How Construction Education Leaders Are Adapting to Virtual Classrooms 

construction education virtual classroom online

Ready or not, educators across the globe have had to adapt swiftly to distance learning with strict stay-at-home guidelines in place. Like the students they are teaching, it’s proving to be a learning process for the vast majority of institutions. 

Recently, TU Dublin hosted a webinar for over 150 industry professionals on how they mastered moving their part-time MSc applied Building Information Modeling and Management Course to remote teaching. 

The driver for this altruistic activity was derived from the impact that COVID-19 pandemic was having in the construction industry and many organisations were seeking urgent advice and best practice options in order to efficiently and effectively work from home.

We spoke with staff members about the key challenges they are facing and the best strategies they have applied to support their students online. Here’s what we learned. 

1. Adopting Collaboration Software

Within the construction industry, collaboration software has been key to facilitating remote work. Similarly, in an education environment, construction software has been proving to provide unique benefits to support online learning. Prior to shutdowns, construction educators at TU Dublin rolled out BIM 360. Paired with the university’s virtual learning environment, Brightspace, this has allowed construction educators to rapidly transition to a fully online environment.

Dr. Avril Behan, Dean of College of Engineering & Built Environment at TU Dublin

“All of TU Dublin’s teaching was already supported by the Brightspace Virtual Learning Environment but, overnight, the VLE became the primary means of communication and engagement between faculty and students,” explained Dr. Avril Behan, Dean of College of Engineering & Built Environment at TU Dublin. “Our Learning Teaching & Technology team provided fantastic support to our faculty to help them to leverage the range of assessment, self-directed learning, and engagement tools within the VLE. The embedded Bongo virtual classroom proved to be one of the best tools and TU Dublin has also used this to engage directly with our industry partners and support their remote working transition. On our Masters in applied Building Information Modelling and Management programme, our lecturers, with support from Autodesk and the embedded use of BIM 360, were able to switch to full virtual delivery between the time that the stay-at-home announcement was made at midday on March 12th and the commencement of class that evening at 6pm.”

kevin furlong TU dublin
Kevin Furlong MA, MSc, Lecturer in Building Information Modelling & Management (BIMM) & Digital Construction at TU Dublin

For its teaching staff, TU Dublin’s preparedness helped to facilitate a fast transition to fully virtual classrooms. “We got notice from our college administration that the university was to close that day,” recounted Kevin Furlong MA, MSc, Lecturer in Building Information Modelling & Management (BIMM) & Digital Construction at TU Dublin.

“We had a class scheduled that evening, so we quickly moved to set up vertical meetings within Brightspace. By 6 pm, we were collaborating in the cloud through BIM 360. We were lucky that we had frontloaded all project information and were set up on BIM 360. The transition was seamless.”

For TU Dublin, Brightspace provides a platform for both students and teachers to meet and connect, and BIM 360 hosts all coursework. “Between the Brightspace virtual learning environment and BIM 360, we can fully collaborate with the teams, and they can fully collaborate with each other,” added Kevin. BIM 360 also provides more transparency and control for construction educators themselves. “Through BIM 360, we've got control. You can see everything and we use the published folders as a portfolio. In a way, students are constructing a portfolio in the cloud, and we can even send external examiners an invite to view their project.” 

Although adapting to a new model is not without challenges, TU Dublin has experienced some unique benefits due to the shift. “It's working really well at the moment. We’re investigating the students’ activity through BIM 360 a little more than we would normally. It’s providing more engagement and feedback in terms of what the students are doing,” said Kevin. 

2. Streamlining Communication Between Students 

Group and team projects are cornerstones of many higher education classes. As students prepare for their careers or support their current ones, successfully working with their peers is essential. Without face to face interactions, construction education programmes have had to step up to ensure they are facilitating productive and positive online communication between students. 

To help set up the foundation for successful group collaboration, students at TU Dublin work with faculty to develop a model for appropriate Team conduct, interactions, and behaviour. “Recently, both inside and outside of the online space, we have our students co-create and sign a contract of engagement,” said Kevin.

“This defines how they will work together as a team and sets a code of behaviour of how they should talk to one another.”

This contract of engagement is an essential element of the embedding of Lean principles and practices within the collaborative multidisciplinary programmes at TU Dublin. Respect for people is as relevant in the remote environment as it is in face-to-face situations and TU Dublin is committed to providing a support learning experience and promoting the adoption of such practices within industry. 

Dr. Barry McAuley, Assistant Lecturer in Digital Construction and Engineering and Programme Chair for the MSc aBIMM, TU Dublin
Dr. Barry McAuley, Assistant Lecturer in Digital Construction and Engineering and Programme Chair for the MSc aBIMM, TU Dublin

At TU Dublin, BIM 360 not only helps centralise student communications, but it also provides real-world construction technology training. “In addition to Meeting Minutes, Daily Logs is a BIM 360 feature that provides a way for the whole team to communicate,” said Dr. Barry McAuley, Assistant Lecturer in Digital Construction and Engineering and Programme Chair for the MSc aBIMM, TU Dublin. “By adding meeting details, it’s a way to showcase how instant communication happens on a jobsite. It’s a great platform to get students to communicate and takes away the whole use of messaging apps like WhatsApp and the potential problems that can come with it. We really focus on getting students to use industry-specific collaboration tools to communicate with each other.”

3. Eyeing the Future

Once stay at home orders are loosened, construction educators will begin to find more normalcy when administering coursework and classes. However, education institutions are anticipating permanent changes on the horizon, requiring them to think about long-term strategies to support virtual classrooms. 

More construction programmes will consider shifting towards a blended learning model, or programmes where at least part of the curriculum is conducted online. “The education solution being planned at TU Dublin for 2020/2021 is based on blended learning because most of our programmes include between 30%-80% practice-based learning,” said Dr. Behan. “Thus, we are working to ensure the on-site safety of faculty and students for a limited amount of face-to-face contact on most programmes, in a reduced capacity physical environment. This will ensure that practice-based Learning Outcomes can still be delivered”

Noting the recent success of the BIM 360 and Brightspace model, educators at TU Dublin believe the programme is already well equipped to make the transition in the future. “This module has transitioned extremely easily from a classroom and blended approach to a fully online setting,” said Kevin. “Nevertheless, there's a huge amount of preparatory work that still needs to be done before the module starts. But the benefits of creating a student-centered and collaborative project-based learning environment are worth it and promotes deep learning.”

“We are already looking at ways of doing blended learning,” added Dr. McAuley. “We have a Bachelor of Science (honors) in BIM (Digital Construction), which started in January this year. The module on Digital Construction Standards and Principles is completely online. Certainly, other modules will shift online, but there are programmes where I don't see that happening. Instead, these programmes will become more blended as we progress.”

Nonetheless, its students’ and the faculty’s well being is central to every decision. Dr. Behan noted, “We are about to launch a philanthropic fund-raising campaign to enable more students to access financial aide and thus participate fully in the blended learning environment that will be in place for the next academic session. A significant portion of TU Dublin’s student cohort comes from lower-income backgrounds and the University is committed to ensuring the continued participation of those students in higher education.”

She continued, “The university is now carrying out a comprehensive needs analysis for all faculty, in relation to all programmes and activities, to ensure that remote equipment and set-up are sufficient for blended delivery across an entire semester and, potentially, a full academic session. For both faculty and students, TU Dublin is very conscious of the toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on mental well-being. Thus, we are also expanding our range of supports available to both cohorts and we will continue to closely monitor the situation.”

Preparing the Future Generation of Construction Professionals for Success

Virtual classrooms are here to stay and will become even more foundational in construction education programmes around the world. The educators and institutions embracing and adapting to the assortment of challenges will build both stronger students today and more resilient professionals of tomorrow. 

Watch the Free On-Demand Webinar: Moving design teams to remote working and online collaboration

Philipp Mueller

Autodesk Education Experiences- Program Mgr. AEC EMEA