How the Coronavirus May Change Education and Teaching

CC BY 2.0. My lecture hall is empty now/ Lloyd Alter

Schools are closing classrooms and going online all over the world. This may be as much of an opportunity as it is a crisis.

On Tuesdays in the winter term I teach sustainable design at the Ryerson School of Interior Design. This year I had a huge class so they moved me to a big hall in the School of Architectural Science, probably the worst building designed by one of the best architects in the country, Ron Thom, in 1981. This week, after trying to dry my hands on the anemic 30-year-old electric hand dryer and then having to pull the handle on the inward opening door, and returning to a classroom that was two-thirds empty, I thought, "This is just stupid, we shouldn't be here."

Frankly, the entire way we teach is archaic and outdated and silly.

RSID Students enraptured by my lecture

RSID Students enraptured by my lecture/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Back in 1088, when the University of Bologna was started, there were no printing presses and books were rare and expensive. So basically, an old white guy would stand at the front of a lectern and read from the one copy of a book they had at the school, and the students would slavishly write out what he said. Almost a millennium later, little has changed. An old white guy (me) stands up at a lectern and the students take notes, or whatever they're doing in that sea of Macs they're hiding behind.

I have thought for years that it was a stupid system, that in this day and age with instant communication in our pants, that students have to get on the subway and drag themselves down to sit in a lecture hall. It's not like I have all that much interaction with them; it's a lecture. And every week, fewer and fewer students were hearing it. I decided a few weeks ago to start taking videos of the lectures; the first few are rocky and hand-held, so I bought a tripod and a remote mic. The last one is far better technically. Earlier this week I decided that enough was enough, and sent out a note yesterday announcing that we were going online immediately.

One of the main goals of the sustainable design course is to learn about what it means to design a healthy, green environment. That involves the carbon footprint (our preoccupation this year in our designing for a 1.5 degree world) but also design for health and wellness. I have noted many times that it doesn't end at the front door, but involves how we get between buildings, and how our communities are designed.
In my lecture on the origins of minimalism I described how the tuberculosis crisis after the First World War led to a complete rethinking of how we live, and the birth of modern design. I believe we are going through a similar world-changing event right now.
This is an event that will change the way we think about design, just as the modern movement did, born out of the aftermath of tuberculosis and the Spanish flu. Our world has changed, and as designers, we should be thinking about how what we design has to change, as does the way we teach and learn.

All of my worrying and writing turned out to be unnecessary. The day after I announced I was switching to online, the University sent everyone home and switched completely to online learning. I may watch student presentations on Zoom or Google hangouts, or who knows, maybe in 15 second bursts on TikTok. Yes, it is a crisis, but it is also an opportunity to try new things.

I have been saying, for the entire time I have been teaching at Ryerson, that nobody takes the climate crisis seriously, that it is happening right now, that sustainable design should be baked into the curriculum from day one. Nobody really listened, and I am still teaching an optional course to third- and fourth-year students.

Now we have a very fast-moving crisis, and we can't pretend it doesn't exist — as most schools do with the climate crisis. It demonstrates how negligent we have been about climate. Everyone says sure, we have to do something about it, but nothing serious gets done because cars and airplanes are so convenient, steaks are so tasty, and natural gas heating is so cheap, and all those jobs!

But the COVID-19 crisis shows that, in most countries, science-based decision-making coupled with quick political action can make change happen fast. There is a lot to learn from this. Perhaps we will find that working from home is actually productive and effective for many people, that bikes are a really good way to get around, that we don't have to fly everywhere, and that clean air is nice to breathe. Universities may realize that they don't have to keep building giant concrete warehouses for students.

It could be a whole new world.