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Distance Learning: Back to the Future
By Patrick A. Miller, FASLA

Scenario 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.

Bill is 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.

Although the 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.

With access 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 for success.

Ongoing Education

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 times.

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.

Potential students 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.

Asynchronous 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.

The success 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 recipient.

Continuing 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.

The Changing Face of Professional Education

Scenario 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 graduate program.

Robert has 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.

Distance 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.

Extending the Reach

Many university 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.

The landscape 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 mother ship."

While there 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.

The landscape 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.

Two noteworthy 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," this fall.

By extending 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 the profession.

Most landscape 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 architecture programs.

A Natural 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.

Modern humans 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.

For students 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.

Patrick A. 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 Architecture.

Questions to ask yourself: Are you Prepared for the Information Age?

  1. 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 designs)?
  2. 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?
  3. Do I have the knowledge and skills to engage in new or emerging areas of practice?
  4. Do I have sufficient computer and Internet skills to access and process the online information that I need for my practice?
  5. Am I up-to-date on the latest research, changes in the law, and new applications related to my practice?
  6. 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?

Where Do I Find Distance Education Courses?

  1. ASLA's School of Continuing Professional Education offers courses on landscape architecture related topics:
  2. The Art Institute Online offers college-level art courses online, including Fundamentals of Design, Drawing, Perspective, and Life Drawing:
  3. CLARB offers the Designer Shorts series that consists of instructional papers and take-home exams:
  4. ESRI is a private GIS software company that offers courses on GIS theory and applications related to landscape architecture:
  5. 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:
  6. Penn State's World Campus offers online courses on a variety of subjects:
  7. Searching the Internet for the keywords "continuing education landscape architecture" will turn up courses offered by universities around North America.

Questions to Ask Yourself when Shopping for Continuing Education:

  1. 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?)
  2. What credentials do I need to document my education (degree, diploma, certificate, or continuing education credits)?
  3. What organizations or schools provide the continuing education that I need (courses and certificates or diplomas)?
  4. Does the provider evaluate its courses and make those evaluations available to potential students?
  5. When can I engage in continuing education, during business hours or after?
  6. Do I have the discipline to engage in self-paced learning and achieve my educational objectives?
  7. Is the knowledge area one in which I am likely to need access to a teacher for individual help while learning?

What is 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: 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."


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