The Meaning of Rome


The Meaning of Rome was a well-developed concept of Prof David Mayernik’s, Associate Professor with the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture and Fellow of the American Academy in Rome. Based on Mayernik’s 2005 book, Timeless Cities: An Architect’s Reflections on Renaissance Italy, the fundamental goal of The Meaning of Rome was to raise the understanding of both architect students and professionals as well as general lovers of Rome about the unique intention and expression seen in Baroque and Renaissance Rome. As with all of our MOOCs, we wanted to make this a course as accessible to as broad an audience as possible without losing a sense of purpose and focus. 

The Challenge

The challenge in this course was the audience. We knew that we were going to attract professional architects and designers, design and architecture students, as well as a high volume of the general public, given that Rome is one of the most visited cities in the world today. We wanted to make a course that was as accessible to the learner with no formal background in design, art or architectural history, or knowledge of the fundamental principles of design, but also reach and keep engaged those who had focused educational and professional experience. Additionally, we knew our job was to bring to life buildings, monuments, and drawings that often no longer or never existed in real life. 

The Process

Prof Mayernik works in Italy regularly and was doing so during the design of the course. We sent a skeleton film crew to Rome to film David on what would later be described as a digital walking tour of the city. The video approach of taking a walking tour with David created a familiar entry into concepts covered, where the viewer hopefully felt that they had a chaperone with them on their exploration. Design of the course involved selection of the sites and buildings to illustrate three primary concepts around which the course was structured. The learning designer and professor created a “primer” module to help students without art history or architecture backgrounds to quickly get a sense of the basic terms and people that helped shape the art, politics, history, religion, and architecture of the time. 

The graphic artist and Prof Mayernik modeled existing and since-demolished buildings into interactive 3D models that students could turn, twist, and manipulate to truly get a sense of the relationships between design elements. Drawing from the reflections in David’s book, we created videos, graphics, and animations that brought to life many concepts that were previously only described verbally in Renaissance texts. 

To address the more sophisticated learners in the class, we designed a portfolio project that ran through each major module in the course - this is where higher standards could be applied to those with background, while there were basic minimums in place to acknowledge new learners to this subject. 

The Results

During its original run in spring of 2016, close to 3,000 students took The Meaning of Rome. A class album was created for students to upload the beauty and architecturally interesting buildings, monuments, and sites near their homes. Building over the course of the semester, at the end of the course, the class album became a global showcase of the beauty and intelligence of architects and city planners around the world. The course remains on edX as an archive; students can still take as a self-paced experience. Since its original run in spring 2016, the course has seen a surge of interest with now nearly 10,000 enrolled.