Towards an ecosystem-of-learning for architectural education: random concepts as prompts and provocations

By Jolanda Morkel and Hermie Delport*

This article is based on an online presentation delivered on 22 May 2020 for the Teaching Architecture Online: Methods and Outcomes seminar, organised by Curtin University and Özyeğin University, titled ‘Responsive Ecosystems for Architectural Education’ (Morkel & Delport, 2020). In this article, we propose that, rather than the on-ground-online binary, architectural education might be conceived as an ecosystem-of-learning. We further suggest that this ecosystem-of-learning can be explored through the testing of random concepts to prompt and provoke a shift in thinking. 


Covid-19 exposed the fragility of schools of architecture, affecting carefully integrated curricula, student experiences and teaching methodologies. We position this integrated learning approach as an ecosystem-of-learning comprised of a number of elements including those shown in Figure 1. 


Social distancing forced some parts of the default ecosystem to change drastically and suddenly, and this impacted on the entire ecosystem-of-learning. Access to physical buildings, studios, and workshops was lost. The place dimension of the learning system changed (figure 2). Where, before, time was carefully divided into segments on a timetable, organising the occupation of physical space, suddenly the timetable itself became obsolete.


‘Higher education institutions must prepare for an intermediate period of transition and begin future-proofing for the long term’ proposed DeVaney et al. (2020). So we’re asking: how might we shift our gaze to the longer term, to move online architectural education beyond “emergency remote teaching” (Hodges et al., 2020), from ‘contingency to sustainability’ (Salmon, 2020)? 

Yet, what we’ve observed in webinars, blog posts, forums and research writings over the past number of weeks, are questions asked about the uncertainty and unpredictability of the situation. In the process of adapting to a new condition, there’s a degree of vulnerability, concerns arising over inequality and access, the loss of touching paper, building models, the physical making together, the incidental moments of discovery, the informal and social learning instances, the camaraderie and the fun – these experiences have been ‘lost’ through mandatory social distancing and the resultant altered dimensions of space and time.

Is a reset possible?

Darren Ockert (2020) writes that ‘(e)ach day during the pandemic, we are suddenly finding what was once impossible is now suddenly possible.’ He quotes  Thomas Friedman, who said of online learning in 2012 ‘Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.’

We believe that a reset is possible, but through ‘step(ping) beyond the obvious and rethink(ing) how we think’ (Weyler, 2020).  

What next?

To use the crisis as a catalyst for innovation, as suggested by O’Reilly (2020), we turn to the ecosystem-of-learning as a metaphor. An environmental ecosystem is defined as a ‘complex of living organisms, their physical environment, and all their interrelationships (are) in a particular unit of space’ (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). Considering learning as an intrinsically human activity that occurs in many places and in different ways (Rustici, 2018) we conceptualise an ecosystem-of-learning that involves the tools, technologies, resources, the people and the places where learning happens.We chose ecosystem over ecology as a framework because, compared to ecology which describes a universal idea, an ecosystem is associated with a specific context  (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).

A different way of thinking might embrace diversity in the way that Rex Weyler (2020) suggests: ‘Diversity remains a value in an ecosystem because diversity enhances stability.’ He further explains that ‘an ecosystem prospers if it is simultaneously stable and flexible, conservative and progressive’ (Weyler, 2020). 

To demonstrate how a shift in thinking might be prompted,  we draw on a range of random concepts to generate questions (Hitge, 2016; Kayton, 2011). These questions are borrowed from six domains, as thinking prompts, to reshape architectural education for the future. The selected domains are educational, economic, environmental, social, technological and political domains; each explored through three randomly selected conceptual question prompts.Of course the question prompts and resulting exploration will have varying results, depending on the participants. For example, some prompts may be more relevant to management, others to faculty or students. Furthermore, for each of the prompts (the list is not extensive), different viewpoints should be taken.

In a recent online lecture, entitled ‘How Limitations Boots Creativity’ Ingwio D’Hespeel from the LUCA School of Arts in Belgium, reimagined the traditional PowerPoint and presented his talk with a ‘paperpoint’. The low-tech, low-budget and low-resource paperpoint brings aspects of the interactive and the hand-made into the online space.


We hope that the thematic conceptual prompts that we introduce below, can trigger similar creative, relevant and realisable reactions to inspire the development of a responsive and resilient ecosystem-of-learning for architectural and design education.

Educational prompts

How might pedagogy of care, universal design for learning and flux pedagogy help us shift our thinking towards a responsive, resilient and relevant ecosystem-of-learning for architectural education in these times of change, uncertainty and unpredictability?

  • Pedagogy of care is a concept that stresses contribution and empathy. Cormier (2020) asks ‘how can we balance the care that we give our students and the care that we give to ourselves?’ He invites us to imagine the first five minutes of class – the smiles, the eye-rolls and the catch-ups,  and to think about ways to do that online.
  • Universal design for learning, according to Morin (2020), ‘is a way of thinking about teaching and learning that gives students an equal opportunity to succeed’, through the flexible use of a variety of teaching methods to remove any barriers, and respond to every student’s strengths and needs.
  • Flux pedagogy is a term recently coined by Sharon Ravitch (2020), and it integrates ‘relational and critical pedagogy frameworks into a transformative teaching approach in times of radical flux.’  She explains that it is ‘a humanizing pedagogy that examines the goals and processes of education in moments of uncertainty with a goal of mutual growth and transformation.’ Also, refer to Beatty’s (2019) Hybrid-Flexible (HyFlex) Course Design.

Economic prompts 

How might sharing economy, phygital marketing and the gig economy help us shift our thinking towards a responsive, resilient and relevant ecosystem-of-learning for architectural education in these times of change, uncertainty and unpredictability?

  • Sharing economy. The sharing economy or Uberfication marks a prominent ‘societal shift’ in which ‘state-regulated service providers like hotels and taxi companies, are replaced by information and data management intermediaries, like Airbnb… and  Uber’ (Hall, 2015).
  • Phygital marketing. Phygital (also known as phygital) merges the ‘online and offline environments’, taking the ‘best aspects from each space to create an improved customer experience.’ For example, using technology on multiple platforms to build on the ‘immediacy, immersion, and interaction’ of the real bricks and mortar experience (Ames, 2019).
  • Gig economy. The concept of the gig economy has been around for a while, with specific reference to the manner in which people work. It can be broadly defined as “a labour market made up of freelance, short-term and on-demand work…which…redefines the way companies hire and how individuals structure their careers (Investec, 2019).

Environmental prompts 

How might regenerative design, permaculture design and environmental sociology help us shift our thinking towards a responsive, resilient and relevant ecosystem-of-learning for architectural education in these times of change, uncertainty and unpredictability?

  • Regenerative design, which, as a general concept, is a ‘principle that calls for products or services to contribute to systems that renew or replenish themselves. This ultimately means the materials and energy that go into a product or process, can be reintroduced into the same process or system, requiring little to no inputs to maintain it’ (Wbcsd, 2020).
  • Permaculture design, although far from a new concept, has 12 key principles that ‘opens into whole systems thinking’ and are ‘thinking tools, that when used together, allow us to creatively re-design our environment and our behavior in a world of less energy and resources’  (Holmgren and Telford, 2020).
  • Environmental sociology is concerned with the ‘reciprocal relationships between environment and society.’ The concept acknowledges that ‘environmental issues (we could also read here educational issues) are socially constructed in ways that need to be understood if effective and just strategies for dealing with them are to be found’ (Lockie, 2015:139).

Social prompts 

How might fun theory, social presence theory and compassionate collaboration help us shift our thinking towards a responsive, resilient and relevant ecosystem-of-learning for architectural education in these times of change, uncertainty and unpredictability?

  • Fun Theory. If you want to get people to change their behaviour you must make what you want them to do, novel and fun, according to Wickes (2018). That’s Fun theory – it’s as simple as that.
  • Social presence theory. Social presence theory (presence vs attention) is used to understand how people socially interact in online learning environments. Researchers like Whiteside, Dikkers and Swan (2017) define social presence in terms of being a “real” person, where others define it as feeling a connection or sense of belonging with others.
  • Compassionate collaboration. Sir Ken Robinson refers to compassionate collaboration and he means compassion that is ‘fundamental to our ability to be together as communities, as the sort of cultural glue that holds us together …’ (Hall, 2017).

Technological prompts

How might human-computer interaction, bioinformatics and makification help us think about a responsive, resilient and relevant ecosystem-of-learning for architectural education in these times of change, uncertainty and unpredictability?

  • Human-computer interaction. Dickson (2017) posits that “(t)hanks to advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, a slow but steady transformation is coming to education…’ and he says that it forces us to consider what it means to be human.
  • Bioinformatics. Ben Williamsen (2020) references socio-genomics and geno-economics that link the study of genomics with predicted socio-economic outcomes through the power of big data and bioinformatics infrastructures.
  • Makification. Cohen, Jones, Smith & Calandra, (2017:3)  writes that ‘simply put, we define makification as the process of taking characteristic elements from the maker movement and infusing them into formal educational activities in a variety of contexts.’

Political prompts 

How might cultural citizenship, development theory and the entrepreneurial state help us shift our thinking towards a responsive, resilient and relevant ecosystem-of-learning for architectural education in these times of change, uncertainty and unpredictability?

  • Cultural citizenship. According to Van Hensbroek, ’cultural citizenship, psychologically and ideologically connects members within a community, or members of different communities through a sense of common belonging, reciprocal recognition of belonging, and shared experiences of daily life’ (Van Hensbroek, 2010: 317).
  • Development theory. ‘Development theory is a collection of theories about how desirable change in society is best achieved’ (Gallagher, 2016: 260).
  • The Entrepreneurial State. In her controversial book, ‘The Entrepreneurial State’, Mariana Mazzucato reveals that, contrary to popular belief, the state is, and has been, our boldest and most valuable innovator, e.g. in the pharmaceutical industry. Almost every medical breakthrough starts in publicly funded laboratories.


As the emergency subsides but normality fails to return, higher education institutions must consider a reset. There’s a good likelihood that virtual learning – in some form or another – will be part of education for the foreseeable future. Coalescent spaces for learning are inevitable (White, 2016), but exactly how this plays out, will depend on the degree to which we are able to rethink and reconceptualise the different elements of the ecosystem and how they relate.

We hope that our exploration will prompt further thinking and debate towards a responsive, resilient and relevant ecosystem-of-learning for architectural education in these times of change, uncertainty and unpredictability. Considering architectural education as an ecosystem-of-learning can help us move beyond the on-ground-onsite binary towards a dynamic but balanced, ecosystem.


This is work in progress and we invite your comments and suggestions. 


We both studied at a traditional University in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The University of Port Elizabeth was, at the time, operating very much like most universities today, although we graduated even before the computer made it into architecture as a tool for drawing. After a few years in practice, we both started teaching, almost at the same time, at the Cape Technikon. There, architecture was taught from a technological perspective, so, from the start of our academic careers, we taught differently to how we had been taught. We both started writing about our teaching practices when the Technikon became a University and formal research was introduced, focusing on alternative places of learning (other than the studio). We tested our respective research ideas in the second year studio, where students were involved in academic and work-based learning components. Starting in 2010, together with our students, we crafted this studio into an online and onsite model to expand the on-campus studio. The online explorations included learning through digital storytelling, wayfinding using QR codes, virtual tutors,  etcetera. During the block weeks, we met physically with our students, where they participated in interactive and hands-on exercises, such as experimenting with natural building methods, developing designs through physical model building and completing design-build projects in communities. In-between the block weeks, students were supported at their places of work, online, through various social media platforms, a course blog, feedback via podcasts and screencasts, reflection through blogging, and online desk crits using skype. These ideas led to other blended and online programmes, for example, the part-time BTech programme offered by the CPUT in collaboration with Open Architecture. 

*Dr Hermie Delport is the Programme Leader: Architecture and Spatial Design at STADIO Holdings

The diagrams

In our search for literature on ecosystems, after we had formulated the ecosystem diagrams (figures 1, 3 and 4), we serendipitously found the Sacramento startup and innovation ecosystem diagrams (Bennett, 2016). The potential of this ‘circuit board diagram, aka subway map’ diagramming method to describe and compare ecosystems-of-learning, should be further explored.  


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Published by Jolanda Morkel

Jolanda Morkel is a registered architect and senior lecturer in the Department of Architectural Technology and Interior Design at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) in Cape Town, South Africa. She championed the ground-breaking online CPUT BTech programme in Architectural Technology offered in collaboration with Open Architecture, as one of the South African Institute of Architects’ (SAIA) flagship transformation projects, and the first of its kind in Africa. Based on its success, new online Advanced Diplomas in Architectural Technology and Interior Design are being implemented at the CPUT from 2020. Jolanda regularly publishes, presents at conferences and facilitates workshops on studio-based learning, flexible, blended and online learning, technology-mediated and work-integrated learning experiences, learning design and design-thinking in Higher Education. Her doctoral research focuses on the student-tutor interaction in the live online critique.

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