9 May 2013

Throughout May, those visiting Kingston’s Stanley Picker Gallery will be able to observe, from the privileged side of a two-way mirror, a series of workshops tracing what it might mean to be a future student of design.

Pilots: Navigating Next Models of Design Education is a collaboration between the post-disciplinary studio El Ultimo Grito and gallery director David Falkner. Each week a different design educationist, or “Pilot”, leads two groups of participants in exploring the discipline’s potential evolution given growing interest in online leaning. The goal is to identify what questions we should be asking in the face of a movement that is having a profound effect on the way thousands of people pursue higher education.

Pilots can be seen as a response to a specific phenomenon; 2012 may well be historicised as the year of the Massively Open Online Course, or MOOC. Various flavors of online learning have been available since the inception of the Web. The transmission of information is, after all, its mandate. The MOOC, however, represents a significant development in the delivery (semi-formal) and perceived outcome (authenticated) of this approach to education, driven largely by the involvement of big-brand universities. The opportunity to study for free with, if not at, some of the world’s most renowned intuitions clearly has broad appeal.

That case was proved in Autumn 2011 when Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun signed up 160,000 people to his Artificial Intelligence course and brought MOOCs to wider attention. The following year Thrun established his Udacity service to provide courses in a range of mathematics and computer-science based subjects.

Two other major competitors have also entered the market. Coursera manages content from 62 international universities including Princeton, Virginia and Michigan, while EdX is a joint venture between Harvard, M.I.T and now Berkeley. A UK based effort, FutureLearn, combining several institutions under the guidance of distance teaching pioneer the Open University was launched in December of last year.

MOOCs operate through a system of group (running to thousands) video lectures, community based wikis and blogs, as well as various methods of online testing. Most offer some form of accreditation, though at present this is largely nominal; in no way equivalent to having been officially enrolled at said institution, even if the course content is identical.

Pilots starts from the premise that “making through physical interaction and practical collaboration play fundamental roles within design development”; The MOOC model would therefore seem to present a different set of challenges to designers than their counterparts in the sciences or humanities.

The experiment operates by testing three parameters: the impact of physical context, the availability and currency of content, and the figures of control that determine procedure. Each workshop shares a basic structure on which each Pilot can elaborate while focusing on one of these variables. The sessions start with viewing a lecture or presentation via the internet and then progress through a series of discussions and activities that uncover the participant’s past and present experiences of learning. The day culminates in the creation of models (graphic, object, action or text) that stand as potential frameworks that design education might adopt.

In the inaugural session, piloted by curator and newly appointed professor of design at Kingston University Daniel Charny, the contested parameter was control. This was evident from the outset: Charny, eschewing the brief, appeared projected onto the wall of the gallery as an avatar (a female actor with false beard employed to read a scripted introduction). This made an invaluable statement about authority: how do we assess where instructions and knowledge arrive from via the internet? To whom should we assign out trust? “They [the participants] might not have accepted it,” Charny admitted, “they may all just have left.”

Challenges to power are frequent in the design field. The modern history of design education shows a tendency towards radically challenging its own operating methods, undermining the authority of institutions that have become too dogmatic. One need only think of the insurrections at the Beaux-Arts School in 1968 and at Yale School of Art and Architecture in 1969, both reactions to a belief that internal structures no longer referred to external realities. The 70s were, subsequently, a time of intense speculation as to the appropriate models that creative education should adopt.

What is most interesting about those original debates is the way in which much of the rhetoric seems to address our current situation, despite predating the internet by several decades. Many of the high-profile conferences and texts of the period – the Universitas Project of 1972 at MOMA and its concept of dynamic group networks; Ivan Illich’s championing of heuristic learning in his 1970 text DeSchooling Society (“webs” instead of “funnels”); Alvin Boyarsky’s implementation of the unit system at the Architectural Association; Richard Wurman’s insistence on a “boundless curriculum” as chairman of the 1972 International Design Conference in Aspen – all grasped after the kind of heterodoxy, openness and experimentalism that an online learning environment promises. Wurman would later found TEDTalks, a conference focused on design and technology that pioneered the broadcast of online lectures under the slogan “ideas worth spreading”; last November it reached its one-billionth viewing.

The situation that Pilots addresses is one that many design educationalists have been striving for for at least two generations. The exhibition adopts a mode of self-critique, realising one precedent for potential learning environments and using it as a mechanism to question others. A group of peers are invited to a “neutral” space to discuss a topic proposed by one member, who becomes the nominal leader only by virtue of the fact that they have identified a topic of interest. That space is wired with inputs and outputs that allow the incumbents to interact with a wider milieu. Resources are available so that concepts can be prototyped. The group’s relationship is contingent on a momentary mutual interest.

This is a fantasy of course, suspended as it is in the far-from-neutral space of the gallery, but it does seem a natural extension of contemporary design institutions’ willingness to take critical positions in regards to their own educational structures. It is that same ethos that allows initiatives such as Sam Jacob’s recently opened Night School at the Architecture Association, or Jerszy Seymour’s Dirty Art Department at the Sandberg Institute - both of which seek to redefine what a design education should be by first demystifying who should identify themselves as its students - to exist within the very systems that they are posited against.

But if design academia is not necessarily opposed to its own diffusion, design education still wants after a physical context for purposes of community and production. Who is to provide this? It is difficult to imagine either state or commercial patrons supporting a network of locations without trying to inject some element of identity and control. The appearance of facilities such as the Redundant Architects Recreation Association, a flexible project workspace in northeast London, suggests that this sort of infrastructure might emerge at a grass-roots level, however.

Charny’s opening stunt raises another issue implicit in the expansion of universities onto the Web. As Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales warned only last week, MOOCs risk rehearsing a conflict similar to that which affected the major computer operating systems, with only a few providers left dominating the market. That will be the case if interest in many of these courses is driven by the currency of a brand name, not a desire for a more flexible form of tuition. With no barriers to entry and virtually infinite capacity, why choose to study with anyone but the perceived best provider? In that case what the MOOC promises is less an opening up of educational opportunity than a univocalization of the discourse. As Charny’s avatar demonstrated, it will be increasingly important to question who is speaking, especially when so many are listening.

This threatens the value the Web holds as a site for informal learning. Informal education was the factor that Pilots participants identified as key to their successful development. The models produced at the end of the sessions reflected this by proposing systems much more democratic in their attitude to management, content and external relationships than most schools of design we might recognise today.

However, walk round any forthcoming graduate exhibitions and you can be sure that many of the skills on display, whether it be the programming of an Arduino module or the remote fabrication of a complex mechanism, will not have been taught in-house (but will contribute to the awarding of a degree). As we enter the so-called “Third Industrial Revolution”, an era of micro-manufacture and co-authorship that was fomented by and operates through the internet, design institutions are already being quietly transformed. In part they have become places where people gather to flaunt their proficiency, rather than to acquire it.

The models created in one Pilots session are carried forward to inform the next. This is the method by which design education progresses. Each system is only provisional, reacting to the wider social context which design serves, and so they are often quickly rendered obsolete. The only way to teach this discipline is by repeatedly asking how it should now be taught. What Pilots identifies is that we have now reached a level of technological sophistication in which that question can be asked everyday, and on an individual level.