Understanding the impact of the pandemic on Design Education

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 has always been considered an integral part of 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.

The initial digitization 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 the SEA’s tripartite approach to address these new classrooms – lecture, field, and design exploration.

Lectures and conversations

While a multitude of platforms was 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.

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.

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 education within the campus and what one 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.