“Windows of Isolation” | „Fenster der Isolation“, 2020 © gta/TRANS
GAM 18

Updated Notes on Online Teaching
A Post-Pandemic Online Future?

Charlotte Malterre-Barthes

“work, work, work, work, work, work.”[1] In March 2020, the world stopped. Or did it? The architecture schools, like most universities across the world kept operating, albeit online. As physical premises and campuses were shutting down one after the other, educational institutions, while acknowledging the disruption brought to working routines and to personal lives in an avalanche of remorseful emails, precipitated the move to remote teaching. Teaching a discipline grounded in spatiality in a virtual arena did not appear incongruous to the decisionmakers preoccupied by the continuity of architectural education. The salvific pause offered by the lockdown to privileged institutions to address possible changes in our modus operandi was not embraced. The shift to digital space was cloaked in technological triumphalism. The unprecedented adjustments regarding teaching and research activities focused on continuance at all costs. Critical questions about the profession remained largely unaddressed, while an immense effort was and still is poured into maintaining the status quo of curricula: studios should be completed, lectures attended, exams taken. This was mirrored in the building industry: amidst the pan- demic, construction sites never closed.

In academia, the emerging and current discourse touted the opportunities such a crisis presented for exploring new ways of working—but never whether to build or not to build, nor structural issues in education, injustice and inequalities, or the very fact that our profession is a key agent to climate change. Moving teaching online was treated as a disruptive yet facile spatial relocation, while many faced issues of fair access to technology, bandwidth inequality, and online discrimination. Now we must interrogate the haste with which flexibility and accommodations made in 2020 is done away with as schools move to teaching again in person. While there are both impediments and benefits in remote education, we must face these struggles to take seriously the question of what a post-pandemic online future will look like.

Everyone Can See Your Bedroom. Clothes racks, home plants, messy shelves, posters, hanging guitars, kitchen wares, make-up tables, sometimes strolling cats and curious children, or intrusive roommates: the backgrounds of students and colleagues during design studio critiques from March 2020 onward displayed the intimacy of domestic lives in an unprecedented and crude way. These indiscrete windows revealed as much as they hid, for under the name of each participant, not all interiors were visible. Zoom, the previously unheard-of program for virtual communication that became an overnight hit, offers the option to display a fictitious background—a forest, a bookshelf, a city skyline, a Venetian painting, anything you see fit. I, for instance, chose an interior shot of the spatial station MIR. It served several agendas: it exposed the work of its designer, the little-known Soviet architect Galina Balashova; possibly signaling a left-inclined political sensibility, but also depicted an allegory of isolation within disordered technology; as well as a metaphor for existential anguish—deorbited, MIR is a defunct space station, its last remains plunged into the waters of the South Pacific Ocean in Spring 2001. But mostly it removed from view my own domestic interior, a feeble at- tempt to resist the school’s intrusion into my private sphere. Some of the other participants in Zoom calls saw no need in hiding what seemed to be an office within a home, Virginia Woolf’s legendary and feminist “room of one’s own.”[2] Going beyond gender to address social class, the disparity between those with a space dedicated to their individual work removed from the domestic realm, and those with a bedroom as a space for everything else became blatant: Both privacy and undisrupted thinking are privileges. While on-campus premises offer roughly the same material working conditions for every student, and a collective office for professors and assistants, the university@home cannot recreate this equalizing process—at least not spatially. Here for all to see, a fundamental flaw emerges: we are not equally equipped to face remote education.

I’ll Be On WhatsApp If You Need Me. In the name of efficiency, continuity, and productivity, digital communication technology took over architecture education in full force during the pandemic. Virtual studio pedagogy, remote master classes, distant reading seminars and team meetings saw us embracing electronic media and systems of modern material culture in a split second. After all, these were already there, waiting for us to fully surrender. From video conferencing and chat applications (WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom, Facetime), to team meeting programs (Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Whereby, Remo) to the design exchanges interfaces (Miro, OneNote), the discussion over exchange of drawings, images as PDF or JPG files coming from Rhino, Illustrator, Photoshop, etc., replaced the pedagogical social interaction schools relied on to educate the designers of tomorrow. In many studios, a conversation on the brief, the form, and the outputs of the semester took place, with changes made to adjust to the situation. Often, these adjustments led to an increased workload for both teachers and students as new expectations (i.e., videos, virtual models, texts, websites) replaced previous ones—rather than leading to a discussion on a possible evolution of teaching structures. Some progress was made toward collaborative processes instead of one-directional format, and many embraced the potential of synchronous/asynchronous approaches. When seeking inspiring practices, many lessons can be learned from disabled people using online infrastructures for decades. Entire communities have engaged in defining methods and protocols “for remote access to protests, classrooms, doctors’ offices, public meetings, and other events”[3] in the most collegial and democratic way possible. There is a bitter irony in that disabled people have demanded and been denied forms of remote teaching all these years, being told of its unfeasibility, only to see it implemented within days when urgency hit. Yet, “it is crip techno-science and disabled ingenuity that has made remote participation possible,”[4] a fact able bodies with good Wi-Fi connections must recognize, as what seemed a distant reality a few months ago has now become fact. Of course, there is a flip side: online teaching has been found guilty of perpetuating inequalities and discriminatory practices. Gender and racial bias is exacerbated by remote technology. A study conducted in the United States by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research found that online, “professors … are 94% more likely to respond to a … White male than by any other race-gender combination.”[5] This is possibly related to a structural issue: if faculty is white and male, because of implicit bias, like-minded individuals are mentored and rewarded. Thus online teaching simply replicates the disadvantages and discriminations suffered by racial minorities and womxn in other settings.

My Internet crashed. He was in the middle of his final studio presentation and suddenly disappeared from the screen. When he came back, the student apologized: “My Internet crashed, I’m now using my phone connection” as his assistant mumbled “technological incompetence.” Another unsurprising trait of our times is laid bare by the rushed transfer to remote teaching: our absolute—and perhaps misplaced faith in technology. In Staying with the Trouble, Donna Haraway argues that we suffer from “a comic faith in technofixes, whether secular or religious: technology will somehow come to the rescue of its naughty but very clever children.”[6] An explanation to the technocratic belief of schools of architecture may be found in a disciplinary and literal proximity. In Europe, many architecture departments are rooted in technological universities (TU Delft, TU Vienna, TU Berlin, ETH Zurich, EPFL). Even if at odds with their main institution, these schools are embedded in a system of ideological governance where scientific and technical knowledge rules. However, digital literacy is not a given within architecture schools, and this lack of expertise emerges now: a belief without real competence, or the insufficient teaching of these competences. The assumption that all students and faculty are properly equipped with the necessary skills to operate the myriad of online teaching tools existing as well as a home computer and a sound internet connection might be incorrect. Schools fuel the nefarious faith that technology can save us from losing our old selves, ignoring the inevitable technical, personal, and infrastructural obstacles that come along. Truth is, the pseudo-smoothness of the change keeps us from entering the era of intense questioning that we should be undertaking. “We are being enlisted into normalizing the crisis. … There is no fucking academic continuity. The most we can do is teach critical analysis of what the crisis has exposed. But we’ll have to do so with love and care, not redesigned grading schemes and endless zoom,” wrote Ananya Roy, Professor of Inequality and Democracy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, in a tweet on March 16, 2020. Yet, this redesign—and the endless zooms, are precisely happening.

Online Teaching and Capitalism. A recent article posted by Goldman Sachs asked—rhetorically—“how could the adoption of virtual classrooms, in an effort to contain the spread of coronavirus, jumpstart the long-term adoption of remote learning?”[7] That one of the largest global banking institutions so wholeheartedly embraces online academia is no good news. One cannot help but think about Isabelle Stengers’ prophetic work In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. Stengers spells it out for us: “the capitalist machine … is incapable of hesitating: it can’t do anything other than define every situation as a source of profit.”[8] Swiftly shifting the whole curriculum online, architecture schools participate in the expansion of predatory academic capitalism. Because of “edtech,” verbiage coined by investors to define online teaching, social interaction in the knowledge economy is under attack. The commodification of education, via technology, or academic capitalism as identified by political economist Bob Jessop, has been underway pre-pandemic, obviously.[9] However, the crisis has accelerated the process. Business newspapers reflect the trend, announcing substantial investments in companies engaged in online tutoring.[10] It is therefore urgent to conduct a conversation on the freedom and accessibility of knowledge, and to ensure that online teaching technologies are not abandoned to private companies. Remote education tools at the hands of for-profit firms indicate that technology and the internet have simply recreated a space where capitalism can thrive.

A Post-Pandemic Online Future? Many architecture schools have resumed teaching in their premises in the fall of 2021, and online teaching does not seem to be going away—yet. In many places, lecture series, guest talks, and reviews are still held remotely. This flexibility is a win for students who are not able to be on the university premises—perhaps the fact that those are the ones with patchy child-care or visa issues, mobility or concentration difficulties, or a longer commute etc. shows what online learning can bring to make teaching environments more inclusive. Additionally, with limitless access to a pool of international lecturers who need not be physically present, while reaching a large and unexpected audience, there are clear benefits to online teaching for the circulation of ideas and the democratization of knowledge access. Many schools retain partially asynchronous formats—thanks to the immense amount of material recorded since March 2020 (“That lecture is asynchronous—please watch it before the class”). This growing online archive holds great potential, if generously shared.

But we must not forget: Since the tools we rely on and their accompanying technological progress are intrinsically part of a dis-equilibrating process, online teaching relentlessly demands more, newer technology, fueling self-sustaining needs, devouring more resources, from data centers to rare minerals, humans and materials alike. We must also remain wary of the fact that online intellectual life holds in itself a Sisyphean form of labor and extraction without time limits, private boundaries, nor spatial dimensions. ■

This is an altered and actualized version of a text that was originally published in trans 37 – Alien, ETH Zurich, 2020.

[1] Rihanna, “Work,” Anti, 2016 © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group.

[2] See Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London, 2020).

[3] Aimi Hamraie, “Accessible Teaching in the Time of Covid-19,” Mapping Access (2020), available online at: https://www.mapping-access.com/blog-1/2020/3/10/accessible-teaching-in-the-time-of-covid-19 (accessed July 7, 2020).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rachel Baker, Thomas Dee, Brent Evans, and June John, “Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment,” Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis (2018), available online at: https://cepa.stanford.edu/content/bias-online-classes-evidence-field-experiment (accessed November 16, 2021).

[6] Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble (Durham, 2016), 3.

[7] Adam Nordin, “How Coronavirus Is Reshaping Classroom Learning,” BRIEFINGS Newsletter of 17 March 2020 (2020), available online at: https://www.goldmansachs.com/insights/pages/from_briefings_17-mar-2020.html (accessed April 2, 2020).

[8] Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, trans. Andrew Goffey (Lüneburg, 2015), 8–9.

[9] See Bob Jessop, “On Academic Capitalism,” Critical Policy Studies 12, no. 1 (2018): 1–6.

[10] See Julie Zhu, Yingzhi Yang, and Sherry Jacob-Phillips, “Chinese Online Tutor Zuoyebang Raises $750 Million in Fresh Round,” Reuters (2020), available online at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-zuoyebang-fundraiisng/chinese-online-tutor-zuoyebang-raises-750-million-in-fresh-round-idUSKBN240093 (accessed June 19, 2020).