Intellectual Outputs

Design education is based on various learning approaches, such as didactic instructions, active participation, and learning-by-doing. Since the latter two are perceived as the most effective ways to learn design, it is not surprising that many design courses implemented these approaches. A course type that implements these two approaches (participation and learning-by-doing) is a project-based course. These courses are organised around a central project or problem that needs to be solved. Although they can be organised so that students individually tackle the problem, they are more often organised around student teams. The team type of project-based courses includes the benefits of the individual, but also aims at developing social skills due to the need for collaboration among team members. Also, in comparison to some other learning approaches (e.g., traditional didactic instructions), PBL can offer various advantages such as resemblance to the industrial reality and the focus on the knowledge application. On the other hand, this volatility of tasks and challenges requires a highly customisable approach of using required digital tools that can easily reflect the challenge-specific requirements. Even more, PBL requires more flexibility and adaptability from educators in terms of the support they provide. This becomes even more evident when talking about PBL conducted in a virtual and dislocated environment.

With the advancement of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and Web technologies, many researchers and teachers tried to provide e-learning support for conducting PBL and courses. However, these attempts are often solely focused on developing and implementing wikis (users collaboratively add/remove/edit content using a web browser) or knowledge bases (simply file repositories), not considering some other approaches and tools that may be useful for this specific context. In addition, e-learning approaches and infrastructure for PBL are often detached from the learning objectives and developed without systematic consideration of content and the way it is presented.

Within the last year-and-a-half (from the beginning of 2020), the emergence of COVID-19 has posed huge attention on e-learning support since the entire world has become involved in dealing with issues related to distant education. As a result, virtual teaching has become standard practice. Simply, this COVID-19 crisis forced the educational community to transform classes and the way they were traditionally held. However, many of these transformations were conducted ad-hoc, within a very short time frame, and without taking into consideration previous practical and research experiences related to virtual design education and education in general.

ELPID project was conceived and initiated before the unfortunate COVID-19 crisis. The previous project partners’ experiences, which were gained through their earlier geographically distributed education efforts (before 2018) and during the first project year, provided us with a head start and allowed us easier transition to online teaching (despite all difficulties), leading to higher satisfaction of both students and educators. Also, the created outputs within this project served immediately as a good starting point for the interested educational community.

1. Proof-of-concept of the e-learning platform for virtual project-based design course (O1)

E-learning, as a term, stands for a set of learning forms that enable the digital transfer of learning content. It is also perceived as using technology to deliver, support, and improve teaching and learning. As such, e-learning allows many possibilities for integrating multimedia and other content (e.g., lecture and tutorial .pdfs) to improve the autonomous or semi-autonomous learning process. In addition, the implementation of digital and multimedia content in higher education provides many didactical, learning, and even financial benefits. Although initially developed to facilitate individual learning, e-learning platforms also offer various benefits for collaborative learning. For that reason, the e-learning platform can be perceived as a suitable solution for the integration of multiple methods and tools to support collaborative project-based design education. Building on this premise, the main objective of ELPID was to systematically address various aspects of PBL and identify which of them can be supported via e-learning and in what way.

Because of the variety of aspects that need to be considered, the development of the e-learning platform for design and project-based education represents a major challenge. Few previous attempts from the educational community mainly were related to creating a general e-learning approach for the entire curriculum. However, they were not focused on building the e-learning platform for PBL courses, which are significantly more collaborative and application-driven than, for example, traditional ex-cathedra teaching.

To be more specific, the e-learning platform development for PBL courses requires various textual, audio, and video material only to cover essential theoretical background for the design project. In addition, there is a need to integrate various virtual and digital technologies to provide students with the opportunity for collaborative and creative problem solving as a part of PBL education. However, some e-learning modules navigate students through the same educational materials in the same way, which is the complete opposite of the PBL principles of constructive and self-directed learning. Because of the many specificities of PBL courses, it is crucial to rethink and restructure the existing e-learning platforms typically utilised for that purpose.

The intensity of communication and collaboration in PBL courses is high. Therefore, there should be modules that can offer/support these aspects of PBL. Communication within design courses can be split into generalised project and specialised engineering communication. So, besides digital tools for general communication within virtual student teams, design PBL courses require the usage of special engineering applications such as Computer-Aided Design (CAD), Computer-Aided Engineering (CAE), Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), etc. Using these tools is one of the most important and widely adopted practical skills acquired during design education. These tools facilitate the visualisation and analysis of products in various development phases (conceptual phase, embodiment phase, detail phase) and thus foster group creativity and problem-solving abilities. The inherent limitations of various digital tools point to the need for different tools in different stages of design projects. It is important to emphasise our awareness of professional digital tools (e.g., advanced CAD/PLM solutions) that might be used for collaboration throughout the design process. However, such tools are high-priced and not tailored for the educational process – primarily due to high hardware requirements, licensing issues, and lack of education-specific features. For that reason, the e-learning platform for design project-based courses should also serve as a hub for the provision of multiple communication and collaboration tools in one place.

As a first step, this includes a definition of e-learning platform architecture and content type. As a part of activities related to this output, different problem-solving, creativity, CAD/CAE, and visualisation tools were tried out to check their suitability for virtual PBL courses. In some cases, an entirely new set of elements had to be developed for existing e-learning platforms to make them better suited for PBL courses (e. g. advanced visualisation).

The main elements of the proposed e-learning platform for virtual project-based design courses are described in the conference paper “E-learning infrastructure prototype for geographically distributed project-based learning“. As it was stated earlier, the proposed e-learning infrastructure needs to be tailored for the PBL context, which includes the specificities of an institution (e.g., hardware and software infrastructure, available funding), a course (e.g., focus on conceptual or embodiment/detail design phase), educators (e.g., experience level, intended role – facilitators/instructors), and students (e.g., knowledge level).

In terms of content, the platform has to cover the basic theoretical project background through textual, audio, and video material (lectures and tutorials). Further, it needs to integrate virtual and digital technologies to provide students with the opportunity for collaborative and creative problem-solving. Such integration is also needed to prevent students from going through educational materials in the traditional manner (e.g., sequential reading), which is against the PBL principles of constructive and self-directed learning (Verstegen et al., 2016). Therefore, it is crucial to rethink and adapt the existing platforms so that the new infrastructure organically encompasses three different aspects: (1) contents for design, (2) collaboration in design, and (3) lecturers’ and students’ needs. The figure below shows the general layout of the infrastructure detailed in the full paper (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Overview of the ELPID infrastructure

In this research paper, we tried to disclose the architecture of the proposed e-learning platform by identifying the main system elements required for a design PBL course (Figure 1) – dedicated file repository, e-learning environment, distant communication tool, and other tools (messaging, project management, concept mapping and idea sharing, 3D CAD modeling tools). This platform layout embraces the elementary set of e-learning elements needed to conduct design PBL courses, regardless of the context in which it should be applied. Please check the full source for more details: Becattini, N., Škec, S., Pavković, N. & Cascini, G. (2020). E-learning infrastructure prototype for geographically distributed project-based learning. In Proceedings of the Design Society: DESIGN Conference. Cambridge University Press.

In a way, this work is also a critique of traditional learning management systems (LMS) due to their lack of flexibility and inability to extend their functionalities considering the specificities of the course. Furthermore, even though some LMSs provide students with various communication features, they are not perceived as user-friendly nor as an adequate replacement for communication tools the students use on a daily basis (e.g., Skype, Whatsapp, “basic” Microsoft Teams, etc.).

To get an overview of the usage of various ICT tools (which stand as individual elements of e-learning infrastructure shown above), we explored and analysed how they are used and how they support distributed student teams in a design PBL course. The main insights regarding the used ICT tools are described in the conference paper “Use of Information and Communication Technology Tools in Distributed Product Design Student Teams“.

Figure 2. Use of ICTs in analysed PBL course

The obtained results show that teams utilise various ICT tools to achieve their goals throughout the course. While some ICT tools are used for only one specific purpose, others are utilised for various design tasks. In addition, students often use more than one ICT tool for the same task (e.g., communication, sketching, technology and idea search, etc.). As students utilise ICT tools based on previous experience, we designed an initial workshop focused on actively learning the product design process and the supporting ICT tools. This initial workshop helped students acquire a basic understanding of ICT tools’ functionalities, which they continued to use throughout the course. The CAD-related tools were introduced later in the course (appropriate timing based on its planned use in the 2nd/3rd phase) as it would be too early to reflect on them in the initial workshop. Besides, it is important to emphasise the huge role of various cloud-based collaboration tools that enabled synchronous communication and allowed students seamless integration of their results throughout the PBL course. Please check the full source for more details: Horvat, N., Becattini‬, N., Škec, S. (2021). Use of Information and Communication Technology Tools in Distributed Product Design Student Teams. In Proceedings of the Design Society: ICED21 Conference. Cambridge University Press.

Our recent report further deepened and explored this analysis of used ICT tools (focus on Moodle LMS). In addition, some of these results are elaborated and used as argumentation for LMS selection later in Section 2.

The proposed initial solution of the e-learning platform allowed us to proceed with the following intellectual output and build on that variant. It is crucial to emphasize the iterativeness of the e-learning platform development process. As stated above, some of these insights were used for O2 as well. The findings acquired throughout all three project years pursued us to improve the proposed solution further.

2. Completed e-learning platform for virtual project-based design course (O2)

The completed e-learning infrastructure merges the general functionalities of online collaboration tools with problem-solving, creativity, CAD/CAE, and visualisation tools, which are needed for flawless engineering and design work in a virtual environment. This newly developed e-learning platform for PBL can be used by all students and educators in participating higher education institutions.

To represent elements of our e-learning platform, we will provide a list of various guidelines which can inform you on how to plan, set up, and use various tools that constitute the e-learning platform. Therefore, based on the insights related to O1, we believe that this is needed to properly conceptualise and implement your course regarding this aspect of virtual and distributed collaboration! As such, we believe that the proposed solution coupled with the guidelines for setting up the e-learning environment for PBL context could be beneficial for educators and students in general.

Based on our analysis (please check two conference papers and report from Section 1), we decided to showcase the implementation of our e-learning infrastructure using two learning management systems (LMSs) as main integrators – Moodle and MS Teams.

Creating an online course for project-based learning in Moodle

MS Teams:
Creating an online course for project-based learning in MS Teams

These documents should help you to organise your course in the e-learning environment. Please be aware that both systems have their advantages and disadvantages in terms of their support within the PBL context.

To check how these LMS environments look like and to get the initial insights about their functionality, please visit the following links:

Moodle – the link for ELPID course 2020/21

Moodle links for previous years – ELPID course 2019/20 and ELPID course 2018/19

If you want to try and check the ELPID environment in Moodle, please check the demo ELPID website. Also, please use the 3D model viewer for Moodle developed for analysing models (.stl or .obj/.mtl formats) directly within the Moodle environment. In case you are interested in this activity, please download the file and install it in your Moodle environment.

For Croatian educational community, please feel free to test the environment provided by SRCE (not created as a part of this project). This is a generic representation of the Moodle LMS, which can provide users with the possibility to test various functionalities and modules within the platform (only in Croatian).

MS Teams –

Please contact us via our web form, so that we can provide you with access to the platform (both for Moodle and MS Teams). You will be able to explore the way we implemented our platform for design PBL courses and examine individual elements of the infrastructure. If you need any additional help on how to build your own course, please let us know!

In addition to these two platforms, we wanted to analyse the functionalities and features of collaborative platform 3DEXPERIENCE, which is often used in industrial environment. To explain the specificities of this platform within the context of e-learning, please check the following report:

Besides these guidelines on how to set up the LMS, we would like to provide you with some alternatives and best practices that were encountered while using these tools. Also, below you can find some suggestions on how to configure tools that are planned for the PBL courses.

2.1. Guidelines for additional tools

In case functionalities of MS Teams or Moodle are perceived as insufficient, the alternative might be Adobe Connect. Although these recommendations are aimed at Adobe Connect, we believe that they will be of value for video conferencing in general:

Throughout the project, we used the ownCloud as a file repository due to various GDPR restrictions on participating HEIs (please consider that the international character of our course/project additionally contributed to it). Therefore, we used TU Wien’s ownCloud solution which offered several benefits for both students and educators. The final document “ownCloud Folder Structure” explains the setup of folder structure for the respective ELPID course. Although developed for the ownCloud, these guidelines on folder structuring could be used in any file repository tool, as they describe which folders are necessary and who should have access to them. Using these three documents, coaches prescribed the way students can use the cloud-based service for sharing files within and across groups:

To gain a better understanding of the tools that can be utilised for the purpose of addressing problem-solving and design creativity aspects, please consult the following overview document:

By considering specificities of sharing designed product data, you should take these PLM-related suggestions into account to facilitate and support collaborative work:

Since MS Teams-based platform used MS Teams as a central hub, many other digital tools were directly linked (by the way, this is a huge advantage of MS Teams) – such as Miro, Trello, Onshape, etc. The guidelines on how to integrate these most common tools can be found in MS Teams guidelines above. Still, some teams used alternative options such as Tasks and To Do:

Again, this shows great flexibility offered by MS Teams-based platform to link various tools and support information transfer between different tool modules required for PBL courses.

2.2. Additional content created throughout the courses (that served for the validation of the proposed platform)

In addition to the various functionalities of Moodle, we would like to explicitly stress the role and benefits offered by the Moodle Questionnaire feature. We used it several times throughout the course to gather feedback about individual performance (student and coach) directly from students in an anonymous and objective manner. Of course, these questionnaires were tailored and scheduled according to the respective project course phase.

3. Methodology for customising and implementing e-learning platforms within project-based courses (O3)

The insights and knowledge acquired throughout the first two project years have allowed us to capture reasoning and rationale for implementing the e-learning platform. One of the preconditions for building this type of methodology was also to conduct extensive research and expert literature review and to become familiar with various existing e-learning environments. Furthermore, project partners performed the analysis of available e-learning elements that could be/are used for the PBL environment. By combining review insights of the O1 and O2 outputs, the guidelines for the development and implementation of the e-learning platform have first been created.

Before going into details of tailoring e-learning for the PBL environment, we realised that the procedure for organising the PBL course needs to be proposed. For that reason (although there is a lot of educational material available), we would like to list a few crucial steps for organising the PBL course:

  1. Define a project assignment (e.g., with an industrial partner)
  2. Establish the course process/procedure (schedule, milestones, deliverables) that needs to be conducted by students
  3. Define a type of content that needs to be delivered by educators as a part of the course (e.g., lectures, tutorials, exercises, discussions, industrial visits, visiting lectures)
  4. Decide on how to deliver the content provided by educators (e.g., course lectures, video tutorials, supporting textual material, guidelines/checklists)
  5. Support interaction with content (e.g., navigation through course material, introduction of learning paths, self-assessment)
  6. Support interaction between different course participants (e.g., students within their groups, educators with students, company representatives with students)

The first three steps are oriented towards setting the project scope and defining the assignment “boundaries”. Also, they serve to provide students with an overall plan for fulfilling learning objectives, as well as to educators to constantly revisit what is necessary for students to achieve the main course objective (in terms of lecture, tutorials, exercises, etc.). Although this is not the main objective of this output, these steps are the prerequisites to better understand the needs of the PBL course for which the e-learning platform needs to be tailored. Therefore, after the initial three steps, we can list the requirements of an e-learning platform and start its customisation. For example, if the course process requires teamwork and distant collaboration, an e-learning platform should provide these functionalities. As another example, if a written report is part of the phase deliverable, the platform should support document editing.

As such, these guidelines could be used as a starting point for developing the output O3 – the methodology for customisation and implementation of specific e-learning content for PBL courses conducted in both virtual and collocated environment. The methodology considers existing e-learning development approaches and specificities/limitations of the specific PBL environment. As such, this clearly indicates the innovative aspect of the O3 output. This new methodology has been derived based on project-based courses that took place in a virtual environment using various ICT and Web technologies during the initial two project years.

In order to customise the e-learning platform for the PBL course, several e-learning contextual aspects need to be taken into account, together with steps for organising the PBL course (listed above). The contextual aspects are listed below:

  1. E-learning infrastructure available at different institutions
    • In order to customise the e-learning environment, first, we need to analyse existing institutional infrastructure – is there any learning management system available at our institution? Which digital tools are already available at our institution (e.g., videoconferencing tool, file repository, etc.)? To get the whole picture, we recommend you to go through Figure 1 to understand which elements are necessary for the PBL course. When understanding our limitations in terms of infrastructure, we may start exploring various digital tools which might be beneficial for conducting the project-based courses. For that purpose, please consult Figure 2. In an international course, even more restrictions might exist due to the availability of different toolsets at various institutions. However, while this difference could lead to various problems, the institutions could turn „lemons into lemonade“ and increase the available toolset by sharing licenses.
  2. Familiarity of educators with e-learning concepts
    • Despite the fact that, due to the unfortunate COVID-19 crisis, many educators were forced to transition to online teaching, it is crucial to carefully consider the level of proficiency of educators responsible for the course. Usually, the implementation of an e-learning system requires some preliminary activities at the mere beginning of the course to set up the environment for the rest of the semester. Therefore, additional help and support can probably be received from more proficient e-learning users. However, educators should be skilled enough related to the e-learning infrastructure and digital tools to support students throughout the course. Please keep in mind that project-based courses are the most demanding in terms of e-learning in comparison to “basic” (Level 1) and “intermediate” (Level 2) courses, which results in more preparation activities for educators. Hence, it is recommended that educators initially gain experience on courses that require lower levels of e-learning support.
  3. Familiarity of students with various tools and methods
    • Again, similar argumentation about digital skills and their overall increase during COVID-period could be used for this aspect. In general, students are familiar with some digital tools (e.g., CAD tool that they learned at their university, MS Office tools, WhatsApp, file repository tool), while for some of them they need an introduction (e.g. Adobe Connect, Trello, Miro, Onshape, Autodesk Fusion 360, Moodle). In an international environment, students also need to take into account the background of other team members to better adjust to the way their team operates. More details can be found in the paper. Therefore, introducing new ICT tools might be beneficial for teams. This introduction needs to be planned at the very beginning of the course, and it has to be organised considering students’ previous knowledge and experience (not to overload students with new information). Another lesson learned from the ELPID project implies that setting e-learning infrastructure before the course starts could be very helpful for students (and educators as well).

These three aspects should help to define the possibilities and limitations of educators to customise the e-learning platform and should be considered in parallel with the requirements imposed by the PBL course.

Afterward, the following steps need to be conducted to customise e-learning environment for existing or new PBL courses:

  1. Define the project scope and initial course structure
  2. Define the e-learning platform requirements
  3. Define learning management system (LMS), which can be used as a central hub (contextual aspect 1.)
  4. Define which PBL aspects need to be additionally supported for which LMS does not provide enough flexibility
  5. Analyse and evaluate digital tools based on your course needs (based on contextual aspects 2. and 3.)
  6. Revisit your course structure (or only specific project assignment within the course) – if needed
  7. Revisit your previous course materials and analyse to what extent they need to be modified or “built from scratch” (e.g. existing presentation files and supporting materials) – if needed
  8. Create new course materials required for virtual/physical PBL courses (e.g., student guidelines to follow the course structure, required deliverables at different project phases, guidelines on how to conduct different phases, etc.)
  9. Set up the e-learning platform and integrate LMS with additional digital tools
  10. Organise introductory workshop (delivered by educators) for students to become familiar with a proposed e-learning platform
  11. Monitor student activities through the LMS system and collect continuous feedback throughout the course

Using the proposed methodology, we were able to customise and implement the proposed e-learning environment for project assignments in several other courses. Please find the three examples below.

“Design methodology” at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, University of Ljubljana (UL), Slovenia

The developed methodology has been successfully implemented in a local course “Design methodology” at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, University of Ljubljana (UL), Slovenia. As a practical part of the course, students were introduced to the design project assignment, virtual teamwork, and ICT tools which they should use for the project realization:

Before the start of the course, an e-learning platform was established as a hub where different learning and organisational content was provided for the students. This included learning materials, lecture slides and recordings, links to online collaborative design tools, scheduling, exams, etc.:

At the end of the course, the students prepared recorded presentations of their design solutions, showing how the ELPID materials were used in the regular curriculum:   

“Computer Aided Design – CAD” at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, University of Zagreb, Croatia

Another example of the proposed methodology implementation is the course “Computer Aided Design – CAD” at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, University of Zagreb, Croatia. The main objective of the course is to teach students how to design mechanical devices and machines by using various 3D CAD tools. Some student groups worked on team project assignments and they were required to collaborate and communicate virtually. For that reason, it was necessary to implement the proposed methodology and contextualise the e-learning platform according to the course needs. At the beginning of the course, students were introduced to cloud-based tools:

Again, as in UL’s course, an educator prepared the e-learning environment for students before the course started. Of course, this included necessary lecture and tutorial content, but also enabled a virtual collaboration regarding project management and design aspects of the team assignment. A brief description can be found below:

Virtual Product Modeling within the Digital Representation Lab – Fashion design curriculum, Politecnico di Milano, Italy

The Digital Representation Lab of the Fashion Design Curriculum is organized into 3 different learning modules: the Virtual Product Modeling module (6 ECTS), the Representation Techniques module (4 ECTS) and the Product Cycle Model module (2 ECTS). The Intended Learning Outcome for the Virtual Product Modeling module consists of understanding and applying 3D modelling methods and techniques for the creation of photorealistic representations of fashion products.

This module is organised as a hybrid class that combines innovative learning techniques (such as the flipped classroom) and the Project-Based Learning activities to leverage students skills and improve their capacities in real-like settings, to make them capable of modelling the products they can independently create in a professional environment.

For what concerns the PBL part of the class (which accounts for 30/35% of the overall evaluation of students’ work), the students have to work in a team of 2 people to practice with 3D parametric modelling techniques with SolidWorks and photorealistic representation using Keyshot. Depending on the composition of teams, students might need to work remotely and distribute the work so that they can practice at their premises without the need of being co-located in a university room equipped with the software.

This is enabled via a Moodle-based platform ( which is complemented with additional tools that the students can access for free to carry out all the activities. Similarly to what happened in the ELPID classes, the students have to plan their work, carry out 3D modelling activities (in this specific case by recreating the already existing design of fashion products), share files and collaborate from distance also for reporting purposes. The project work activity description can be found in the following document:

The findings of the ELPID activity enabled a more structured definition of the contents and provide students with a more accurate description of the activities to carry out, together with hints that aim at facilitating their collaboration.

Teaching PBL courses at TU Wien, Austria

The results from the ELPID project are also of great relevance for teaching at the TU Wien. In mechanical engineering studies we have a course on “Virtual Product Development” with around 150 participants annually in which groups of 4 to 5 people each work on a project task for engineering design and fem simulation. We also had tasks from industrial partners such as FACC and Bombardier Transportation in the last two years. Due to the COVID pandemic, we are forced to hold this course in distance learning and, therefore, we found various benefits of the proposed methodology. The initial experience gained in ELPID on online distributed project-based learning was very helpful in converting teaching in virtual product development from face-to-face to e-learning. These lessons will continue to be offered in the future in a hybrid presence and online, so that the ELPID results can also be used in teaching at TU Wien in the future.

4. Additional intellectual output - The final virtual PBL course structure and organisation of the virtual workshop

Each ELPID course edition had its own task assignment (proposed by industrial partner), agenda, and planned set of lectures. We had three PBL courses, which were conducted with industrial partners: 1. ELPID course 2019 with BSH Nazarje (Slovenia), 2. ELPID course 2020 with Electrolux and Rold (Italy), 3. ELPID course 2021 with Siemens Mobility (Austria). Please find organisational materials related to these courses below.

1. ELPID course 2019 with BSH Nazarje (Slovenia)

2. ELPID course 2020 with Electrolux and Rold (Italy)

3. ELPID course 2021 with Siemens Mobility (Austria)

Each of these courses had its specificities and contextual differences due to the type of task assignment, industrial domain, and COVID-19 restrictions. Also, throughout the years, the project consortium decided to modify the ELPID course structure – reduce the number of general lectures, introduce the new context-specific lectures and modify the role of course workshops.

Initially, the plan was to deliver a course that embraces different product development phases and includes a set of generic lectures, working on team projects, and final workshop:

Figure 3. Overview of the initial ELPID course

However, after in-depth course monitoring and analysis (including feedback from lecturers, coaches, and students), we decided to reduce the number of generic lectures in the 2nd and 3rd project year and deliver more contextual lectures to the students. Therefore, besides providing feedback on student work, the industrial partner representatives were involved in delivering lectures as well. This was perceived as extremely beneficial because it increased the engagement of the industrial partner and gave students more insights about detailed requirements and issues related to solving their project assignment. Some generic lectures on product development methodology remained part of the course. However, we wanted to reduce the overall lecture load and allow students more time to focus on given project assignments.

The major course modification was the reinterpretation of the workshop role. In the 1st project year, the project ended with the workshop focused on the detailed elaboration of the virtual product prototype after students previously received the last batch of comments from the industrial representatives and lecturing staff. After this 1st-year project course, the role and timing of the course workshop were changed for several reasons. We decided to introduce two-course workshops – the first one at the beginning of the course, and the second one at the very end. The underlying idea of the first workshop was to stack up all necessary lectures in a one-week period and leave more time for project work throughout the semester. This workshop was designed to help students form teams, transfer knowledge about design methods and ICT tools, and introduce a problem to be solved. More specifically, the course staff organised a workshop around a few topics: user and market research, problem framing, patent landscaping, idea generation, project management, and communication. Also, the course staff provided students with ICT tools and internet sources that might help them throughout the course. To actively engage students in learning the ICT tools, the staff suggested that students interact with these tools and actively learn their main features. The timing of the workshop allowed students to get together and dedicate more time to establishing a good team climate in a physical environment. As such, it could be perceived even as a team-building activity, which was very important for all following course activities (and lack of similar activities was identified as a drawback of previous course structure). Of course, the final workshop remained part of the course, but with a shorter duration and a focus on a presentation for industrial partner representatives and a visit to industrial facilities. The final course structure can be found below:

Figure 4. ELPID 2021 course structure

Unfortunately, we were not able to conduct them in this physical format due to COVID-19 restrictions (except the initial one in the 2nd project year). For that reason, this situation forced us to transfer our workshop activities into a virtual counterpart. The majority of workshop activities could be carried out using the digital tools (e.g., MS Teams, Miro, etc.) identified within O1 and O2. However, the higher number of participants (overall more than 50, in comparison to 8-9 per team) and intense interaction envisioned for some workshop activities made us think about other possible digital solutions. We decided on using the web-based tool Gather, which allows easy interaction and collaboration between participants via browser applications. Please keep in mind that this tool is very appealing to students due to its user-friendliness and customisable spaces/avatars. In addition, the team-building aspect during the initial workshop was addressed with Room Escape solutions (brilliant warm-up activity!). Therefore, by introducing these additional digital tools, we managed to replicate physical workshop activities as much as possible and established the foundations for the rest of the course work!

In case the number of students is significantly higher and you would like to organise online workshop sessions with a “strict” format, please consult the following link. It provides an overview of online conference tools, which can be handy in case you want to organise larger events (and “sacrifice attractiveness”).

Finally, although this was a project side-output, we are very pleased with the final structure and organisation of the PBL design course. Although this was not initially planned in the project, the obtained knowledge on e-learning systems and virtual tools allowed us to conduct the PBL course in an online environment seamlessly. In order to enable higher quality course outputs, better student course experience, and less demanding delivery of the project-based course, the course needs to be carefully planned in advance. Also, educators should consider digital tools that should facilitate collaboration and communication among students.

Often, these courses are conducted so that students are not supported with digital tools or an e-learning platform that they should use. As a result, students are unaware of digital tools that might support their activities throughout different design project phases. Of course, this causes a lot of issues for both students and educators. For that reason, we believe that a list of recommended tools (with their advantages and disadvantages) for different design activities should be provided to students at the beginning of each course. Additionally, the “links” between these tools need to be established to prepare a “pipeline” for delivering required outputs. Otherwise, transfer from one tool to another could cause compatibility issues and lead to cumbersome and redundant unnecessary iterations (only due to suboptimal use of tools and not improved design decisions). However, while giving initial instructions on tool usage, educators should be considerate and not overload students with information.

Besides e-learning-specific outputs, we would like to share lectures and guidelines for conducting a design PBL course. These lectures and guidelines were of utmost importance for both students and coaches. It is important to emphasise that only the final versions of the guidelines (after the three editions of the course) are presented here:

Please find lecture slides listed below for the first-year course (the academic year 2018/2019):

for the second-year course (the academic year 2019/2020):

for the third-year course (the academic year 2020/2021):

Video recordings can be available upon request (please contact us via the contact form).

To facilitate collaboration and individual project work in virtual settings, it was essential to provide students with various templates that would allow them to exchange and organise engineering and project information in a straightforward and formalised way. As a suitable starting point for preparing project documentation (reports), keeping minutes, tracking project and CAD-specific work, we suggest using several templates provided below:

Coupled with insights from the documents listed in section 2.2., the obtained information served for the validation of the proposed e-learning platform.

5. Additional design PBL research studies

While conducting the ELPID project and delivering the above-described PBL courses, we realised the importance of continuous design review activities. During these activities, design teams use various prototypes (often CAD models) to explain ideas and receive feedback from lecturers and other team members to iterate and improve the design. Throughout these iteration cycles, design teams quickly develop new versions of the product and gain knowledge on the solutions that work. This puts prototypes in the centre of design review, as they provide the ability to have similar mental models of a design within the review team. While both physical and virtual prototypes (VPs) can be used during design reviews, the latter are more flexible as VPs support more rapid testing at a lower cost than physical prototypes. For that reason, in our contributions, we presented an approach for analysing the use of VPs in distributed design reviews. The approach distinguishes personal and shared, as well as the one-at-a-time and simultaneous viewing of VPs. For more details, please check the full source: Horvat, N., Becattini‬, N., Martinec, T., Škec, S. (2021). Approach to Analyse the Use of Virtual Prototypes in Distributed Design Reviews. In Proceedings of CAD’21, Barcelona, Spain, July 5-7, 2021. Also, this study was further continued to identify and validate indicators for the use of virtual prototypes (VPs) during distributed design activities. Identification of indicators is based on various data collection methods (interview, observational methods, literature review), whereas their validation and usage are based on the protocol analysis method. Again, for more details, please check the full source: Horvat, N., Becattini‬, N., Martinec, T., Škec, S. (2021). Identifying Indicators for the Use of Virtual Prototypes in Distributed Design Activities. In Computer-Aided Design and Applications (1686-4360) 19 (2022), 2; 320-335. This study was followed by another one which includes a comparison of design reviews in VR (virtual reality) and traditional CAD environments. We believe that newly obtained insights will be beneficial for both design educators and students.

This VR medium for design reviews is becoming more accessible and more common in design education. As such, VR tools and approaches will be introduced and implemented in design education even more in years to come. The research article related to this study is still under revision, so we will be able to share more info when published. Stay tuned!

As a part of this project, project partners also conducted a study related to design team composition and influencing factors. The ELPID teams were composed of individuals who had no prior acquaintance, were from different locations or had different expertise. The familiarity aspect may impact individuals’ perception of their peers and, consequently, affect the perception of team composition. For more details, please check the full source: Singh, H., Becattini‬, N., Cascini, G., Škec, S. (2021). How familiarity impacts influence in collaborative teams? In Proceedings of the Design Society: ICED21 Conference. Cambridge University Press.

Potential impact

O3 collided directly with the COVID-19 outbreak, so the transferability potential became even higher since PBL is becoming an increasingly popular instructional strategy, but it was by that time only poorly implemented and facilitated for the work in a virtual dislocated environment. As such, the proposal of our methodology increased the value for implementation in regular curriculum courses and thus has various implications for further course development in different educational fields. This methodology may instruct, motivate and inspire educators to introduce or improve e-learning approaches tailored according to the needs of their PBL strategy.

To wrap up, we want to stress that, besides these tangible results in terms of reports, publications, and platforms, this project also resulted in improved teaching and learning experiences of involved students!

6. Future work - Project continuation

To continue working in the direction of further improving design education and to assure the sustainability of the project, we submitted two new ERASMUS+ project proposals.

The first one aims to support transfer of traditional teaching and learning approaches to Crisis-Resistant Digital Education and Training (CResDET – accepted by European Commission). Unfortunately, the whole Covid-19 crisis has major impacts on higher education. Fast paced changes with respect to the health situation of countries and regions requires institutions to constantly adjust their teaching strategies. As a consequence, educators are confronted with the problem that the way they can safely offer courses often changes within days or weeks. In many cases the necessity of fast changes hampers structured transitions, instead immediate adaptations based on current restrictions are required. This is particularly challenging for educators who have no or only little experience with digital technologies. In the absence of generally accepted guidelines on how to digitise the different lecture types in higher education, educators must rely on their own knowledge and skills rather than on scientifically based and proven approaches. Therefore, we believe that further work on this topic will raise awareness of the importance to tailoring teaching and learning activities according to the current conditions. The main objective of CResDET is to develop a framework, a knowledge hub and practice-oriented crisis-resistant guidelines that provide the educational tools and methods necessary for the rapid adaptation and digitisation of lectures in case of a crisis. Thanks to Austrian National Agency, this project was approved and we have already started working on this topic since April 2021! For more details, please check!

The aim of the second project proposal is related to employing open innovation practice through product hackathons, which will thus demonstrate how to create a link between industrial companies and students. Since the project is under review, we are not able to disclose any additional information.

Both of the proposed projects will address many remaining deficiencies and issues in terms of learning processes and approaches, as well as their support for virtual delivery. We believe that these new projects will result in many innovative outputs and further improve the experiences of students and educators.