The Online Revolution: Architecture
Education At A Crossroad

A Survey Report From The San Francisco Institute of Architecture

Contact: Fred A. Stitt, Director, SFIA

This survey report of architectural distance learning education reveals that approximately 2,000 students of architecture are currently studying for their degrees online.

Enrollments are rapidly increasing, so in five or six years, Internet-based education may be the medium of choice for many or all of architecture students’ education.

Here are the primary reasons for anticipated exponential growth in online architectural education:

1) Average campus-based architecture school tuition is $20,000 per year. The most expensive schools charge upwards of $40,000 per year. The greater part of the fees pay for the overhead of campus maintenance and amenities, and faculty and high administrative costs unrelated to teaching.

Schools’ easy access to student loans has created a bubble in tuition and “free money” for the schools. If student education is inadequate and students drop out for that or any other reason, the schools still keep the loan money, while the students’ debt is sold to collection agencies that can charge limited interest and penalties.

Online education is much less expensive for schools than the costs of campus-based education. Although some schools still keep online education rates high, competition will drive them lower. (See Reference 1 below.)

2) The dropout rate for campus-based architecture students is extremely high. For every 100 students who enroll, only 20 will graduate.

Students who drop out because of health, family, or other issues will have difficulty regaining traction, and tuitions are rarely refunded. Re-entry may not be possible for years; most schools don’t encourage re-entry, especially if it has to be “part-time” because of work commitments.

Online education can be entirely self paced and free of deadlines, to accommodate student employment needs and family obligations. This issue has been well surveyed by the American Institute of Architects Students (AIAS) organization. (See Reference 2 below.)

3) Many critics see conventional architectural education as irrelevant to today’s environmental needs and inadequate to prepare architects for the realities of professional life.

This subject has been explored time and again in debates between architects and educators. Past surveys also indicate 80% dissatisfaction among architects regarding technical, managerial, and ecological aspects of their education.

While a typical architecture college might have difficulty finding expert instructors for subject topics such as green building or project management, they are readily available via distance learning.

Leaders in online architecture education (such as Boston Architecture College, Lawrence Institute of Technology, and SFIA) have strong real world-oriented courses to balance their design theory and office practice offerings. (See Reference 3 below for a rundown on the issue.)

4) Campus design studio classes that average 40 hours a week, day and night, are considered the core of architectural education. They’re also the most controversial because of faculty and guest critics’ subjective criticisms and irrelevant comments.

Students complain that critics know little of the original assignment requirements. Instead they focus on fashion-conscious philosophies such as deconstructionism and postmodernism and hardly at all on rational problem solving. Many students we’ve surveyed say the best-looking graphics, not thoughtful problem solving, earn the best grades—period. (See Reference 4 below.)

5) On-site campus education still includes archaic practices: having students spend time getting to a classroom, to take notes from an instructor reading from his or her notes—an hour spent receiving information that could be delivered in ten minutes online. Extensive model building continues in many studios, with weeks of work spent cutting out cardboard or wood blocks—time spent with no actual relevance to design analysis and creative problem solving.

Some schools, such as MIT, have long put all their course work online, but much of it isn’t particularly worthy—just videos of lectures, or “talk” outlines. Online education must be designed to take advantage of the massive educational resources of the Internet.


1) Architecture School Tuition Report, by DesignIntellifence,

2) American Institute of Architects Students (AIAS),

3) Wired for Success: Real World Solutions for Transforming Higher Education, by Susan C. Aldridge and Kathleen Harvatt.

4) A student from the UK, Moira M. Malcolm, has documented in considerable biographical detail examples that duplicate what many students experience in U.S. schools, in her book, Brick Wall (a true story): Training to be an Architect.

This book is extremely revealing, in terms of the extraordinary health and psychological damage imposed by intense competition, long hours, sleep deprivation, reviewer negativity, and administration indifference to reasonable health considerations.

5) On the “MOOC” revolution, from College (Un)bound, by Jeffrey J. Selingo, editor at large, Chronicle of Higher Education:

“Free massive online open courses (MOOCs) and hybrid classes . . . unbundling of traditional degree credits will increase access to high-quality education regardless of budget or location and tailor lesson plans to individual needs.

“The great credentials race has turned universities into big businesses and fostered an environment where middle-tier colleges can command elite university-level tuitions while concealing staggeringly low graduation rates and churning out students with few of the skills needed. . . . ”

The unique characteristics of online distance learning offer potential reforms and major improvements for all these problem areas: cost, efficiency of schedule flexibility, and access to expert educators and research resources unavailable on any single campus.


The campus will remain central to higher education for young students who want no more than a conventional education, to allow them to enjoy the social pleasures of a “normal” college career and a conventional professional life. But for the far greater number who unwillingly have to drop out and for whom the social attractions of the campus are irrelevant to their needs, solid online education holds great appeal.

Many issues need to be worked out: satisfactory school-credit transfer agreements and an elimination of the stigma that some attach to “correspondence school” education.

Our search for comments and ideas on missing links and unmet needs in architectural education has elicited many comments from students, graduates, and faculty, such as:

“Why can’t we study online with experts who don’t teach at my school?”

“Some lectures are available online, but they’re just videos of instructors reading aloud from their notes. Where’s the technology?”

“The system made me mentally and physically ill to tell you the truth, and I doubt I will ever recover from it.”

“Our students are being given false promises. Racking up debt whilst spending years of their young lives pursuing a dream that has no hope of becoming reality.”

“Courses have no relationship to one another.”

“What about green building? It’s going on everywhere in the ‘real world,’ and I’ve checked out six major schools and none have any sort of dedicated green program.”

Schools can’t be expected to reform or change their systems, their traditions, their investments, and most of all, the lifelong teaching habits of their faculty members.

But online educational systems that start fresh, unbound by centuries of tradition, provide new alternatives that can reasonably coexist with conventional systems and even provide mutual benefits with hybrid systems better suited to meet highly individual student needs.

These new developments, like so much born of the Internet, don’t require a plan or organized implementation. It’s just going to happen, due to the innate advantages of online learning and the needs of a massive number of would-be students across the U.S. and around the world.


The San Francisco Institute of Architecture (SFIA), founded by architect, educator, and author, Fred A. Stitt, was the first and is still the largest and most advanced professional school of green building and sustainable design. Its online distance learning programs are the most extensive of any architecture school. SFIA is preparing to offer low-cost and free top-quality. green building education world wide.

Fred Stitt, Director

San Francisco Institute of Architecture