This article was originally published in Domus 964 / December 2012
In the summer of 2011, two Stanford professors — Sebastian Thrun, the head of Google X, and Peter Norvig, the head of Google Research — decided to put their course, CS221: an Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, online for anyone to follow. It's not that this had never been done before. MIT's OpenCourseWare, for instance, had for years put lectures online from across the university, but CS221 would be different. Until then, online courses such as MIT's had only targeted one of the constituent elements of the educational process — the lecture — and even that, in the opinion of Thrun and Norvig, was done without imagination. In addition to lectures, they set out to reinvent admissions, peer interaction, professor interaction, problem solving, assignments, exams, deadlines and certification, rethinking each one in terms of the function of the Web.
Expecting hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students, they wired together a pastiche of existing online tools, shot short segments of videos that were later stitched together into coherent lectures (in the manner pioneered by Salman Khan of the Khan Academy) and sent out a few e-mails. The e-mails multiplied, and so did their student body. Soon they hit 1,000, then 5,000, then 10,000 students. By the time The New York Times picked up the story in mid-August, they were at 58,000, which ultimately exploded to over 160,000 by the start of the course in October. Thrun immediately left his tenured position at Stanford after the semester, splitting from Norvig and announcing the following month that he was launching his own online university, Udacity.
Thrun made headlines, forecasting the enrollment of half a million students for his first course and the decimation of the prevailing form of higher education, predicting that "50 years from now there will be only 10 institutions in the whole world that deliver higher education".
It was not long before Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller followed suit. Ng, teaching at Stanford at the same time, led a course that also attracted over 100,000 students, but without the fanfare of Thrun and Norvig. Whereas Thrun had splintered from the university to start from scratch, Ng partnered Koller to take the opposite approach. They developed a platform called Coursera that universities, starting with Stanford, could use to put their existing courses online. Other academies had unsuccessfully attempted to establish online networks in the past, but over 300,000 students who signed up for Stanford's offerings in the Fall of 2011 were proof that the timing was right. In April 2012, Coursera announced that the University of Michigan and two Ivy League schools, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University, would join Stanford in offering online courses. Just a fortnight later, Harvard and MIT made it public that they were partnering to build a rival platform named edX.
A matter of days after that, MIT announced that it had promoted L. Rafael Reif, the driving force behind edX, to president of the university. For MIT, embracing online education turned out to be a king-making strategy, but elsewhere, shunning it was grounds for a coup. Less than a month after Reif accepted the presidency at MIT, Teresa Sullivan inexplicably resigned from the presidency of the University of Virginia. The New York Times Magazine later chronicled her departure in a cover story, citing as the cause that Virginia was "falling behind competitors, like Harvard and Stanford, especially in the development of online courses, a potentially transformative innovation." Sullivan was eventually reinstated, but the following month the university announced it had signed on with Coursera.
Before the start of the fall semester, an additional 17 universities would sign up with Coursera, among them the most elite in America; edX would add the University of California at Berkeley and the entire University of Texas system; NYU would partner with the start-up Codecademy; San Jose State University would begin sourcing lecture material from MIT through edX; Colorado State University would start offering credit for completion of a course on Udacity; and Thrun's former co-teacher Peter Norvig would launch a new Google open-source online learning platform called Course Builder on the same day that Stanford launched their own such open-source platform. Within a year, the online teaching phenomenon had turned into what Stanford president John Hennessy called a "tsunami". Too pervasive to go unnamed, the title of "massive open online course" was appropriated along with its awkward acronym, MOOC.
As this journal goes to print, the dominoes seem to be in free fall, with MOOCs making news at an increasing rate. According to The New York Times, "Stanford fired the starting gun last Fall", but elite universities are not made to run. If anything, in fact, they are machines for standing still. Elite universities prefer not to tinker with their academic core — rather, they add prostheses such as stadia, libraries, research centres, global outposts and the like to compete in an increasingly strained market.
In the past year, however, they have been compelled to rush headlong into online learning, adapting to this new reality at breakneck speed. Last year, student loans surpassed credit card debt in America for the first time; this year they totaled over one trillion dollars. To ask why would thus beget a simple answer. A more fertile question would be to ask how. Universities have seamlessly slipped from their physical campuses to online platforms because they are seen to be non-architectural, without the strictures, weight and endurance of built form. Yet it is precisely an architecture that they offer. More than any formation of walls, these platforms do not simply dictate a new financial model, but an entirely new pedagogy.
Within the walls of the platform, students are no longer students: they have become "end users". From subjects formed over the course of a degree, they are transformed into fungible consumers of bite-sized technical skill.
In order to put a course on Coursera's platform, the instructor must "chunk" their lectures into small pieces, fragmenting a more complex arc into "meaningful unit[s] of learning". These are the terms imposed by scalable pedagogy, the rules required to attract hundreds of thousands of end users. With the so-called "flipped classroom" model, the "registered students" — the tuition-paying university-matriculating end users — are required to absorb knowledge in chunks, reserving class time for problem-solving. As students and end users move into the new classroom architecture provided by Coursera and edX, the buildings are being left behind.
It is precisely by reframing these platforms as architecture, though, that a space for an architectural theory of contemporary education, and the contemporary university, opens up. In 1991, Mark Wigley wrote that the "contemporary architecture of digital prosthetics is what remains of the once-solid body of the university."
For Wigley, this amounted to the collapse of a fundamental and tortured relationship between architecture and the university, whose very foundation is itself architectural. As the space in which the thesis is "either 'constructed' or 'demolished'", "nowhere is the constitutional nature of the architectural 'metaphor' more evident than in the university… it is, first and foremost, a space of construction."
Yet, ironically, as a mere "mechanical art", architecture was originally denied a place in the university. It wasn't until 1866, when MIT first granted a place for the discipline, that it entered the university, occupying an unstable place somewhere between the sciences and the arts, the precariousness of which allowed for an architectural theory of the university to be sustained for a century more.
Not indefinitely, however, as Wigley concluded: "the networks of communication have become the new house of theory… the critical gap between architecture and its metaphor has been erased." (Mark Wigley, "Prosthetic Theory: Disciplining Modern Architecture", in Assemblage, No. 15, Aug. 1991, p. 9).
Wigley's diagnosis was penned just two years before the release of Mosaic, the first graphical Internet browser, three years before full text Web search engines, four years before the commercialisation of the Internet and a full two decades before the elite universities began racing to embrace online education. In the past year, the digital networks that threatened to dematerialise the university have revealed their own edifice. They are no longer limited and private, but massive and open, stitching together millions across the globe. By reframing these platforms for online education as architecture, the gap reappears, and with it a place for a debate around what this means for architecture. Troy Conrad Therrien (@troytherrien), architect and teacher at Columbia University GSAPP