Can Virtual Reality enhance our education?

“VR/AR will prepare students for Industry 4.0”; “Engineering education cannot keep up with the pace of change in technology”; “We don’t know what the implications are of VR/AR technology on teaching and learning”; “VR/AR is the next frontier in education”; “Teachers are known to be skeptical about the value of VR”, and “Placing avatars in a scene to interact with the students poses a formidable challenge”.

These are just a couple of statements I collected from a number of papers and articles I read about the use of Virtual and Augmented Reality in education. Every time I immerse myself in a virtual reality or watch a demonstration of VR technology I am engaged and fascinated by the amazing possibilities and rapid developments. Call me an average layman in this area, I summarise the above as follows:

“There is little doubt that VR/AR engages and stimulates the senses of our students. But does it improve learning?”

VR Orientation and Onboarding Day

The 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education organised a so-called VR Onboarding Day with the theme “Using Virtual Reality in Engineering Education”. The venue for the 60 participants was the monumental Paushuize in Utrecht.

The day was kicked off by inspiring keynotes by Pierre Dillenbourg, professor of Learning Technologies at EPFL in Lausanne (Switzerland) and Head of the CHILI Lab (Computer-Human Interaction for Learning and Instruction), and Max Louwerse, professor Cognitive Psychology and Artificial Intelligence of Tilburg University, and head of the Mixed Reality DAF Technology Lab.

Dillenbourg discussed the fit of VR/AR technologies with education and the relevance of VR/AR for better learning gains. His presentation had the title “VR/AR/AW“, where AW stands for “After Wow”.

Louwerse addressed the difficulty of moving education to implement this new technology. Particularly engineering education has been reluctant and slow in accepting new technologies for learning. He stated firmly that the magic of VR will not come from the computer scientists or software developers but from the users. Teachers in academic education find it scary, want to understand the possibilities and need evidence first. But the only way to discover  what works is to experiment, measure and reflect. Therefore we should not be overly optimistic.

What is VR about and what can we do with it?

Dillenbourg summarised the attractiveness of VR/AR as follows: It can show, demonstrate and immerse people in phenomena that otherwise cannot be shown or experienced. In brief VR is about:
• Making the invisible visible
• Making the impossible possible
• Making the complex simpler

Louwerse started his presentation by asking why we still don’t have the answers why students like playing games but don’t like going to a classroom, why society has so much changed but the educational system has not, and why people like to be engaged in dialogue but students do not like to be talked to. Is it the lack of engagement, and could VR technology be the solution for all this?

VR/AR is increasingly used in industries

The professional work environment increasingly uses VR technologies. Its motivation are multiple: lower development cost due to virtual prototyping, faster and better design decisions, higher precision, better product quality, and the use of digital twins that allows the analysis of a product’s current status and performance over its life cycle. The technologies empower new creators on the market such as game developers and movie makers. VR could transform into an Ultimate Empathy Machine that uses a new grammar for storytelling and emotions (travel, museums). Since most advanced experiences with VR/AR  are in industries, the universities should use their relationships to extend their view on how the technologies work in engineering practice.

Airbus has developed “connected glasses” for technicians to wear on the A330 final assembly line. The glasses enable precise positioning (Source: Airbus)

A Goldman Sachs report forecasts that creative industries using VR/AR in gaming, live events, video entertainment and retail will grow to a $95 billion market by 2025. Learning technology plays a negligible role and is not mentioned at all in this forecast.

How can the development of VR technology for education ever catch up with the rapid developments in the game industry, knowing that the Millennial generation of students is very much used to high-performance games? As I have suggested in previous blogs, I expect it will be the students who will be the change agent. They will choose what education fits best. We should therefore involve them actively in the development of the future educational landscape.

How do we know what works in education?

There is still little evidence about the benefits of VR/AR in engineering education. Little is known about the perceived value for the students or the teachers, or what the consequences for the organisation are. The workshops showed experiments where VR/AR in the classroom are applied to support the understanding of complex concepts through interdisciplinary collaborative work environments that cannot easily be re-created in the physical world. Where teachers use it to expose students to real-life learning situations beyond daily reach. Various experiments were addressed to increase memory recall, enhance performance in complicated social and engineering skills, and stimulate creativity. Obviously VR  is not a solution provider but an enabler.

Will VR/AR technology revolutionise education?

The keynote speakers as well as the workshop producers tempered the expectations. History has shown that most ICT technologies have thoroughly changed society but not yet fundamentally changed the educational landscape. Many big implementations of ICT in education have failed. Most participants therefore do not a expect a VR revolution in education in the short term.

What do students and teachers need to learn about VR/AR?

Emerging technologies are expected to better prepare students for the Industry 4.0 labour market since the skills to handle these technologies are in high demand.

It is a very different question how teachers could use VR in their education to support learning, for instance in the training of professional collaborative and interpersonal skills?

What have we learnt so far?

Three paradoxes

In the keynotes and workshops I heard three interesting paradoxes: There is no doubt that VR technologies engage the students. We all know that deep learning requires student engagement. In VR engagement is achieved by immersion. But, as Dillenbourg pointed out, the immersive experiences in the virtual realities may lead to such strong engagement that students make decisions impulsively without rational thinking. He made the statement that we may even have to disengage students to achieve thoughtful learning in a VR learning environment. Evidence of engagement levels may be measured by eye tracking, intonation, gesture, position in space and brain activity. And so, Louwerse told us, in the near future personal behaviour measurement in the classroom might guide for personalised learning paths.

Most of us believe that learning is related to the media richness of the study material, Dillebourg said. “The more similar it is to face-to-face, the better it is.” We always want more and better. But does that help? Movies are not always better than pictures, video is not always better than audio, and 3D is not always better than 2D. The VR hypothesis is that “the more similar it is to reality, the better it is.” But, as Dillenbourg explained, if VR is close to reality but not close enough, a lower fidelity may do a better job. This is known as the “uncanny valley”. The level of fidelity required in a VR environment depends on what we need for learning, and this is not a trivial problem. Lower levels of fidelity require imagination by the students!

The higher the cost of a VR solution, the lower the genericity of the solution is (Roy Damgrave, University Twente).

Engagement in the “classroom” of the Mixed Reality Lab of Tilburg University (Source: Tilburg University DAF Technology Lab)


Students using VR applications have to reflect and predict, explain, justify, reformulate and compare intermittently in order to achieve learning. Immersion is not enough: they gather an abundance of information but don’t learn effectively. Learning remains mainly a cognitive effort, and engagement by immersion can only partially influence.

An Integrated Scenario using VR Simulation (Source: presentation Pierre Dillenbourg at 4TU.CEE VR Boarding Day)


The impact of the social dimension in learning, also in a VR environment such as collaboration with peers and teachers, should not be underestimated. Optimum learning is achieved by integrated scenarios of lecturing introductory knowledge in the classroom, individual work to develop hypotheses, followed by team work using VR simulations, completed by a debriefing in the classroom. Effective learning is all about dynamics, creativity, interactivity and feedback, and diversity. This approach is further explained in Dillenbourg’s book “Orchestration Graphs – Modeling scalable education”.

Experiments in Tilburg University and University of Twente have shown positive experiences in Mixed Reality Labs where students are partly immersed in a virtual environment but remain aware of the physical environment and have face-to-face contact at the same time. Students and teachers dislike the use of Head Mounted Displays and other wearable VR instrumentation because it is distracting and prevents people from acting normally.

Interaction between human and intelligent machines

Louwerse mentioned that it is the interaction between the human being and the intelligent machines that will determine progression of emerging technologies:

  • Inventions in Artificial Intelligence (AI) will increasingly come from new ways of applying AI, and not just from developing new AI algorithms.
  • People will increasingly work with technology, and not just using technology. Understanding technology will become increasingly important, and not just applying it.
  • Perspectives on technology will become increasingly important alongside developments in technology.

The above statements do not only apply to a VR/AR but to technology and engineering as a whole, and describe their impact on society and our engineering educational programmes.

Provisional experiences in Tilburg University indicate that VR/AR simulations pay off more when applied to abstract statistics and schematics than when simulating system designs, constructions or physical phenomena.

Communication and collaboration

In the workshop about the Virtual Reality Lab and Smart Industry Lab at University of Twente, Roy Damgrave demonstrated how they integrated VR in their curricula as a trigger for discussion in distributed teams, as an expression for creativity (daring to try new things), and as a try-out of the future. He mentioned a number of challenges of VR in education: The teacher has to lower the threshold for the students and communicate that they don’t need that much ICT skills to use VR. It is not the development of VR, but the use of VR that is assessed. Students have to see the benefits and potential of VR before they decide to use it.


VR/AR technologies will impact education profoundly but slowly. They engage and motivate young people, but the benefit is only an advantage for learning if the activity is well aligned with what is to be learned. We have to discover what works in engineering education by experimentation.

VR is no magical box. It’s a means to an end but not an end in itself. It’s a tool and not a solution. The magic of VR will not come from computer scientists and software developers but from the users.

Tilburg University builds the Mind Labs where minds, media and technology will meet. Soon we will have intelligent avatars who will respond to questions and behaviour of students. October 16, 2017 the 7 million euro VIBE project (Virtual Humans in Brabant Economy) got approval. The project will develop avatars for training purposes. The avatars will learn natural conversations, human characteristics, with spoken input and output, and may serve as virtual intelligent assistants who enable more personalised learning.

Recommended further reading:

Emerging technologies in Engineering Education: Can we make it work? by Pieter de Vries, Renate Klaassen, Aldert Kamp, Proceedings of the 13th International CDIO Conference, University of Calgary, June 18-22, 2017, Calgary, Canada.

Tipping your toe in the “Emerging Technologies” pond from an educational point of view; by R. Klaassen, P. de Vries, M.G. Ioannides, S. Papazis, Proceedings of the 45th SEFI Conference, 18-21 September 2017, Azores, Portugal.

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How to transform disposable fulltime lecturers into innovative power?

Research universities have put the primary focus on the quality of research already for decades. Scientific staff is encouraged to research and publish. Appraisal cycles and career advancement rest on research achievements, with teaching achievement playing only a marginal role, as Ruth Graham shows in her study “Does teaching advance your academic career?“. It’s no surprise many scientific staff have difficulty in finding a balance between their research and the demanding activities of teaching, upgrading of courses and didactic upskilling.

When universities decide to give so much more value to research than education, why then don’t they use more fulltime lecturers, for instance for the production of courses in the first years of study that have to be delivered to large numbers of students and require intensive teaching and tutoring, or for the innovation of education as well? They could make intensive classes sustainable, take education to a higher level and bring a great relief to the researchers.

It is short-sighted that many universities have a steadfast belief in the mutually beneficial relationship between teaching and research activities of their academics and keep on recruiting scientific staff for combined research and teaching functions only. Also TU Delft’s new Vision on Education document states “We believe that in a flourishing academic community, research and education go hand in hand”. It cannot be more than a belief indeed, because I have seen many quantitative studies from all over the world that show zero, or negative correlation between student learning and the research – teaching nexus.

My Faculty has 5% or so teaching-only staff. A recent survey under academic staff in this Faculty shows that this small group of teaching-only staff has low job satisfaction. An article in the Dutch magazine THEMA for higher education management with the catchy title “From disposable lecturer to innovative power” caught my eye.

Low job satisfaction

A survey under employees in 2015 showed that the group of teaching-only staff has the lowest job satisfaction, in spite of the fact that these people are highly motivated,  passionate about teaching and working hard. Discussions I had with colleagues in this group after the survey results had been published, taught me that they have the perception they don’t get the credits, are not respected for their work, often feel as third-rate employee, do not feel part of the community (TU Delft statistics for instance do not include fulltime lecturers as scientific staff), get temporary contracts only, have little chances for promotion and professionalisation, and lack any career path. Some of them characterised their position as a “commodity”.

This is not a one-off situation. The article in the Dutch magazine for higher education THEMA  (2017 vol.2, p. 62-66), written by staff from VU University Amsterdam, addresses the same issue and uses the provocative term “disposal lecturers”. And a recent (11 August 2017) blog by ScienceGuide (in Dutch) expresses the concern about the absence of career routes for professionals in higher education in the Netherlands.

Adding value by excellent fulltime teachers

My Faculty recruits teaching-only personnel on a temporary basis, for three or four years at most, and only when all other options are exhausted. It can lead to situations where an excellent fulltime lecturer, who played a successful role over three or four years in a high-risk course in the first year of studies, is discontinued and replaced by a young assistant professor, who has hardly any experience in teaching large classes or has not yet completed the basic training in University Teaching Qualification. Whose first priority is achieving excellent research results, writing papers and generating funds to assure contract renewal, because he or she is still in the process of obtaining tenure. Are we then taking education, or more specifically study success, serious enough?

If we are serious about study success and aim for continuous education innovation, there must be ample opportunities for teaching-only staff, who are highly skilled in pedagogy and didactics and able to inspire and coach students and support the scientific staff in lecturing, and who can take the lead in educational innovation projects.

“Study success, student inspiration and motivation in the first year of studies is why excellent teaching matters!”

But, the Delft survey as well as the VU University Amsterdam article demonstrate that increasing the capacity with fulltime lecturers alone is not enough. Professionalisation and career routes for these professionals must be in place as well to make it a success.

Professionalisation of teaching staff

VU Amsterdam developed a suite of professionalisation activities for teaching-only staff, structured in three course pathways:

  1. academic practice
  2. pedagogy and didactics
  3. personal and professional development.

Most learning takes place on the job, in practical situations of challenging projects that require the trainees to step outside their comfort zone, and always work in close collaboration with the scientific staff. With workshops, masterclasses, peer-learning (between fulltime lecturers mutually, and with senior professors in the departments), and a personal coach who knows what fulltime teachers are aiming for and understands what problems they may encounter during training and practicing.

I don’t know the details of the Amsterdam professionalisation suite. I hope that also educational research is part of it: only data-driven innovations can teach us how to improve in education. For technical universities I would also be in favour to add “engineering practice” to the pathway  of “academic practice”, and transform “pedagogy and didactics” into “pedagogy and didactics in an engineering context”. Teaching engineering and technology is not necessarily the same as teaching social sciences or humanities.

The professionalisation route gives these lecturers the perspective to obtain tenure in a role of fulltime lecturer or education innovator. In case they leave the university, they are well prepared for a career in lecturing at universities of applied sciences or in schools for secondary education, as a trainer for continuous professional education in companies, or as an educational policy maker.

Integrating these figureheads

I see these professionals as the future figureheads for our education who lead by example!

It could be interesting to place 20 or so, high potentials of these teaching-only staff in a university-wide pool and put them on secondment to different faculties and departments during their career. Thus they develop in all-round educational professionals while teaching and supporting the scientific staff in the development of new or reconstruction of existing courses or programmes in various engineering domains. In the secondment positions they learn how teaching and tutoring practices differ over a university, familiarise with the different engineering languages, and acquire the latest advancements in engineering and technology. By crossing the boundaries of the disciplinary faculties and departments they help pave the way to more multi- and interdisciplinary learning, which is gaining prominence in many engineering universities.

“An important success factor will be that the educational professionals speak and understand the language of the engineer”.

Such pool of “Principal Educators” (in the academic medical centres in Amsterdam and Groningen this function already has existed since three or four years as the equivalent for Principal Investigator in research), not only provides a buffer of highly qualified teaching capacity, but mainly give an innovative impulse to education. The pool may also create a sense of belonging for all teaching-only staff. At TU Delft the new Teaching Lab would be their obvious physical home. 

Impression of the Teaching Lab of TU Delft (source: Willem van Valkenburg, TU Delft)

Undoubtedly the scientific staff of disciplinary experts and researchers will have to get used to the role and added value of teaching-only staff, the Principal Educators in particular. Although many scientists find it hard to juggle their research with the pressures of teaching, they still feel overly optimistic about their available time and skills, and express their superiority for research in the same sentence as for education.

The VU Amsterdam established a group of young fulltime lecturers in their Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences. They are positive about the first experiences. The fulltime teachers are respected by the scientific staff and play important roles in improving and innovating education, with activities such as curriculum analysis, development of skills and study guidance, e-learning materials, masterclasses for pre-university college, and developing transparency of career perspectives.


Many universities put very high pressure on their scientific staff to excel in research, generate funds, teach, and more. For sure, educational innovation is not a priority. In the first years of engineering studies, excellent teaching matters much more than the nexus between research and teaching.

A pool of highly-qualified fulltime lecturers with tenure, Principal Educators, who are all-rounders and prepared for different career routes in higher education, could be a welcome and highly-skilled resource for supporting educational activities of scientific staff, and leading data-driven innovations in engineering education.

If we are serious about weighing teaching excellence and leadership in education on par with research excellence and leadership in research, let’s move on from just discussing it, and change the system many of us dislike but we have made ourselves.

“Dare to be yourself”
(quote Andre Gide, Nobel Prize winner in Literature 1947)

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If you can’t change your curriculum fast enough with innovation and entrepreneurial skills, try a complementary programme

After the CDIO Annual Conference in June, an icewalk on the Athabasca glacier, a visit to Lake Louise with its vivid turquoise waters, followed by a hike to Lake Agnes in the Banff National Park, and spectacular views of the impressive 140 m deep Helmcken Falls and the 20 m deep but broad Dawson Falls that crashes down a rough bed of lava rocks in the amazingly quiet Wells Gray Provincial Park, I arrived at the Okanagan’s brand new campus of the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Kelowna.

Not just to say hello. I was invited to join an in-depth think session with the UBC development team of an interdisciplinary, hands-on curriculum that will complement monodisciplinary study programmes at our universities and so better prepare the students for a career in innovation activities. I am excited and enthusiastic about this curriculum because it is all about innovation, entrepreneurial and collaborative skills. All Master graduates of any engineering studies will need the mastery of these skills for a successful career in tomorrows’ world.

Integration or addition?

The training of innovation, entrepreneurial and collaborative skills is underexposed in many of today’s Master programmes. That is why TU Delft has put them higher on their educational agenda, the Dutch 4TU.Centre for Engineering Education has prioritised the research, training and assessment of these skills in their activity plan, and I was invited to share my thoughts with the team.

UBC Okanagan’s brand new campus.

The deficiency in Master education is actually much broader than just the missing entrepreneurial and innovative behaviour. I know so many engineering programmes that are struggling with the training of the academic and professional competencies: asking the right questions, collaborating in an intercultural context, communicating solutions, thinking visually, thinking out loudly, autonomy, systems engineering, project management, qualitative modeling of problems, and many more.

Most of us know the most effective way is to integrate the education of these skills within the existing disciplinary courses. But we also know by experience, how difficult this is to achieve in the disciplinary context and organisation of our research universities. That is why UBC has taken the initiative for a complementary programme for professional and career development to fourth-year undergraduates and first-year Master students of disciplinary studies.


The programme has got the name Interprise. It stands for Innovation, Interrelation, Intercultural, Interdisciplinary, Entrepreneurial, Enterprise. Its goal is to complement disciplinary study programmes with employable skills by an interdisciplinary, hands-on approach to being entrepreneurial and innovative in practice. It includes:

  1. Group dynamics and leadership
  2. Communicating with different audiences
  3. Appreciating social and economic context
  4. Using quantitative data intelligently
  5. Managing projects
  6. Behaving entrepreneurially

The UBC development team has many disciplines onboard: arts and sciences, engineering, management, philosophy, education, and creative and critical studies. At the meeting I noticed a very open and positive team spirit, which is the basis for successful team teaching. All members are eager to learn about the different ways of thinking, the different perceptions, and the interrelation between arts, sciences, technology and management.

The outcome of the think session

Below I describe the raw outcomes of the think session, with interesting insights in the discussions and trades that we made. There is still a lot of fine tuning, planning and development to be done before the kick-off in May 2018.

Learning objectives and volume

The most important aspect was the volume of the Interprise programme. Starting from the set of high-level learning objectives that had more or less already been agreed upon, the team proposed a 20-25 ECTS programme (ECTS is the standard of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System that expresses the volume of learning based on the defined learning outcomes and their associated workload). The study programme will run over a period of four months from kick-off till completion, although not fulltime all the time.

It is composed of a 4-5 ECTS Preparatory Module, a 12-15 ECTS on-campus phase with an intensive and challenging Interprise Foundations Super Course and the Integrated Capstone project, and a 4-5 ECTS Wrap-up and Reflection Module with reflections on team and personal behaviour and performance. The subject of the Integrated Capstone project resonates with the disciplinary backgrounds of the students. The project culminates in a report and plenary presentation event on-campus.

Residence time on-campus

One of the most important discussion points was also the residence time on-campus. To make a teaming up of Canadian and non-Canadian students possible, the schedule has to be aligned with the Canadian and Western Europe academic calendars (which are not uniform either). The development team considers five to six weeks on-campus with face-to-face education as the bare minimum to develop a cohort, given that the student population is very diverse with respect to level (Canadian undergraduates and oversees’ Masters), disciplines and nationalities.

Possible concept for the Interprise curricular structure.

Blended delivery

These two ingredients lead to a blended delivery of the programme: both the Preparatory Module and the Wrap-up and Reflection Module are partly individual/online, partly team-based/online through collaborative eLearning. E-moderators stimulate human interaction and guide the students in their online learning activities.

Project-centric curriculum with spiral teaching

The programme is “project centric”. The student teams feed their knowledge about their own discipline and the foundational content taught in Interprise, into the capstone project that runs simultaneously with the on-campus teaching of the Interprise super course. The subject of the capstone project resonates with the subjects of the disciplines, and is about the sorts of challenges that are faced by internationally connected enterprises and involves both multiple academic disciplines and industry.

The lecturers apply “spiral teaching”, which means that students will see the same subjects through a different lens, with each encounter increasing in complexity and reinforcing previous learning.

Social psychology as the binding element

The disciplinary base of the super course is the foundation, with the subjects communication, ethics, data management, project management, entrepreneurship and innovation. Social psychology of intergroup relations will be taught as an integrating course and will be the guiding principle. It has its emphasis on communication across disciplines. Students will learn to ask the right questions with concepts and knowledge from different fields, disciplines and experiences, and to think from alternate perspectives and learn to apply professional standards to conduct and action.


Obviously, the Interprise programme demands the participating students to be ambitious, highly motivated and persevering. They have to start working part-time through individual and collaborative eLearning in June and complete the programme in September. Which means  it covers periods where students probably also have other obligations at the home university in parallel. Obviously agile students in study programmes that accommodate a substantial volume of 20 to 30 ECTS freedom of choice are best positioned.

Subject matter

For those of you who want to get a better flavour of the content of the Interprise super course as it is in the minds of the development team (it’s a flavour and for sure not definite or complete):

  • Hands-on experience about interaction with different audiences, the awareness, use and interpretation of body language, how to pitch ideas and projects, and how to collaborate in a creative workplace.
  • Exploration of the social and economic context through a focus on policy issues related to human and economic development.
  • Basic research methodology and statistical analysis to help students be intelligent consumers of data.
  • Project management, including initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing projects. Managing the scope, costs, schedule, risks, and human resources in projects.
  • Entrepreneurial behaviour in small enterprises and organisations, including appreciation of the challenges associated with creating a new venture.
  • Theoretical and methodological issues within the domain of intergroup relations.



We live in a world where the current breed of students increasingly demonstrates a Do-It-Yourself ethic. They look for study programmes that offer substantial flexibility and freedom. They want to establish a coherent Master programme by themselves, that combines deep working knowledge of engineering fundamentals with education that aligns with personal needs, ambition and interest. In combination with the rise of E-learning it leads to a demand of unbundling curricula into separate modules, online courses, micro-credentialing of MOOCS at Master level and so on. We will soon see a market with personal coaches and brokers of accredited courses.

Interprise has the potential to become a winning concept in this world. Most, if not all students of Master engineering programmes have to prepare for innovation activities that are aimed at the development of new and complex products, processes, systems and technologies, in a social context that is highly interdisciplinary, hyperconnected and global.

From spoon-feeding to teaching what is needed

When you are a follower of my blogs you may remember what Richard Brandson said about entrepreneurial and innovation skills’ training at universities in my blog “Why entrepreneurial behaviour is a must for all young engineers“. In that blog you also read the following quote:

“Entrepreneurial behaviour no longer in the margin of a Master curriculum or as an extra-curricular course for the happy few, but as an integrated competence development pathway for all”.

Many Master’s in engineering do not come up to the mark in this respect. In the past 30 to 40 years we have been teaching what we think is best to teach.  In the next decade education will be more demand-driven, i.e. what students need for successful employment. It would be better if the traditional slowly moving universities anticipate to this change and choose either to integrate the development of these academic and professional skills in their Master curricula, or create sufficient space to accommodate complementary accredited programmes or courses that students take off the shelves from other universities, institutes or organisations.

In April 2017 the European Council of Engineering Deans forecast that it’s not university higher management but students who will become the change agents for higher engineering education. Increasingly they will refuse spoon-feeding by rigidly structured curricula but choose what really matters.

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Do professional role models or profiles enable students to jump head-first into the world of work, get the job they really want, and achieve results?

Why do so many students begin an academic study in engineering? Often it is the promising good employability! Is n’t it surprising then that many students in academic engineering studies start thinking about their future career at a late stage in their studies, sometimes make thoughtless decisions on their first job, or even delay the final thesis assessment on purpose, because they feel insufficiently prepared for life after graduation. The perception that students have of engineering, the possibilities they have and the skills they need are often based on their own intuition. That is the outcome of the recent study “Mind the Gap” by TechYourFuture, a collaboration between two Dutch universities and industries.

Embedding employability: are we getting it right?

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Toekomst van hoger technisch onderwijs in de maritieme sector

Stilstaan gevaarlijker dan meebewegen met onzekere verandering

Vinden afgestudeerden met een academische opleiding in de maritieme techniek over tien tot vijftien jaar nog steeds gemakkelijk een baan? Of zijn de kennis en vaardigheden die worden aangeleerd in hedendaagse curricula tegen die tijd achterhaald? Ik heb mij als directeur onderwijs (luchtvaart- en ruimtevaarttechniek) de afgelopen 2,5 jaar verdiept in de snel veranderende wereld en een visie ontwikkeld op wat de ingenieur van morgen zou moeten kennen en vooral zou moeten kunnen, en welke impact dat kan hebben op het bachelor- en masteronderwijs.

Het is moeilijk voor te stellen hoe de werkwereld van de ingenieur er over twintig tot dertig jaar zal uitzien. ‘Voorspellen is moeilijk, vooral als het om de toekomst gaat’, zei Niels Bohr al eens. De manier waarop we werken, handelen, kopen, communiceren, reizen en zaken doen verandert razendsnel onder invloed van globalisering en technologische vernieuwingen, het platter en sneller worden van organisaties en netwerken, en de verschuivingen in de sociaaleconomische wereld. We zijn een tijdperk binnengetreden dat internationaal wordt aangeduid als VUCA, wat staat voor Volatile, Complex, Uncertain, Ambiguous. Die vier aspecten zullen de komende decennia verder intensiveren.

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My “A” in STEAM is all about street theatre

Reading my blogs and reports, you have maybe got the impression that the development in engineering education is the most important think in my universe. I cannot deny this subject has kept me quite busy since 2014 when I started my orientation and vision development about engineering education in 2030. It has been the focus of my work and has taken quite some leisure time as well.

I reassure you there is more in my life than this future of engineering education with its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) alone. In my leisure time I use arts to spark my imagination and creativity. Continue reading

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A workshop about worldwide innovations in engineering education. Be inspired or confused.

What if 86% of the employers in your country would say they have difficulty in recruiting people with the right skills? You think it is unrealistic? It is not. A recent study (2016-2017) about talent shortage  by ManpowerGroup shows that 86 % of the employers in Japan are screaming for young people with more talents and better competencies. It’s a value that applies to the complete job market, from nurses and brick-layers, engineers and lawyers. Maybe you say “That’s Japan. It’s much better in my country.” You are probably right. But still, the ManpowerGroup study shows that the global average of talent shortage is 40%. Hong Kong scores 69%, Singapore 51%, the US 46 %, Australia 38%, most West European countries between 20 and 30% range, the Netherlands 17%, and China is in an outlier position at a remarkable 10%. Blue-collar workers are the hardest to find, directly followed by IT Developers and Programmers (second position), sales representatives (third) and Mechanical, Electrical and Civil Engineers (fourth). The difficulty is caused, ManpowerGroup says, because young people have insufficient levels of technical and workplace competencies. Continue reading

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Different ways to include Global Engineering Preparedness and Entrepreneurial Mindset Learning in engineering programmes

In my role of the TU Delft academic liaison for the Global E3 university network I attended the Global E3 Annual Meeting in Bethlehem (US) 22-26 May. This city is home to Bethlehem Steel, famous for its historic huge steel ovens and factories that were closed in 1995 and are now a cultural heritage and arts and music venue.

The impressive Bethlehem Steel plant, now a cultural heritage and arts and music venue

The Global E3 consortium is a network of 72 universities, 33 US and 39 non-US. Its mission is to stimulate the exchange of students between US and non-US countries in particular. Not seldom the relations within the network form the basis for bilateral agreements for exchange between universities.

At the annual meeting the universities discuss operational and strategic issues related to influencing engineering students and programmes to accommodate student exchange. Each year parts of the meeting are spent to somewhat boring but important administrative issues like grade conversion, equivalence of courses, conflicts of curricular schedules and safety on campus. This year the theme of the conference was “Innovation in Engineering”. The Lehigh University, host of the event, and other universities in the network shared their ideas, experiments and successful implementations of shifts in pedagogy, technologies for global engagement, integrative projects and interdisciplinary multi-cultural programmes.

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If you can invent a second wheel, you don’t want to reinvent the wheel, do you?

“The guy who invented the first wheel must have been an idiot. The guy who invented the other three was a genius”.

Two wheelsReinventing wheels

This quote by Sid Caesar illustrates that (scientific) discoveries in technology need further development to raise their Technical Readiness Level (TRL) before it is ready for the industrial or consumer market. The quote underlines that it is often more effective and efficient to build upon available knowledge and combine available prototypes that have demonstrated their performance, i.e. inventing the other three wheels, than inventing new concepts from scratch, i.e. reinventing the wheel.

I know from personal experience in engineering education, we are keen in reinventing wheels. Often have we already the solution in mind before we have a full understanding of the problem. Which for instance leads to technocratic solutions for problems in study or teaching cultures that are not solvable by such solutions alone. I do not pretend I can change this “tradition” of working with this single blog post.

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What trends and developments do 70 engineering deans in Europe care about most?

Deans of engineering programmes face a wide range of rapid developments. Interdisciplinary engineering research and education are gaining momentum. Yet, teachers and researchers are struggling with the boundaries that are created by departments and faculties, and current metrics for performance do not appraise interdisciplinary work. Universities are being confronted with large increases in number and diversity of their students, both in terms of culture and motivation. Yet, resources do not increase accordingly, and selection is not always accepted. There is the question to unbundle complete curricula to create dedicated knowledge packages instead for on-demand training. Emerging technologies are picked up for the support, production and assessment of courses. The societal digital transformation with the rise of MOOCs and other online education put the future of campus education in a new perspective.

Seventy deans of engineering faculties across Europe discussed these themes. It was one of the rare occasions where I sensed a shared urgency to change and a concern about a lack of willingness to change.

“Universities are at risk; we are insufficiently engaged with the external world and focus too much internally;

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Why entrepreneurial behaviour is a must for all young engineers

At some point in their careers, most, if not all engineers, will move to positions of technical or engineering leadership. That ranges from becoming a leader of a project team to a  leader of an entire technical enterprise. Or simply taking responsibility of the own career. Take the example of tenure trackers at university, who not only have to do excellent research but all of a sudden have to take on a role as an entrepreneur to secure their own employment by the acquisition of new projects by writing proposals. Should not we pay more attention to entrepreneurial education in our engineering programmes?

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What makes social scientists think engineering students should not learn how to design?

“Can engineers design? Social science easily proves they cannot”. This is the first line of Bauke Steenhuisen’s essay in the independent university magazine Delta of TU Delft March 2017. In his essay he questions design and design education. Bauke is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Technology, Policy & Management and wrote the essay at the invitation of the TU Network Design Education.

Let me begin to say that I have been a design engineer all my life, so the first line of his essay sounds quite provocative to me. Continue reading

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Evidence-based innovation in engineering education? This is why and how.

What do we learn from trial and error?

Curriculum innovation cycleInnovating curricula is about designing effective learning and teaching environments in continual cycles of educational practice and research. That’s what I have always learned in theory. But I have been curious why the professors and lecturers take very different approaches when they do research in their field of engineering or in their education. The structured process they follow when they aim to advance engineering knowledge and understanding through defining research questions, identifying hypotheses, collecting information and data for the purpose of making decisions, and testing those hypotheses, seems gone when they investigate how to enhance their teaching. The structured methodology is then often replaced by an unstructured trial-and-error process by producing prototype courses and improving them on the run. While we all know it is important to think systematically about teaching, learning and student success.

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Teaching interdisciplinarity in field-specific disciplinary programmes involves more than just a shift of mind

This second post on interdisciplinary education is about my gain from the National Interdisciplinary Education Conference, organised by the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) February 2nd, 2017. At this conference a wide range of Dutch and Belgian institutes for higher education shared their best practices and discussed the challenges in interdisciplinary education:

  • How can we enable students to make meaningful connections between natural and engineering sciences and humanities and social sciences?
  • How can we support graduates who want to create bridges between business, science, technology and society?
  • How can we create an environment where these worlds can meet, and what are the obstacles that often stand in our way?

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Interdisciplinary education: a wave of the future?

interdisciplinary-crayonsAlso at my university, though rigidly organised in disciplinary silos and producing disciplinary programmes, I hear the buzzwords “multidisciplinarity” and “interdisciplinarity” almost every day. Obviously there is a shift of interest towards exploring questions and solving problems that cross borders and engage with experts from multiple fields.  Quite some universities in Europe, the Americas and Asia make even bigger steps. They develop “liberal engineering” study programmes with the aim to bring broader education with more holistic thinking and societal context to engineering students.

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Labs and makerspaces create a sense of belonging and bring students face-to-face with engineering practice

At the festive opening of the new and renovated Aerospace Structures and Materials Lab at TU Delft Faculty of Aerospace Engineering 27th January 2017, I presented my viewpoint that educating the next generation of aerospace engineers should address more skills that are gaining prominence in future engineering practice, and that the renovated and new labs provide excellent opportunities for their learning and teaching. 

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A Rapidly Changing World: time already for a 3rd revised edition of my book?

A brief post with a humorous undertow.

In June I published the Second Revised Edition of my book “Engineering Education in a Rapidly Changing World“. On page 22 I included the disclaimer “What we do know is that tomorrow’s world will be an intense VUCA world… great advances are unpredictable, future scenarios thus full of uncertainty. We might miss a next revolution…..”

I had not expected that in less than seven months after its publication I already had missed the first revolution. Continue reading

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You can always write blogposts, but not always make memories

This morning I was engaged in drafting a blogpost about the role  of labs and makerspaces in our engineering education. Until my son and daughter came to me with the best proposal this Sunday: “Let’s see where we can skate”. Since we are living in the Green Heart of Holland, in a former swamp, we have a very green landscape which is rich in undeep waterways that freeze easily. In former times many of these waterways were used by flat wide boats to transport the peat from the swamp area to the city of Amsterdam for heating. Today their main function is water management, to prevent the flooding of our deep polders. And when it starts freezing, they are the place to be if you like skating. Continue reading

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Educating engineers for a resource constrained future: do we understand what we are doing?

CDIO_coated_TM [Converted]_jpegHas it ever been different?

“Engineering Opportunities in a Resource Constrained Future”. When I read this theme of the CDIO European Regional Meeting at Trinity College Dublin on 12-13 January 2017 the very first time, I wondered: “Has it ever been different?” Have we ever had an age where we had an unlimited amount of resources in engineering or engineering education? In my keynote “Adapting engineering education to change” I therefore started with the question which resource constrains us most in higher engineering education. Is it the growing number or attitude of students, the number or capabilities of staff, or the facilities to accommodate all students or new pedagogies? In the end of course everything can be expressed in terms of money. But I believe the major constraining resource is TIME: the consensus is that we as engineering educators can’t keep up with the pace of change in engineering knowledge and methods,  the changing needs by our graduates, and the emerging technologies in education.

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Vision on TU Delft Aerospace Engineering Education 2020

A new Long-term Vision

Mid November 2016, my faculty of Aerospace Engineering published its long-term vision in the form of the online magazine “Long-term Vision of the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering TU Delft 2016 – 2020: ‘It’s all about connections“. In this vision the (former) Dean, I as the Director of Education, and the departmental directors, theme organisers, project leaders and others address in personal interviews the question of how the faculty can make an optimum contribution to society at a time when everything is increasingly revolving around connections. Clipboard02

Since many of my blog followers have no affiliation with TU Delft but do share, I presume, my interest in the vision on engineering education, I have copied the full text about the Bachelor and Master Education into this blog post. A complementary vision on education, more specifically on Online Education, was established by my colleague Renee van de Watering and is available here. Continue reading

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