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Development at a Distance

In the 21st Century, the old adage: 'I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand’ remains as true as ever and underlies much of the best in approaches to learning developed in the areas of the design, construction and management of the built and landscape environments. AT universities like Greenwich, project-based learning is a vital component of full- and part-time programmes in our discipline areas.

Some students engaged in vocational full- and part-time study are required to intersperse their academic programmes with periods of practical work in industry or professional offices. Others do this not only as a matter of economic necessity, but it adds to their learning development because they value and enjoy the practical perspective.

For many years, we have sought to educate reflective practitioners — people who would be equipped by their academic study experiences — to make the most thoughtful and conscious use of their knowledge, understanding and skills in their everyday working environments. In a rapidly changing world, this in turn has led to more recognition of the need for a personal life-long learning approach to the development and enhancement – and sometimes necessary diversification – of practice skills and capabilities.

Many institutions have sought to meet these needs in a variety of ways – from compulsory continuing professional development seminars and short courses, to the validation by professional bodies of specialisms beyond core practice that require further study and qualification.

Yet for many people there remains a significant divide between ‘what I learned at college’ and the challenges of the ‘real world’. Even in a school like Greenwich, where almost all teachers are either engaged in practice or research, it is sometimes difficult to feel confident that a few years of good academic education and preparation for practice is enough to sustain a graduate for the rest of her or his professional life.

Why? First of all, in the information age, we know that the demands of practice are likely to continue changing and diversifying in the first quarter of the 21st Century as fast — if not faster — than they did in the last quarter of the 20th Century; secondly, for students to fully understand how they can apply and develop the use of their academic learning in practice, they need firsthand experience of practice while still engaged in formal learning.

Some learning programmes ‘sandwich’ practice experience within them, and some students decide individually to combine practice and study. In recent years the resurgence of interest in distance learning and work-based learning, together with more flexible approaches to enabling life-long learning, have led to a more creative melding of learning and practice for many students and graduates.

In these days of mobility, change and financial and social uncertainty, few people can spend more than one period of their life in full-time, or even conventional part-time, study. Work-based and distance learning programmes have the potential to provide greater flexibility in meeting peoples' academic and practice development needs. At one time, such programmes were often based on ‘correspondence’ or almost wholly dependent on the calibre of work colleagues. Such programmes commonly left individuals completely isolated from higher level academic/practice debate with fellow students and teachers. Information technology, and the Internet in particular, have had an enormous impact – mostly positive – on the quality of this sort of learning experience. More importantly, some institutions have sought to ensure regular face-to-face contact between learners and teachers, at a competitive cost and with minimal disruption to regular work and thus career development. The international programmes at Greenwich, for example, are organised around the use of geographically convenient centres, both in the UK and worldwide.

A common observation used to be made in the UK about higher education: that long after one had learned everything, one continued to remember the place of study. Greenwich is a great place, but current and future alumni of this and other universities will feel confident in the knowledge that they are only moments away from updating what they have already learned. By discussing their current needs with informed staff, they can choose or create a programme that they can pursue at home and in the office, but with regular opportunities to meet staff and colleagues studying both the same and complementary programmes.

Working in the 21st Century, we not only need to be thinking globally while acting locally, but we also need to have confidence that we can readily access current, informed, academic and professional material, experts and colleagues, in a manner that will enable us to meet the ever-changing needs of practice and our own personal professional development.

Prof. R richard Hayward, Head of the School of Architecture & Construction,
University of Greenwich, UK


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