A promising prototype for architectural education

In a digital world where many universities have developed Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) geared to widespread and open interactive learning, Lawrence Technological University’s College of Architecture and Design has taken a different path.

In 2009, the college was one of the first in the United States to initiate an accredited online Master of Architecture degree (M. Arch.). It started as a bold educational experiment and had a distinct learning curve, as there were few similar programs to benchmark.

With the entrepreneurial spirit that characterizes our university and college, we forged ahead, inventing and refining new modes of curriculum delivery. In 2014, the program successfully passed its first review by a National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) visiting team.

What are the dynamics that have led to LTU’s successful launch of this professional curriculum? It is clear that the creation of an online, accredited architectural degree is not appropriate for every school of architecture. Success has come from the distinct orientation of this university, the culture of the College of Architecture and Design, and the support, commitment and creativity of its faculty.

This article profiles some of the considerations and thinking that informed the M.Arch. degree online, as well as some of the concerns addressed and decisions made in developing the program.

Same Degree, Same Program, Different Mode of Delivery

The NAAB student performance criteria (SPCs) and their procedures for accreditation are rigorous. It is not really feasible for a school of architecture to develop one kind of program for its campus-based students and a totally different program for online students. We were fortunate at LTU, as we considered creating an online M. Arch. delivery, to have an existing program that was well-suited for the online marketplace.

Historically, our master of architecture degree evolved from an accredited 5-year bachelors’ degree. Initially, the M. Arch. at the College consisted of a 4-year bachelor of science in architecture (B.S. Arch.), a pre-professional degree, followed by a 36 credit-hour accredited master’s degree. Later, it evolved into a 5-year “direct entry” master’s degree.
Our college, however, accepts applications from B.S. Arch graduates from other schools for our 36 credit-hour graduate program. Applicants are required to submit documents verifying not only that they meet all academic standards of the program, such as grade point average and creative work. They also must demonstrate that their pre-professional degree meets certain NAAB performance criteria through the submission of transcripts, undergraduate course materials, and a design portfolio.

This rigorous admissions process, common to both online and on-campus students, allowed us to create a program that fulfills all NAAB accreditation requirements. The program also provides flexibility for our students, who freely tailor their studies to meet personal interests. The M. Arch. is a very efficient program, which many students can complete in one calendar year, plus one summer. Over the last few years, we have found this to be an ideal timetable for an online master’s degree program. Two or three year programs operate at a distinct disadvantage for most online students, as it is regarded as too time consuming.

Maintaining an Online “Studio Culture”

Unlike many online M. Arch. degree programs in the United States, we conduct our primary masters-level design studios online. Other programs typically conduct intensive on-campus concentrated summer design studios. The design studio online is one of the most problematic and least cost effective areas of program delivery. Yet, in our minds, it has become an essential component of a truly online master’s program.

The critical question is how to teach a design studio, the most traditionally interpersonal portion of an architectural curriculum, in a “virtual” format. The answer goes back to our roots as a “technological university.” Technological integration does not merely refer to building systems at our school. It is a comprehensive approach that applies to digital hardware and software, production methods, and the delivery of academic programs.

We experimented with several different approaches to teach design studios. Ultimately, we settled on a system that placed the professor and all students in the same virtual studio environment at the same time. They can conduct free-flowing pin-ups and reviews, telestrate concepts, and see the expressions of all studio participants. There is a significant trade-off, however. Interactions are a bit slower in the virtual environment, so maintaining a highly communicative studio culture has necessitated a much smaller class size for online studios. There are also significant financial implications for the university and college in pursuing this approach.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Environments

There is a growing body of literature regarding the effectiveness of synchronous versus asynchronous e-learning. Asynchronous delivery often utilizes pre-recorded lectures, supplemented by video, chat rooms, and e-mails. It is not time dependent, thus it is convenient for online students to attend classes at a time that fits their schedule. Synchronous delivery occurs in real time, like the design studio described above. Class sessions occur at a prescribed time and, they are similar to on-campus courses in that respect. Students often consider this delivery mode more “social” and less frustrating than asynchronous classes, because questions are answered live and immediately.

The challenge for a delivering a complete online degree program is to balance the convenience offered in the asynchronous e-learning environment with the vibrancy and immediacy of the synchronous environment. We are currently developing methods to integrate the best of both environments into course offerings, experimenting with creative overlaps of synchronous and asynchronous tactics. We have created new approaches, including an “immediate asynchronous concept,” with synchronous course components integrated into the asynchronous environment.

The Interplay of Online and On-campus Delivery

Our online program has become popular for students across the United States and internationally. An unintended consequence is that it has also become popular for our own students entering their fifth year, creating opportunities for them to pursue full-time employment in the profession while completing their degree. Additionally, individual online courses and studios are growing in demand for our on-campus students for a variety of reasons. As a result, many students pursue a hybrid approach to their master’s degree consisting of coursework on-campus and online.

In our minds, this interplay of online and on-campus education is desirable, because it creates an inter-mixed community of students representing both remote and campus-based constituencies. It also presents a challenge for maintaining the culture of the college and the critical balance between these two delivery modes.

Online Education Emulates Practice

Contemporary architectural practice has become more global, more technologically integrated, and it possesses more team-based complexity. Digital communications and virtual office environments have become commonplace in the 21st Century. In many ways, the online educational environment emulates the communications and practice modalities of evolving professional practice. 

At Lawrence Technological University, we are committed to technology, professional education, entrepreneurial spirit, and a global reach. An online M. Arch. program fits perfectly into our educational model and philosophy, just as online communications are a mainstay of practice.

A master of architecture online is not for everyone. This is true for both schools of architecture and architectural students alike. Many students thrive in the “high touch,” and personal environment afforded by a traditional college campus, and many schools are most comfortable with a traditional delivery style. An increasing number of students, however, find the “high tech,” virtual environment of online education most appropriate to meet their educational goals or their unique locational or career circumstances.

Glen LeRoy, FAIA, FAICP, is an architect and urban planner, who serves as Dean of the College of Architecture and Design at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. Scott Shall, AIA, contributed to this article. He serves as Chair of the Department of Architecture at LTU.