PLAN 86: Article
Global History Of Architecture Goes Global

New Online Course Reaches Tens of Thousands Worldwide

This fall, associate dean Mark Jarzombek is teaching his popular class, A Global History of Architecture, as a Massive Open Online Course presented through edX, an online learning initiative originated at MIT in 2011 as MITx. Since its start, the initiative has grown into a worldwide consortium of universities offering classes for free to anyone in the world with an Internet connection; Jarzombek’s is the first such course to be offered from SA+P.

Designed for a general audience at the undergraduate level, the course begins with First Societies and extends to the 15th century, focusing on different architectural ‘moments’ that provide a rich understanding of our architectural heritage from the scale of trans-regional histories to the local history of a building and its site. Students can simply audit the course or try for a certificate to showcase their achievement; either way, the course is free and students learn at their own pace.

Since 2011, Jarzombek has taught the course on campus to an average of 35 students per class. But this year, in addition to that offering, he is teaching 20,000 students registered from all over the world. The class includes a ninety-year-old from Mississippi, a former Marine in California, a dentist in China, a professor of history in England and a South African high school student, along with a number of global travelers who are simply interested in learning more about the world.

While all the course content comes from the original on-campus offering, the material has been extended and expanded with eight additional lectures, giving students grounding for understanding a range of buildings and contexts. Each lecture analyzes a particular architectural transformation arising from a dynamic cultural situation. How the introduction of iron in the ninth century BCE affected regional politics and the development of architecture, for instance. How new religious formations, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, produced new architectural understandings. And how the emergence of corn influenced the rise of religious construction in Mexico.

The material in the lectures is supplemented by readings from the textbook A Global History of Architecture (Wiley Press, 2006), one of Jarzombek’s two highly regarded books in the field. (The other is Architecture of First Societies: A Global Perspective, just released from Wiley Press.)

In addition to lectures and readings, the online version includes a great deal of interaction in the form of questions, quizzes and assessments, with maps, diagrams, timelines and even different parts of buildings that students are asked to assemble themselves. The participants have also developed a Facebook page for the course so they can interact with each other, engaging in a truly international conversation on global history.

Which is, in part, the aim of the course – to help build participants’ ability to think globally. Historically, architecture has been taught in a Eurocentric fashion, covering Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. But in a global world based on economic interrelations, the limitations of that sort of myopia can have regrettable consequences.

‘In terms of understanding European architecture,’ says Jarzombek, ‘let’s say we’re at 90 percent — no one is going to discover a new Chartres cathedral tomorrow. But what we know about Angkor Wat probably only represents 10 percent of what there is to know. This was one of the world’s largest cities in 1000 AD. It had a population of one million, yet no one has done a sustained study of its growth as an urban landscape.’

In addition to Jarzombek, the teaching team includes Vikram Prak?sh an architect/urbanist and historian from the University of Washington and Director of the Chandigarh Urban Lab – he is also one of Jarzombek’s co-authors for A Global History of Architecture – and Ana Maria Leon, a PhD candidate in SA+P’s History Theory and Criticism program.

MIT’s edX program builds upon MIT’s OpenCourseWare, a free online publication of nearly all of MIT’s undergraduate and graduate course materials, and is coupled with an Institute-wide initiative on online teaching and learning. In addition to providing free instruction to people all over the world, the edX program enhances the educational experience of on-campus students with online tools that supplement and enrich their classroom experiences. In September, the consortium announced its partnership with Google to develop the edX open-source learning platform, Open edX, expanding the platform’s selection of learning tools and worldwide availability.