Opinion 06: Learning from afar - The design studio experience from abroad during COVID-19
By Kate Donaldson and Yanyu Sun
From Ahmedabad to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Shenzhen to Barcelona, this article collects the voices of international students who have studied architecture at the University of Melbourne from abroad since COVID-19. These students were left learning from afar by strict border closures and made up nearly one-third of students enrolled in Masters of Architecture studios in Semester 2, 2021. As students and teachers of architecture, we must begin to reflect on our diverse pandemic experiences of remoteness to recalibrate design education and to move forward as a cohort. We can open new dialogues that challenge our understanding of belonging and space as tied to physical presence and in doing so uncover new opportunities for a university community without borders.
“It is easy to feel disconnected when we are overseas. The sense of community is lacking.”
“In-person learning is a privilege, and we should not take it for granted. However, we must not discredit online learning completely . . . it really does work.”
“At the MSD [building], I am in a space that I can call home.”
“Distance has made me value a sense of belonging even more.”
Workspace of students studying overseas during the pandemic, image by Kate Donaldson
While Zoom is a powerful tool to teach and collaborate virtually, learning online compromises the practical side of architecture education. A disadvantage of studying abroad revealed by our conversations with students is the ineffectiveness of communication through online platforms. Zoom being the “virtual classroom”, it ultimately runs in a limited time frame. To keep up with local time in Melbourne, students’ daily routines were affected to various extents depending on their locations. Communication mediums also become key in online-learning: compared to Zoom, students preferred using collaborative studio platforms, such as at.studio or Miro, which have much better reaction times for drawing annotations. After all, as architecture students, we are used to conveying our ideas through sketches.
“I struggled with weekly studios that started at 6am: I was often tired and not able to engage much with my peers at such an early hour.”
“Studying architecture to me is a very hands-on experience, and this aspect cannot be fulfilled in online learning.”
“The element of quick sketching in the studio is missing.”
“The lagging on the shared screen annotation is frustrating, it really slows down the discussion.”
“Interaction definitely reduces in online learning as it is restricted to a particular time and is focused on the assignment, with not much interaction on aspects other than academics.”
Development of studio culture currently still relies mostly on a physical space, where there can be a continuous exchange of ideas inside and outside of the classroom. Natasha Ten from Singapore explained that this in turn affected students’ discussion with peers and lost a sense of community in the studio.
“Once the Zoom ends, you don’t have a space to reach out to your peers anymore. It is really hard to establish new connections with fellow students.”
“I used to spend most of my time in the MSD [building]. After class, you don’t just get to be in your own circle, there are opportunities to stop for a chat with other students, to exchange ideas on different design projects.”
The Bright Side
It would be easy to think that there were only downsides to learning from afar, but our interviewees found quite a few silver linings to the experience. Students noticed that working remotely actually reflected the reality of working internationally. For some, this built a greater sense of ownership over studio culture, leading them to be more proactive and to make more effort to connect with the research and design work.
Students also recognised the unique perspectives that came from having peers in dispersed locations of study during the Semester. For example, speaking to her experience of Studio 07: No Vacancy in Semester 1, 2021, Alba Moncau Muñio said that being situated in Spain made her more aware of materiality and the approach to façade preservation at her project’s North Melbourne site, in comparison to her Melbourne-based counterparts, who were most drawn to ideas of land and Country. This ultimately led to a significant diversity in project proposals. Despite some difficulty in grasping the nuanced experiences of a project site based in Victoria, students expressed that they felt more stimulated to “approach the design empowered by self-critical responses.”
The trans-locational studios also led to an interest in the situated nature of architecture: in the case of Melbourne, a range of site interpretations by students with different experiences could be collected. Perhaps the design process itself actually allowed students removed from Melbourne to connect back to the city:
“I constantly found myself reflecting on the knowledge I gained studying in Melbourne to my surrounding environment in Shenzhen, China [- where I was located]: the distinctive characteristics of both cities began to form a conversation and eventually influenced each other. One of my projects finished with a strong visual representation of the urban landscape of Shenzhen.”
“My connection to [the Melbourne] context comes from memories. By recalling the atmosphere of the site in Chinatown, times spent with friends [at the place] before the pandemic.”
“I relied on online research for a housing project, by looking at typologies from different countries around the world. Eventually, I brought it back to the local discourse [in Australia] with a reference to the home with a backyard, projecting the ideal of ‘Australian Dream’.”
Regardless of the drawbacks from learning afar, they can be valuable in shaping each individual’s understanding in their design practice. Leon Van Schaik, Professor of Architecture at RMIT university defines such value as “spatial intelligence” in architectural practice, arguing the everyday experience of an architect’s past and present can influence how they communicate and deliver design ideas. In times of ‘distant learning’, the variety of methods adopted by students for site investigation creates a unique relationship to Melbourne, based on a spatial awareness which they established in a different geographical space. We invite international students to dive in and reflect on their own cultural experiences, to explore how this has shaped design outcomes.
Finally, the design studio is notorious for its demanding framework, but students also felt that this had been at least partly mitigated by being able to remain in a familiar home environment. International students in a new city might encounter feelings of cultural isolation, strangerhood, or the anxiety of adjusting to an unfamiliar place, all on top of the usual challenges of classwork. Overall, remaining in a familiar home environment put students in a more positive state of mind.
One of the other most resounding positive encounters our interviewees had while working from overseas was with their tutors throughout the studio process. In many ways, tutor support exceeded their face-to-face experiences:
“Tutors put in more effort to keep the cohort together, I felt more involved and connected than when I was in person.”
“[The tutors] always encouraged me to express my ideas bravely.”
“My tutor was really helpful with providing direction for research and engaging me with discourse in an Australian context . . . They were always there to support [me].”
For the most part, our interviewees suggested that online learning from abroad should remain a last resort and only under special circumstances. But some also thought that parts of the ‘distance model’ should be considered by universities for the future—such as being able to engage with tutors who are based overseas. Others recommended that parts of remote teaching could be hybridised with in-person models, but this would still require at least some physical student presence and result in a kind of ‘Blended Synchronous Learning’ system (a class of partly in-person and online students):
“[In Blended Synchronous Learning] group discussion did not go well. Since all my group members were in Melbourne, they would often go to the MSD building together and brainstorm. I could not see their design sketches directly, so if they were making changes in-person sometimes I did not know what was happening and they needed to explain things to me again and again.”
From a broader university support perspective, it was also clear that if support mechanisms were in fact available to students from the faculty, they “have not been made aware of it.” Many also criticised the unfairness of still paying full overseas student fees—which are already higher than local student fees—without access to in-person learning, certain core subject offerings, and campus facilities. When imaging future online learning scenarios, these are just a few key concerns that need to be addressed.
This article has been a task of acknowledgement, to ensure that there is recognition for the diverse experiences of our university community during the pandemic and to begin important conversations about moving forward together. International students are often portrayed as passive agents in academic research, as reactors to external structural factors. By reorienting pedagogical discourse around active perspectives and open dialogues, the narrative can shift to empower students both locally and abroad.
We would like to thank all of the students who kindly provided their insights for this article and hope that this acts as a reminder to talk to each other about your experiences of remoteness. If you are feeling isolated or alone, we encourage you to seek support from your university health or counselling services. For help, you can also call, Lifeline, Suicide Call Back Service, Kids Helpline, MensLine Australia or Beyond Blue Support Service.
 Statistic received from the Built Environments Learning + Teaching team at the University of Melbourne.
 Leon Van Schaik, Practical Poetics in Architecture (AD Primers. 2014).
 Page, Alexander Gamst, and Sobh Chahboun. “Emerging Empowerment of International Students: How International Student Literature Has Shifted to Include the Students’ Voices.” Higher Education 78, no. 5 (2019): 871–85.
Kate Donaldson and Yanyu Sun
About the Authors:
About the authors: Kate Donaldson is a current M.Arch student at the Melbourne School of Design with interests spanning across social engagement in architecture, education and new media. Yanyu Sun is a current MA Architectural History student at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, her interest focuses on housing and architecture theory.