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Earning an M.Arch Online: Learning from Karen Nelson, Dean of Architecture

Dean of Architecture, Karen Nelson featured on Archinect's 'Dean's List', an interview series with the leaders of architecture schools worldwide.

Archinect's Deans List is an interview series with the leaders of architecture schools, worldwide. The series profiles the school's programs, pedagogical approaches, and academic goals, as defined by the dean-giving an invaluable perspective into the institution's unique curriculum, faculty, and academic environment.

For our latest installment, and in conjunction with Archinect's Spotlight on Boston, Archinect spoke with Karen Nelson, Dean of Boston Architectural College (BAC), one of just a handful of American universities that is accredited to offer an online Master of Architecture degree by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB).

In our conversation, Nelson highlights the history and specifics of BAC's online masters program, the make up of the program's student body, and how this unique academic offering has found increased relevance in recent weeks as distance learning and self-quarantining measures make online education a larger part of the experience of becoming an architect.

For our readers who may not be familiar with Boston Architectural College, can you share some insight into the history and mission of the institution?

At the BAC School of Architecture, we educate students to become citizen architects who learn from faculty, from professionals, and from one another to change and sustain the city. We believe that architecture integrates personal expression, theoretical frameworks, and building technology, and that making and design practice - as tangible forms of applied research - accelerate change in society and in the professions. Our community of students and educators work and build collectively - bringing together diverse personal identities and backgrounds to realize an interdisciplinary dialogue, critique, and transformation of place and the larger world.

The BAC has been recognized with distinction for its leadership role in educating an extraordinarily diverse student body to help bring about social equity through design - through the design of landscapes, of architecture, of interior architecture, of sustainable and historic spaces, and of spaces for human health. We continue to be at the forefront of learning from practice and academic study with guidance from our brilliant faculty members and splendid practitioners.

One hundred and thirty years ago, the BAC began as a place of conversation about architecture and design. It became chartered as a club where all could join. After World War II, the club became a center. And in 2006 it evolved into a college.

The BAC's Bachelor of Architecture certificate program was recognized and accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board as a first-professional degree in 1971. In 1996, the BAC began to offer first professional Master of Architecture and Master of Interior Design degrees. In the past fifteen years, we have added degree programs in Landscape Architecture and Design Studies (Sustainable Design, Historic Preservation, Design for Human Health, and, most recently, Real Estate). In 2007, the BAC offered the first NAAB-accredited online track of the Master of Architecture with a low-residency intensive in Boston during the third week of the semester. In 2019, we rolled out an accredited entirely online track with a remote 8-day intensive.

screenshot online learning


What is the overriding pedagogy of the program and how does the format of online/distance learning fit into that objective?

The college's mission: The BAC provides excellence in design education emerging from practice and accessible to diverse communities.

The M. Arch, online track, grew out of our mission to make architectural education truly accessible. There is a community of learners who have earned pre-professional degrees and have begun working (and building lives) before they earned a professional degree. We designed our online track for this community - to help create a path towards licensure. Additionally, our M. Arch and B. Arch students are able to join the Integrated Path to Architectural Licensure (IPAL) to enable our students to take the Architect Registration Examination while they are still students.

The BAC's educational model integrates learning from professional practice concurrently with academic study. It is the only program in the nation to do so with an emphasis on qualitative assessment and evaluation alongside quantitative analysis. Architecture students are required to work and learn in design firms for a minimum of 3,000 hours and an increasingly advanced set of competencies.

Our pedagogy builds upon a cohort of students who are in the same studio with one another - first in the low residency model and then virtually studying and working together. We found that basing this community cohort on our studios, which typically hold 6 to 9 students per instructor, helps our students find a way to connect and support one another through life's trials and triumphs.

architecture student work


What are the basics of the program in terms of duration, cost, format, and scope?

The Master of Architecture degree, online track, typically lasts four semesters (with spring and fall starts) for eligible students who have a prior degree in architectural technology or environmental design. We offer two formats for the M. Arch online: low-residency and remote. Most students participate in our low-residency Boston 8-day long intensive, filled with community building workshops, site and precedent visits, lectures, and studio work. Remote students experience this intensive at home. We stream lectures, Zoom workshops, upload videos of site itineraries, and share meaningful precedents.

At the end of the intensive, online low-residency and remote students present their work to outside critics and their peers. They continue the semester learning online with additional reviews held synchronously.

Most students have at least two years professional practice experience. The typical cost for the 2019- 2020 semester tuition plus low residency fee is: $14,110. For students who have not completed sufficient pre-requisites, we ask them to complete additional coursework that may add time and tuition.

Graduates of the M. Arch, online track, fulfill the same degree requirements as their onsite peers. Courses in Advanced Studios, Building Systems, Professional Practice, and History Theory are followed by a yearlong Thesis endeavor. All the while, students are working and learning productively in firms - and checking in each semester with their practice faculty members who help evaluate and advise them.

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