Courtesy of Devanshi Shah

What next?

There are two very important batches that educators should consider. The graduating batch and the new incoming batch, although delayed, enter the design fraternity in two very different conditions. One is graduating and going into the work culture, which is filled with designers, architects and planners who are dealing with the reparations of the lockdown, before they can adapt their practice. The new incoming batch is far more interesting as they are making a choice having experienced the pandemic and the lockdown, without being bound to a particular vocation.

Modelmaking has always added a distinct tactility to design learning | Transformation in design education | STIRworld
Modelmaking has always added a distinct tactility to design learning Image Credit: Photo by Adrian Deweerdt on Unsplash

With the abundance of resources that are now digitally available, this also includes ‘how to’ videos, and information that can be accessed by anyone, self-learning is at an all-time high. Digital education platforms like Coursera and edX saw a significant increase in users during the initial phase of physical isolation. With the abundance of content that is now available it really does make one wonder about the value of an education within a campus and what one actually goes to school for. Knowledge is not a simple transfer of information; it is built upon through various interactions and social exchanges. Making the environment of the studio space a paragon of academic methodologies.

The Architectural Association is taking this discussion on in a symposium titled ‘Urgent Futures: Architectural Education in 2025’ on May 29, 2020 at 8:30 pm (IST) and 3:00 pm (GMT), which will be hosted via zoom.

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About Author

Devanshi Shah

Devanshi Shah

Shah is an architect with a Masters in History and Critical Thinking (Architectural Association, London). In 2016, she was an artist-in residence at The Utopia School, Copenhagen – facilitating classes and working groups on architecture around ‘Utopia’, built/imagined. In 2017, she was a resident at the Story of Space (Goa). She has authored a mini-zine in collaboration with the School for the ALT CHP art festival.

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