Stefano Mirti interviewed by Florian A. Schmidt

A Few Questions on Open Online Design Education

A conversation between Florian A. Schmidt and Stefano Mirti.

FS: Stefano,you are about to launch Design 101 on the online education platform iversity this autumn. What was your initial motivation for starting a MOOC, or massive open online course for design?

SM: It was a responsive motivation. Iversity made a call for proposals, and since we at Abadir Academy of Fine Arts in Catania are working on similar themes anyway, although, not in MOOC form, my collegues and I said to ourselves: “why not?”.

FS: Have you already worked on this kind of experimental courses related to design before?

SM: Yes indeed. In 2011 we set up the Design Royale experiment, during Milan Fuorisalone, in which we used Facebook as a teaching tool. Then, in 2012, we started the still ongoing project Whoami.And earlier this year we developed Ceramic Futures for Confindustria Ceramiche, which is also still ongoing.

FS: It seems that you have been working quite a lot on the online education. Where does your interest come from?

SM: I’ve been teaching for years, but something broke down and the traditional way of “knowledge dissemination” (normally called: “school”) doesn’t work anymore. It is because of the cognitive shift, it is because of the global crisis, there are a lot of possible reasons, but finally it doesn’t work anymore.

Being myself not only a teacher but foremost a designer, if something doesn’t work, my first question is how to fix it, how to design it better, how to invent some new device that might work better. This is how we got here.

FS: Could you elaborate a little bit more on this point? What exactly broke down, and how can online education make a difference?

SM: For centuries education has been based on a deductive system. You first go broad and then you get into the details. First you learn all the capitals of European countries, then you get to know the details related to Portugal. Of course you can become extremely passionate about Finland, still you are supposed to know that Paris is the capital of France.

In the previous system we were allowed to switch from the deductive to the inductive mode, but only where things were considered less relevant. For instance, I know everything about Inter football club (because it is my team), and I am allowed to be ignorant about Manchester United. Same would apply for pop music and the like.

Nowadays, my students use the inductive paradigm all the time. Regardless of broader schemes, they get into some details (let’s say a chair or a specific work made by some architect), and from that level they climb the ladder towards a broader understanding.

This is a cognitive shift. When I was a child, my mind was shaped on structured grids of information. We had linear fairy tales, children’s encyclopedia, etc. We didn’t have YouTube (a fantastic collection of non-organized fragments) and we didn’t have Twitter, Facebook and Instagram either.

FS: Do you think this is a development for the worse?

SM: Not at all. I think it is different. If you are using deduction-based teaching tools for people who have an induction-based mind, this won’t work. Hence, we have to rethink the way we transfer knowledge using new tools and attitudes. I have nothing against induction-based minds. I find them extremely fascinating.

FS: I see, the students’ cognive skills to absorb and create knowledge have been transformed by YouTube and this leads to YouTube like online education?

SM: This is part of the equation. The cognitive shift is a big change, but it is not the only element that comes into play. There is the second element that has to do with the relation between school and labour. Nowadays the average school teaches things that were perfect in the world of fifty years ago. But the world changed. The world is changing. Faster and faster.

What’s more: the previous world was comparatively stable. The work of architects had been quite similar for some 300 years. Nowadays the traditional architect does not exist anymore (and, if he exists, he has no work).

It’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes. Everyone sees it, but no one dares to say the obvious truth: the world is changing and schools have to change too. Exactly like the music business, the publishing business, airlines and any other sector.

FS: So you think that for education attack is the best form of defense in order to cope with the disruptive digital shift?

SM: Yes! Since the major forces of change are online media, if you can’t fight your enemy, you better join forces. In Ancient Greece a lot of people disliked written knowledge. If everyone would start to write and read, no one would learn things by heart anymore (with dire consequences for the whole society). It happens over and over. Now all the fuss is about online education, but the Open University raised the same questions and doubts 50 years ago.

FS: What type of students did you had in mind when you were developing the course?

SM: Non-designers. People who are curious. People who understand that design can be intended as philosophy or mathematics (in first instance a language, a way of seeing the world, not necessarily a profession).

FS: What is the business model for those providing the content, you and the Abadir academy that is, and for those hosting it, the platform iversity.org?

SM: For us at Abadir it is a very simple equation. We receive € 25.000 from iversity euro to produce a MOOC on design. Roughly speaking, to produce all the needed content it will cost some €50.000. From our side the missing 25k are intended as a communication investment by Abadir on its brand. Regarding iversity, you should ask them, we don’t know their business model. [FS: I did – see the full article here for more information on this.]

FS: What do your make of the huge commercial gap between free online courses and tuition fees of up to $20.000 per term for a design course in the English speaking countries?

SM: Design 101 on iversity is an experiment for us. There was a call, we accepted the challenge and there we are.

We have several doubts and questions about MOOCs, but the best way to sort them out is to make one ourselves.

For the time being all of our energy goes towards the mechanism itself. What works just fine, what are the problems… ? Design-wise we are still on the working prototype stage. The pricing of this kind of service will be addressed later on. First, we need to understand how it works (if it works).

FS: From where you are standing now, right before the start of your MOOC, where do you see the greatest challenges for the format in the future?

SM: In mistaking the medium for the content. MOOCs are a medium, like blackboards or books. If you think towards a new kind of education, MOOCs can be an ingredient.

To imagine MOOCs being the only element will lead nowhere. MOOCs should be added to traditional media. Books, classrooms, situations where you meet people in real life, chitchatting, having a coffee. MOOCs are not the new school. But MOOCs can be a very powerful ingredient to define a new kind of school.

FS: How much work did you have to invest upfront in order to prepare the course material, and how does that relate to the amount of work that will be necessary to run the course?

SM: It depends on how we define “work”. I have been involved in education and teaching for some 20 years. I’ve been working in new technologies and new media for the last 10, 15 years. If we count in all these years, the amount of work invested is actually flabbergasting. If we count in the actual time we spent on this MOOC, it is still quite a lot, yet reasonable. In the whole process, the most expensive item is experience. But then, experience it is not easy to quantify.

FS: What type of feedback will the students get from you, given that an automatic evaluation or even grading as it is done for example in Math MOOCs seems to be difficult, if not impossible, for design? In the description of the course, you mention P2P grading… is that a form of crowdsourcing?

SM: Students will get formal feedback: peer to peer evaluation, evaluation on the tests, comments on the question forum, automatic ranking upon their submissions.

But then, exactly like in a traditional school, students will get a great deal of informal evaluation. There will be a three days festival at the end of the course: any student who wants to participate can come to Berlin (at their expenses), bringing what they did along the way. It will be a mix between an informal exhibition and a three-day long party.
Then, there will also be a lot of tweets and retweets, posts on Facebook, replies to emails, etc.etc..

In a traditional class, maybe 5 out of 100 students would ask (outside of class) for informal evaluation. For the online course, it will be similar. If a student sends an interesting email, why shouldn’t I reply (in the same way I replied to your mail)?

In the social media world, if I tweet: “Today I saw this fantastic work by @xyz on #design101 for @iversity, check it out > www….”, this can be considered a special distinction from my side, given that I am usually quite selective with what I tweet.

FS: Talking about social media, you mentioned Facebook as an educational tool in regard to your Design Royale experiment… Will the students of Design 101 need a Facebook account to participate? And do you have any concerns transferring the public or academic discourse to the servers of a privately owned company with terms of use that for example allow them to censor uploaded material or use it for their own advertising or sell it to third parties? Is there a trade off?

SM: No, students won’t need a Facebook account. But this is not because of the servers of a privately owned company. This is because we don’t need Facebook as a tool. Personally, I have nothing against Facebook. In the same way I have nothing against privately owned publishing houses.

If we talk about education, I am being pragmatic. I could tell my students to buy a book (published by some multimedia empire) or to watch a movie on TV and the like. I am perfectly aware of all of its implications, but I accept them. Many traditional universities (especially the good ones) are corporations and work like corporations.

Good universities work with terms of use that, for example, allow to censor produced material or use it for their own advertising or sell it to third parties. Is there a trade off? I guess so…

You and me, we are having this conversation on a Google doc. I am perfectly aware of the implications of our choice. Capitalism has been working this way for centuries, turbo-capitalism was up and running way before Facebook. What can I say? Aldous Huxley was right. We live in a brave new world, and we are controlled by the infliction of pleasure – not pain, as Orwell imagined….

FS: Massive also sounds impersonal. How does that go together with the ideal of the traditional design education with handpicked talents learning from a master and from each other in small groups? Is this a deliberate breach with tradition or is it an addition to the old model of design education?

SM: As I said, MOOCs are a medium. Like books or blackboards. We shouldn’t mistake the teacher for the blackboard he uses. The blackboard does not teach. It is a tool used to teach.

Let’s say we have 10.000 students following the course. Then, let’s say we have three days of festival at the end. I would imagine 1% of the participants attending the event. This means we have 100 extremely interested and motivated students who come together to present their work. To spend three days with 100 motivated students is quite a big leap from a massive and impersonal digital crowd of 10.000 participants.

The process I am describing is the start of a long journey called “design education”. It is an introduction to design. If you like this introduction, then you should proceed towards more traditional systems and tools.

FS: Are you aware that Donald Norman is also about to offer a massive open online course called Design 101 on Udacity? Will there be a competition?

SM: Yes, I heard of that, it’s great. I am not worried at all about competition, quite the the opposite. The higher the number of people experimenting in this field, the faster we will reach some acceptable solution to the problem (how to teach 100.000 people at once).

It is like the Wright brothers and the airplane. There were some thousand people trying to fly. Finally they made it, and in retrospect we all think they were geniuses.

Ok, afterwards, it is easy to say who was a genius. But while we are at it, it is all those who try that are relevant. If we talk about innovation, it is crucial to try! Eventually, some of the people who are trying, will come up with a solution.

FS: Do you have certain prefixed goals according to which you will be able to evaluate if the course is a success and if it should be continued, or is this a one off experiment?

SM: We are working on the structure of the course. We are trying to make something that is of interest to many. We are trying to create something where people won’t drop out after three sessions. I know I should have a lot of answers and ideas, but honestly, for the time being, we are not there yet (prefixed goals). In a month, I could be more precise on this.

FS: How do you imagine the future of design education? Especially the balance between online remote learning and the personal collaboration and exchange of ideas in a shared physical space and within an institution?

SM: I studied at an Italian school. You studied at a British school.
In Italy, architectural education includes a lot of theory and some design oriented classes with little hands on approach. In the UK, it works the other way round. Is one system better than the other? I guess not, it depends on multiple factors.

There are schools that are based on their incredible libraries. Other schools are based on their workshops. I guess MOOCs will become one of these tools. Some schools will be built around their MOOCs, others won’t have any MOOCs at all, and yet others will be somewhere in between.

Regarding the future of design education, I guess there will be one element remaining the same: the direct relationship between the student and his or her master. Without that, there is no education.

How to establish this special connection? It can happen in the context of a traditional school, during a summer course somewhere, by reading books or by following a MOOC. Imagine a funnel. At the end there is your master. MOOCs allow the funnel to be much bigger, to suck many more people in. But then, this is just a start.

Lao Tzu said: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. To make this first single step, MOOCs are great. Then there is the rest of the journey. Bon Voyage…

FS: Thank you for the interview, and all the best for taking off with your MOOC.


Stefano Mirti is an architect, designer and design educator from Milan. Among many other roles, he is one of the partners of Id-Lab and one of the two curators of the Biodiversity Pavilion for Milan World Expo 2015.

Florian A. Schmidt is a communication designer, design researcher and writer from Berlin who is currently doing a PhD on Crowd Design at the Royal College of Art in London.

The interview was conducted in preparation for this article which will be published in print as part of the project PILOTS: Navigating Next Models of Design Education,curated by El Ultimo Grito and David Falkner, director of the Stanley Picker Gallery at Kingston University.