The idea of architecture school can evoke a certain image: students huddled over messy workbenches, X-Acto knives in hand, bringing their designs to life in miniature.
As it is with many other disciplines, however, technology is upending the workplace and is making its mark on the classroom as well.
And while architectural education leaders expect hands-on learning to continue to involve a mix of low- and high-tech tools, some see online education as a way to reach more students and allow classroom learning to keep up with how architecture firms operate.
The idea got a push earlier this month with the announcement that the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) would offer an online version of its master's in architecture program. Aiding it in that effort is online program manager 2U, which for its part is "entering a new vertical of graduate education" with the launch, Andrew Hermalyn, the company's president of global partnerships, told Education Dive in an email.
RIT's move comes as colleges and universities look to increase enrollment and tuition revenue by expanding their online offerings at the graduate level. And it highlights some of the challenges inherent in delivering a virtual education for a field whose learning tends to be weighted heavily toward in-person interactions.
"I think architecture faculty, and the students who like the discipline, have a kind of lust for the tactile qualities of architectural practice," said Sharon Matthews, a consultant for architectural education and accreditation who was previously the executive director of the National Architectural Accrediting Board.
Architectural models and sketches can be handy learning tools, she explains, but they aren't so easy to share online. "It is totally possible, it just doesn't happen as quickly as it happens when you are in a studio setting."
'Admittedly slow' progress
RIT's program is expected to launch next fall and will include a mix of synchronous and asynchronous instruction. Students will also be required to complete an in-person cooperative education experience as a graduation requirement.
Dennis Andrejko, chair of RIT's architecture department, said the goal of the new program is to widen the net for architectural education rather than replace the university's campus-based version of the degree.
The university joins a small number of schools that offer graduate architecture degrees online, according to the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA).
Those institutions tend to have common traits, said Michael Monti, ACSA's executive director. "I think [architecture] schools that can be nimble, schools that have a mission to serve a wider group of people, are going to be turning to online education."
That's in part because architectural firms have become more digitally oriented, both in how they design structures and how they communicate about them.
"Architecture education is admittedly slow for very good reasons," he said. "Teaching design is a really involved process. ... I think the schools that are out ahead of the curve here are trying to find ways to get the best of both worlds: a lot of high contact, a lot of interaction with students, but also an exposure to the realities of technology-driven practice."
Hermalyn said the program will likely incorporate live video sessions for critiques, possibly with multiple camera angles to review 3D models, as well as digital markups and remote file sharing and chat services, supplemented by asynchronous coursework. 2U also expects each course to involve as many as three "short, intense design sprints" held on campus, he said.
"The rendering, modeling and communication dimensions of professional architectural practice are already moving to digital platforms," he said. "Moving the work and critique of architecture studio to a digital space will help prepare students for the reality of highly distributed teams in today's workforce."
Other technology considerations include access to computer-assisted design (CAD) software architects use to visualize structures, along with fabrication equipment to create models and other components. Hermalyn said 2U aims to provide students with licenses for "all of the best software tools given to on-campus students," which could include AutoCAD, Revit, GIS software and Adobe Illustrator.
"We believe the combination of these tools with the ones used in traditional architecture programs will help make the transition into jobs post-graduation more seamless," Hermalyn said. He also noted that 2U plans to observe architecture classes at RIT beginning later this month.
'We have to be creative'
The OPM has been using its synchronous classroom technology in online degrees for other disciplines that include ample face-to-face interactions.
In one area, Juris Doctor programs, having technology that enables students to answer questions on-demand and in real-time — such as to practice cross-examining a witness or presenting an opening argument — was essential to their uptake of online degrees, legal educators told Education Dive.
A handful of colleges are trying out mostly online degrees with the approval of the American Bar Association.
"Moving the work and critique of architecture studio to a digital space will help prepare students for the reality of highly distributed teams in today's workforce."
President of global partnerships, 2U
Although observers don't expect a glut of online architecture degrees, Andrejko sees RIT's program as a way to strengthen the relationship between the academy and the discipline.
After all, new enrollments in architecture schools dropped off after the recession, according to data kept by the National Architectural Accrediting Board. And ASCA reports that 55% of architecture schools saw a decrease in applications to their graduate-level programs for the 2018-19 academic year, while 45% saw a decrease in enrollment in those programs, according to a survey of 77 institutions for the 2018-19 academic year.
"As the practice unfolds and the academy unfolds, we need to get the best and the brightest to be equipped as well as possible," Andrejko said. "And I think as we look into the 21st century we have to be creative around both how we deliver what we think are necessary tools to make sure the profession … is fully equipped in the right way."