"I don't have the advantage of firms in Billings or Bozeman who get the factory reps and the lunchtime seminars," says Shelden, a past president of AIA of Montana. So he attends two conferences a year held by the state chapter. "You can get quite a bit of continuing ed at those meetings, but not enough," he says. To round out his quota, he has attended code seminars held by state officials, and filed for plenty of credits earned on his own—from studying nature and design at the Biomimicry Guild in Helena to touring a ceramics factory in the Czech Republic to reading articles in trade magazines. "I tend to do the self-report thing quite a bit," he says.
Montana is one of the few states that still does not require continuing education for architects, notes Bruce Wrightsman, an architect and assistant professor of architecture at Montana State University in Bozeman. "So if you're outside the AIA, it's not an issue, and that's one of the reasons why it's hard for people who practice in smaller firms" to find a wide variety of continuing-education opportunities—particularly interesting ones.
Increasingly, Lowther of the AIA says, continuing-education courses are going online, and a lot of them are free. "Now [architects are] disappointed when they actually have to pay for something, but I can't do a webcast for free." In 2000, fewer than 1 percent of programs were available electronically. "Today, we're pushing 20 to 25 percent," he says.
Among nonprofit providers such as trade groups and associations, "webcasts are becoming the Internet delivery method of choice," Lowther says. "Short, one- to 1.5-hour courses delivered to the professionals directly seem to work best." (Manufacturers, he adds, haven't offered as much online content because they "are trying to hang on to face-to-face contact.") The most popular online course so far was the 2030 Challenge sustainability initiative webcast in 2007, developed by architect and resource-conservation specialist Edward Mazria, which drew between 8,000 and 10,000 viewers to an interactive "teach-in." "The system overloaded, so an exact count is not possible," Lowther recalls. "It was one of those significant events that has already begun to change the way we look at course delivery."
Auditing the content of courses online is more complicated than other forms of learning, but also more exigent, because problems online can spread much faster. If a dozen architects in Bismarck, N.D., see a bad in-office presentation, the problem might be contained in Bismarck, Lowther posits. But online in a webcast, it could be much worse because "architects from around the world might see it and it cannot be corrected," especially if it's a one-off presentation. Content available any time online is much easier to police and fix if there are problems, says Lowther.
Lowther readily submits that controlling the quality of online educational programming is a work in progress. The AIA is, as ever, trying to balance flexibility, accessibility, and fidelity to the system's purpose. Lowther offers an adage someone quoted to him: "We have been teaching face-to-face for 3,000 years. We have been teaching online for little more than 10 years."
But another learning format is emerging that has already taken other fields by storm, he says: "Watch for podcast education next."