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Jane Wolff's students standing in their study corridors

11.03.20 – How an online field course brought landscape architecture students together, despite the pandemic

When new students enter the Daniels Faculty's Master of Landscape Architecture program, the first course they take is Field Studies 1 (LAN 1041), an introduction to basic observation and drawing techniques. In a normal year, these students would spend a week walking Toronto as a group and studying the urban landscape — but this year, because of the pandemic, none of that was possible. With all of the Daniels Faculty's fall instruction happening remotely, the course's instructor, associate professor Jane Wolff, had to find a way to replicate the experience online.

The task was complicated by the fact that not all of Wolff's students are spending the semester in Toronto. When the course began, roughly half the class was telecommuting from the eastern hemisphere, mostly from locations in China.

Even after Wolff had overcome the obvious logistical problem presented by time zones (she split the class into two sections, by hemisphere, and arranged to meet with each group at a different time of day) there was still the larger matter of finding a way of teaching basic landscape architecture field skills, despite the fact that it wasn't possible for her to take students into the field.

The solution she eventually devised was elegantly simple: since most of her students couldn't travel to downtown Toronto, she would simply have them study whatever landscape was nearest to them.

Wolff asked every student to draw a one-kilometre line from the front door of their home, regardless of whether that door happened to be located in Canada, or Taiwan, or Peru. The land surrounding those lines would become each student's personal study corridor.

Once each student had a landscape to study, Wolff still had to provide them with a set of exercises to carry out. But how could she develop field assignments for sites she had never personally visited? "I couldn't prepare itineraries for them based on my knowledge of their local landscape," she says. "If you have students all over the world, in places you've never been, there's no way to know what stories are there."

Wolff tackled the problem by developing a set of exercises that could apply to any kind of landscape, in any country. "The idea for every day was to look at the exact same place with a different question in mind," Wolff says. "Over the course of the week, each student would think about the range of systems that are working together to shape the landscape."

Students began each day of the course by watching a recorded video interview with a different landscape expert — like assistant professor Danijela Puric Mladenovic, who introduced students to tree specimens; Daniels Faculty assistant dean Jen Hill, whose video dealt with drainage systems; or sessional lecturer Doug Anderson, who spoke about Indigenous relationships with land.

Then, on each day of the course, each student would walk their one-kilometre line. Each day's walk had a different objective.

On day one, students took photographs, as a way of learning to understand the topography of their chosen site. The second day was all about water: students made note of places along their one-kilometre corridor where water existed, or where they had spotted manmade structures that might indicate the presence of water. On subsequent days, students searched for and documented plant life, and studied the effects of climate and light.

Although it wasn't possible for Wolff to fully replicate the group-learning experience that would normally be part and parcel of a field course, she found ways to cut through some of the loneliness. She started by assigning each student a fellow student as a conversation partner. The conversation partners would meet twice a day by video chat to check in on each other's progress in the course.

But Wolff's best tool in the fight against isolation was something else entirely. She made the class sign up for Miro, an online whiteboarding application. All of the course's students were required to post their drawings and photographs to a shared Miro board. Soon, the board began to look like an intricate mosaic, with tiles made up of images from residential neighbourhoods in each student's home country. Each student posted a portrait of themselves standing somewhere along their study corridor.

"We got to compare different kinds of environments from all over the world," Wolff says. "For instance, it was fascinating to see the range of structures that allow the collection of water running alongside a street. We saw shallow ditches. We saw gutters and drains. And there was a beautiful system of open channels in Tehran."

Sophie Yan participated in the field course from her home in Weifang, a city in China's Shangdong province. Sophie's study area included a public park and a plaza beside a nearby cultural centre. Walking her study route day after day, she began to notice things she'd never noticed before: the way trees shaded certain areas but not others, subtle changes in elevation, and the variety of vegetation living in planters.

Here are some drawings she made of a few of those planters:

A page from Sophie's workbook

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And here's a diagram she made that shows the different plant species she observed at different points along her walking route:

A page from Sophie's workbook

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Meanwhile, in Brampton, a suburb of Toronto, Afsah Ali studied the landscape around Bramalea Road and Steeles Avenue, a busy intersection surrounded by businesses. Her corridor included major streets and a local ravine. Although she has lived in the area for years, completing the course's field exercises allowed her to see the landscape through new eyes. "I thought I was very familiar with my neighbourhood," she says, "but the course made me realize more than I thought I could have. There were a lot of positives to being able to do this research on my own."

Here's a cross section of her ravine:

A page from Afsah's workbook

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And here are some animals she spotted along her route:

A page from Afsah's workbook

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The online learning experience produced such positive results that it may influence the way Wolff teaches field courses in the future, once social distancing restrictions are lifted.

"I was amazed at how much this remote learning allowed me a sense of students' personalities," she says. "It was fun to find out where they came from. I'm really looking forward to working with these students again, knowing what I now know about their environments, their homes, and the landscapes that have shaped their understanding."

Top image: Afsah, in her study area in Brampton (left), and Sophie in her study area in Weifang (right).