Learning: Back to the Future
Patrick A. Miller, FASLA
I: The Future. The year is 2010 and Bill, a young landscape
architect, is smugly celebrating the new project that his company
has just landed. Bill is part of a multidisciplinary office focusing
on design and management of continuing-care retirement communities.
Well, perhaps "office" is not the right word, because he and the
two other principals in the company are located in different cities,
several thousand miles apart. But they work as closely as if they
were in adjacent rooms, sharing reports, drawings, and images electronically
and meeting with each other and their clients several times a day
via Internet video.
smug because landing this project is the culmination of an education
program, a sort of personal training program for the mind that he
initiated two years ago. While Bill has always been strong in landscape
architecture design and technology, he realized that he would need
some specialized knowledge and skills to effectively compete in
a rapidly developing market for continuing-care retirement communities.
He needed to know how to put these projects together financially--how
to make it feasible for retirees to invest in such communities.
In addition, he needed to know how to solve long-term management
problems of such facilities, a key factor in making them an attractive
investment. However, Bill was not in a position to quit his practice,
sell his house, relocate his family, and return to school. So, he
put together a program of "distance learning courses" that he could
complete at times and at a pace that worked for him. Some of his
teachers were successful professionals, such as lawyers and financial
advisors, in other parts of the country. Their experience and insights
into tax law and finance were a key part of the courses that Bill
took. Other teachers were nationally known educators and researchers
at top universities. The "up-to-date" and "cutting-edge" information
that Bill received on health care management were key factors in
building proposals for successful projects. Much of the demographic
data that Bill needs for this work is available over the Internet,
so he also took courses that gave him skills to extract and effectively
use this information. Bill's clients were more concerned with whether
he could put together projects that met their individual needs than
whether he was licensed as a landscape architect.
scenario above is in the future, the distance learning technology
described is in place today and growing rapidly. Practitioners who
want to stay ahead of the curve, or expand their practice, must
have a personal development plan. Distance education is an important
tool in achieving such a plan. At one level, "distance education"
is simply new and convenient technology that enables learning to
occur when the instructor and student are at different locations
and engage in the activity at different times. But at another level,
it is part of a larger change in our culture due to the information
revolution and will have a profound impact on how our culture views
knowledge and professions. This change will occur whether we like
it or not. History tells us so. We think of the Reformation, a profound
cultural change, as being brought about by Luther's propositions
to reform the Catholic Church. But it wasn't the ideas that were
new; it was the technology. Gutenberg's invention of the printing
press put the ideas in a form available to the masses. Not only
did this cause tremendous social upheaval, but it also changed how
knowledge and education were viewed. Knowledge was no longer something
available only to religious scholars or the privileged few. Thus,
the foundation for today's beliefs in the importance of public education
and public access to universities was set into place. It would be
naive not to expect profound changes in how knowledge and professions
are viewed in the future, and unwise not to prepare for this change.
to so much information in the future, there will be less of a premium
placed on professionals as a "source" of information. This will
result in a blurring of the distinction between professions. Rather
than knowledge of particular facts and information, the client of
the future will be more concerned with the professional's ability
to apply information, to be up-to-date on current applications,
and to be able to tailor applications to meet the unique cross-disciplinary
needs of the client. This will result in a more entrepreneurial
professional environment. Ongoing, specialized education such as
Bill obtained will be a key factor in success. Just as a business
plan has traditionally been important in one's business success,
in the future a personalized education plan will also be necessary
In the past
it would have been impossible or taken a great deal of time and
money for Bill to obtain the continuing education he needed. In
a relatively small profession such as landscape architecture, the
cost of preparing instructional materials for the few continuing-education
students at any one location was difficult to justify economically.
Transporting students or faculty to other locations to increase
enrollment was expensive and inconvenient for the participants.
Distance communication technology makes it financially feasible
by allowing an instructor in one location to serve many students
at different locations across North America and, possibly, at different
At one level,
"distance education" is simply new and convenient technology that
enables learning to occur when the instructor and student are at
different locations and engage in the activity at different times.
But at another level, it is part of a larger change in our culture
due to the information revolution and will have a profound impact
on how our culture views knowledge and professions.
should be aware of two aspects of distance learning technology--the
timing (synchronous or asynchronous) of the delivery of instructional
materials, and the medium of delivery. As the term suggests, synchronous
means that the instructor and students engage in distance education
at the same time, for example, Friday afternoon at 3:00 P.M. The
advantage of synchronous learning is that the student has immediate
access to the instructor. For synchronous learning the medium of
delivery is usually teleconferencing or video classrooms. Video
classrooms are specially equipped to accommodate interactive video
instruction. The teacher can see and broadcast to students at multiple
locations. Students can ask questions directly to the instructor
and the rest of the class by activating a microphone at their seats.
Many states now have a network of video classrooms located at universities,
community colleges, and public offices. The disadvantage of video
classrooms is that the student must show up where the video classroom
is located, which may be inconvenient for the student. Real-time
streaming video over the Internet, while technically possible, hasn't
been used very much to date because transmission speeds have not
been adequate to produce a quality video image. However, with the
projected increases in the future speed of the Internet, one would
expect this form of delivery to become more common.
means that the students and faculty are engaged in the distance
learning activity at different times. For the students this usually
means a time more convenient for them, such as after work or on
weekends. Asynchronous instructional materials are usually in the
form of self-paced instructional programs delivered either via the
Internet or on compact discs. These programs consist of a digitally
linked set of instructional materials such as readings, audio and
video recordings, exercises, answers, and tests. The student progresses
through the materials at his or her own pace. These programs may
be stand-alone packages in the case of CDs, with no additional access
to a teacher, or they may include e-mail access to a teacher for
answers to questions beyond those contained in the program, which
is often the case in online delivery. The disadvantage of online
delivery compared to CD delivery is the slow speed of downloading
materials to the computer, which can be considerable if there are
large graphic or image files. Obviously, the advantage of asynchronous
learning is flexibility for the student in the timing and pace of
learning. The disadvantage is either having no access or less immediate
access to the teacher for individual help.
and growth of ASLA's School of Continuing Professional Education
is a testament to the effectiveness of this new technology. In a
matter of just a few years, this program has increased from three
or four workshops offered on site, to well over two dozen distance
courses available throughout North America in 2001. These courses
are synchronous and use a coordinated teleconferencing and Internet
delivery. The teleconference allows for audio interaction with the
instructor. The Internet connection delivers real-time visual support
materials related to the instruction. All the student needs are
a telephone, computer, and Internet connection. These courses are
extremely popular because they are affordable and practitioners
can take the courses in the convenience of their own offices. For
those who complete a number of courses in particular subject areas,
ASLA has launched a certificate program. People who complete certain
sets of courses will be awarded an "ASLA Certificate," for example
in watershed management or ecological restoration. Completion of
a certificate program can be included on a resume to document educational
achievements and to enhance the professional credentials of the
education courses can be taken from a variety of sources. In addition
to ASLA, the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards
(CLARB) has plans to offer continuing education courses to help
licensed landscape architects remain current in the field and to
obtain continuing education credit necessary to maintain licensure
in many states. Continuing education providers are growing at a
rapid pace and include private companies such as E-train, product
and software manufacturers, and many universities.
We can begin
to see how this type of access to ongoing education is going to
change how our culture views education. In the past the educational
and professional portions of one's life were fairly distinct. One
went to school at the beginning of one's career and then moved into
professional life without much movement back and forth. In the future
the distinction between practice and education will be much less
distinct. The ease with which new knowledge can be acquired means
that successful practitioners will use ongoing education to better
position themselves in the marketplace and to exploit emerging or
niche markets. Practitioners will continuously go back to school
without leaving their offices.
Face of Professional Education
II: The Present. With a sense of relief, Robert clicks
his computer's mouse and submits a class assignment--which he and
three of his classmates have just finished--to the digital drop-box
on the course web site. The course is one of several distance courses
taught by the state university landscape architecture department
from the main campus in a rural town in Virginia. These distance
courses have enabled the department, with its limited resources,
to extend the graduate program to an urban satellite campus in northern
Virginia. Because the university moved existing courses to a video
classroom and added a web site, Robert is able to enroll in courses
previously available only at the rural campus. This course, along
with studio and other support courses taught by faculty at the satellite
campus, creates an exciting new urban extension to the university's
submitted the assignment from his apartment in a suburb of Washington,
D.C. Two classmates who worked with him on the assignment are on
the main campus, 260 miles away. Susan, the fourth member of the
team, is in front of a computer at the urban satellite campus that
she and Robert attend. In spite of the distance between the team
members, they worked closely on the assignment, a postoccupancy
evaluation. After an initial site visit, during which all team members
were present, communication has been largely electronic. In addition
to countless e-mail messages, the team has had several brainstorming
sessions in the virtual chat room on the course web site. To keep
phone bills as low as possible, much of the person-to-person communication
occurred using video cams over the Internet. Each team member participated
in writing and editing the report, which was made accessible to
all through the department server. Photographs were scanned and
shared. The final report, including text, images, and drawings,
was produced both as a document that could be printed and as an
html file to be made available online. The final task in completing
the assignment will be a presentation in the video classroom to
the other students taking the class, both at the main campus and
at the satellite campus.
education has made it possible for Robert to pursue a full-time
degree in landscape architecture from the distant university while
living in northern Virginia. Unlike Robert, Susan is already a landscape
architect. In her late thirties, she has been working for the Environmental
Protection Agency for fourteen years. Susan was looking for a midcareer
refresher, something that would be a change of pace and also upgrade
her professional abilities and credentials. Distance learning allows
Susan, as a part-time student, to have access to graduate courses
and faculty at the state university while maintaining her job commitments
in northern Virginia. Classmates at the state university find that
Susan and Robert bring a wealth of knowledge and experience that
enrich the learning environment of the program.
administrators see distance education as a means of increasing the
prestige and visibility of their university by serving a broader
constituency than those who can relocate to the campus for their
education--a valuable argument when persuading tightfisted legislators
to provide funding for universities. As a result of an aging population
and the increasing importance of ongoing education, university administrators
have coined the term "lifelong learning." Many landscape architecture
programs find themselves being encouraged by the higher administration
to develop distance learning, often to the consternation of the
faculty (explained in more detail below).
A number of
landscape architecture programs are using distance learning to extend
their programs to other locations. Virginia Tech and Washington
State are noteworthy examples. Both institutions are land-grant
universities located in rural areas. While small college towns are
wonderful places to study, they are often lacking in urban learning
environments, and not all potential students are able to relocate.
Virginia Tech has used distance-education technology to extend its
master's program to the urban areas of Northern Virginia. This not
only provides students with the opportunity to study in an urban
environment but also enriches the intellectual currency of the graduate
program, because students in residence at the Northern Virginia
campus tend to be older and are often employed in the profession.
architecture program at Washington State University requires fourth-year
students to spend a year at the university's Interdisciplinary Design
Institute in Spokane. Similar to Virginia Tech, students take their
studios in residence at the Institute and pick up support courses
via video classroom or teleconferencing from the main campus in
Pullman. Both Washington State and Virginia Tech have originated
distance courses at the satellite locations so that students at
the main campus can benefit from learning resources available in
the urban area, most notably lectures from professionals practicing
in the area. At Virginia Tech this has been called "feeding the
has been some experimentation with virtual or online studios, most
studio courses are still taught in traditional studios. There are
reasons for this. First, the screen resolution makes it difficult
to see the design work in detail. Second, design presentations become
rather dull without facial expressions and body language--as one
instructor put it, "the virtual studio was about as exciting as
nonalcoholic beer." Madis Pihlak, a landscape architecture professor
at Penn State and an expert in the field, suggests that these shortcomings
can be overcome. Faculty must do more than simply move the traditional
studio to a video or online format. They must think ahead: How can
the work be conveyed to the different locations ahead of time in
sufficient detail? The potential exists in a virtual studio to involve
people, most notably practitioners, who would not normally have
been involved. Again, this emphasizes the point that it is how distance
education is done that is critical to its success or failure.
architecture programs at Kansas State University and Louisiana State
University are planning to extend their curricula to other areas
via distance learning. The immediate benefit of these distance-learning
initiatives is the enhanced learning opportunity for students. However,
a secondary benefit to the profession is the increased visibility
of landscape architecture in areas where it would otherwise be lacking.
examples of CD-based distance learning are being undertaken at the
University of Guelph and the University of Idaho. Idaho uses a CD
tutorial to offer a course in the history of landscape architecture
to students throughout the state in the university's Independent
Learning Program. After $60,000 and three years in development,
Guelph will launch its CD-based course, "History and Cultural Form,"
the reach of landscape architecture education beyond the fifty-eight
universities that now offer accredited landscape architecture degree
programs, these and other CD-based courses should help the profession
in two ways. Since more students in allied disciplines will have
access to landscape architecture courses, the stature and understanding
of landscape architecture by allied disciplines should be enhanced.
In addition, this increased exposure of the profession should attract
more students into the field, helping landscape architecture with
one of its most critical problems: having enough graduates to sustain
architecture undergraduates start college in another major and change
to landscape architecture. Because so few universities offer landscape
architecture programs, many potential landscape architecture students
never find the field. The likelihood of many new programs starting
is slim. However, distance education can extend the reach of existing
programs, in the form of "pre-L.A." programs, to universities that
do not have such programs. This could greatly increase the number
of students who find their way to schools that do have landscape
Way of Learning
While this all
sounds good, most professors dislike distance-learning courses.
In a video classroom, they can't move around as they lecture, can't
see the wrinkled brows of students at a distant location who aren't
getting it, and can't hand out something important at the last minute,
because some students are in a different place. It feels so different
from what they are used to and very unnatural. Understandably, most
university professors are concerned.
have inherited a capacity to learn--a natural way of learning. Early
humans were not given the same evolutionary advantages as other
species, such as speed, keen hearing and smell, or large fangs and
claws. However, they developed an evolutionary trait that placed
them at the pinnacle of the animal kingdom--a large brain. A human
brain filled with accumulated knowledge is of course the ultimate
evolutionary advantage, which has enabled humans to exploit nearly
every ecological niche on earth. The catch is, from an evolutionary
standpoint, that until the brain accumulates enough knowledge the
owner is rather vulnerable. So, it is understandable that natural
behaviors for learning and teaching evolved at the same time. Psychologists
tell us, for example, that humans are naturally curious and crave
information. They like discovering things and solving real problems.
We also know that learning is a social activity that occurs most
effectively in a mutually supportive community that is constantly
sharing information. These are natural ways of learning. However,
most students find themselves in an environment that seems alien
to this natural way of learning--a university.
Is it any wonder
that researchers tell us that today's university students forget
80 percent of what they have learned within six weeks? New education
theories advocate the development of mutually supportive social
learning environments called "learning communities." They also advocate
learning environments where students work in groups on real problems
and the teacher is more a facilitator or advisor than a supervisor.
This is called "problem-based learning." For many disciplines these
notions are completely new. However, landscape architecture studios
courses have often contained elements of learning communities and
problem-based learning, perhaps more by happenstance than by design.
This type of learning has served landscape architecture well in
the past. It is often said that it is not what landscape architects
know that is unique but instead the way in which they approach a
problem: a kind of holistic sensitivity that is dependent, at least
in part, on the way they are taught--a more natural way of learning.
as well as faculty, a video classroom is an unnatural learning environment.
The natural flow of conversation is broken as one presses the microphone
button and waits until the camera zooms in on the person speaking.
How does a mutually supportive group develop among people who are
hundreds of miles apart? What will happen to the way landscape architects
learn as we are encouraged by university administrators to expand
the reach of our programs through distance learning? What will happen
to landscape architects' traditional problem-based learning as we
try to help the profession recruit more students into the profession
through the increased exposure made possible through distance learning?
Will landscape architecture be able to maintain the traditional
project-based learning environment, considered by many educators
to be critical in the education of a landscape architect?
One thing we
have learned at Virginia Tech is that if you just take a course
that you have taught in person and move it to a distance format,
without making changes appropriate to the new medium, it is not
likely to be successful. First, distance courses require more planning.
It is not as easy to adjust "on the fly" when students are at different
locations and communication is constrained by distance technology.
Second, distance courses require more preparation time to scan images
and use OCR (optical character recognition) programs to convert
readings into a digitally accessible format. Third, distance education
courses require more time to plan exercises that will create a "learning
community" among students who are far apart. Last, distance courses
require more travel time because, even with all the above efforts,
we have found no substitute for personal contact.
Like many things
that change or affect society, distance education will be neither
completely positive nor completely negative. The implications of
distance education on landscape architecture are more likely to
be dependent on how we embrace distance learning, not on
whether we embrace it, for it has arrived whether we like it or
not. Distance education has the potential to help the profession
solve one of its most pressing problems, increasing the number of
graduates by expanding the reach of landscape architecture programs.
At the same time distance learning could threaten unique aspects
of landscape architecture education important to the profession.
Landscape architects need to be vigilant as these changes in education
occur, as they inevitably will, to ensure that the good outweighs
the bad. Educators need to move beyond the simple conveyance of
information to explore new approaches to education that are appropriate
for distance learning, and broaden learning communities to include
professionals, citizens, and a more diverse student body. Educators
need to document and share their distance-learning experiences with
other educators. There is the potential, if we do these things carefully,
to enrich educational opportunities and diversity of students in
existing programs; to create a stronger connection between academia
and practice by broadening the learning community to include practitioners,
both as teachers and as learners; and to help the profession sustain
itself by increasing the number of graduates.
Miller, FASLA, is a professor of landscape architecture at Virginia
Tech and ASLA vice president for education. An abridged version
of this article appeared in the March 2001 issue of Landscape
to ask yourself: Are you Prepared for the Information Age?
- Do I have
the knowledge and skills necessary to define my practice by the
needs of my client (e.g., improved public image, compliance with
the law, and increased profits) rather than by the services that
I offer (e.g., master planning, environmental studies, and award-winning
- Instead of
competing head-to-head with other professionals, can I redefine
the market by offering a new, unique set of knowledge and skills
that will better meet the needs of my clients?
- Do I have
the knowledge and skills to engage in new or emerging areas of
- Do I have
sufficient computer and Internet skills to access and process
the online information that I need for my practice?
- Am I up-to-date
on the latest research, changes in the law, and new applications
related to my practice?
- Do I have
a "personal education or development plan" that identifies my
educational objectives (what I want to be able to do), knowledge
areas needed, credentials desired, steps necessary to achieve
educational objectives, and a time frame for completion?
I Find Distance Education Courses?
- ASLA's School
of Continuing Professional Education offers courses on landscape
architecture related topics: www.asla.org/nonmembers/continue_ed.cfm.
- The Art
Institute Online offers college-level art courses online, including
Fundamentals of Design, Drawing, Perspective, and Life Drawing:
- CLARB offers
the Designer Shorts series that consists of instructional papers
and take-home exams: www.clarb.org.
- ESRI is
a private GIS software company that offers courses on GIS theory
and applications related to landscape architecture: http://campus.esri.com.
- E-train is
a private online education company. It offers a broad range of
business-related courses. It will assess your skills in specific
areas and help you construct an individual development plan:
- Penn State's
World Campus offers online courses on a variety of subjects: www.worldcampus.psu.edu/pub/index.shtml.
the Internet for the keywords "continuing education landscape
architecture" will turn up courses offered by universities around
to Ask Yourself when Shopping for Continuing Education:
- Do I have
a personal education or development plan? (Do I know what I want
to achieve and in what knowledge areas I need to pursue coursework?)
- What credentials
do I need to document my education (degree, diploma, certificate,
or continuing education credits)?
- What organizations
or schools provide the continuing education that I need (courses
and certificates or diplomas)?
- Does the
provider evaluate its courses and make those evaluations available
to potential students?
- When can
I engage in continuing education, during business hours or after?
- Do I have
the discipline to engage in self-paced learning and achieve my
- Is the knowledge
area one in which I am likely to need access to a teacher for
individual help while learning?
a course web site? Be my guest!
If you haven't
attended a university in the past four or five years, you may
be interested in seeing what a course web site looks like. Course
web sites are used in many courses, not just distance courses.
The course web site has a lot of information that in the past
would have been copied and handed to the student in class. The
"student page" section of this web site is a helpful feature of
distance learning because it enables the students at different
locations to get acquainted with one another. The "discussion
board" allows students in distant locations to carry on a discussion.
The following web site uses a shell program titled CourseInfo.
The basic interactive features are part of the program. The instructor
adds a syllabus, exercises, and quizzes. To access this web site,
you need a recent version of an Internet browser, available free
online. The Internet address is: www.learn.vt.edu:8080/courses/LAR_
2035_97104_ 200009. When asked for your I.D. or username use
"student1," and when asked for your password use "student1" again.
Explore the different sections of the web site by clicking on
the buttons along the left side of the page. Quizzes are more
of a learning tool than an assessment tool on this web site, because
it provides the score and answers immediately after you take the
quiz. Try taking quiz 2 by clicking on the "assignments" button,
opening the quiz folder, and clicking on "quiz 2."