Case study:

SUTD Institutional Context

  SUTD (Singapore)

Abstract

Video: institutional overview

Institution in summary

SUTD’s educational approach is grounded in project-based and design-centred learning, in an environment that emphasises hands-on learning and prototyping. The university is investing in Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) to develop a ‘cyber-physical’ learning experience, as well as educational technology to support personalised learning that will primarily be delivered on-campus.

Defining features

What are the defining features of SUTD’s education approach?

Established in 2009 in collaboration with MIT, SUTD is a specialist design and technology university, catering to a select intake of around 500 undergraduates per year.  A defining feature of the university is its multidisciplinary, active and student-centred educational approach, which is underpinned by team-based problem solving and collaboration.  All undergraduates are based on campus to support access to dedicated team working and prototyping spaces, and to advance peer-to-peer learning. 

Approach and vision

What is SUTD’s approach and vision in educational technology?

Because SUTD takes a hands-on approach to education, remote learning is not a feature of its current and future educational vision.  However, educational technology and the development of cyber-physical systems – as tools to allow students to explore new ideas, deepen their learning and offer individualised learning while on campus – play a major role in the university’s educational vision for the future.  Drawing on strategic external partnerships in educational technology, SUTD is investing significantly in Artificial Intelligence (AI), data analytics, robotics and AR/VR.  Early developments already rolled out in the curriculum include the use of AI and VR/AR in the teaching of mathematics and AR/VR Architecture studio modules.  New initiatives in the pipeline to realise the university’s vision of cyber-physical systems include the development of: 3D/AR whiteboards (to allow, for example, students to explore, annotate and present 3D models) and a virtual campus (to support virtual tours of SUTD and to showcase students’ 3D projects).  SUTD is also looking at ways to leverage emerging technologies to develop new learner analytic and ‘anti cheating’ systems, for application to both online and offline learning. The university points to the willingness of its faculty to embrace a non-traditional and constantly evolving curriculum as a major strength in its capacity to advance innovations in educational technology. 

Emergency teaching

What has been the approach to COVID-19 ‘emergency teaching’?

During the two-month ‘circuit breaker’ period of total lockdown across Singapore during April and May 2020, SUTD’s programs moved entirely online.  Since that time, the majority of its undergraduate education has continued to be delivered remotely.  However, limited prototyping, supervision and group activities have returned to campus, albeit under stringent social distancing restrictions.

Initial barriers to SUTD’s emergency online learning (as reported by students) typically related to internet connectivity and home environments that were unconducive to learning.  Despite these early challenges, faculty reported high levels of student engagement in online team-based activities, which was largely attributed to the opportunities for peer-to-peer connection and interaction that these experiences provided. 

In its immediate response to the COVID-19 restrictions and its shift to online learning in March 2020, the university shipped IT devices to faculty (such as Wacom tablets, iPad Pros, microphones, webcams) to support their capacity to develop and deliver online courses from home.  Faculty were also offered training in the use of some of the key applications adopted for this online learning environment, including MS Teams, Hiverlab (for AR/VR activities) and ClassPoint (to integrate student feedback and interactivity into presentations).  SUTD currently supports a variety of platforms for synchronous and asynchronous teaching, including:

  • synchronous: video meeting and collaboration platforms (e.g. Zoom, MS Teams, Blackboard Collaborate); platforms to advance student participation (ClassPoint and Slido);
  • asynchronous: screen recording (PowerPoint) and content creation (eDimension).

The major challenge faced by SUTD has been in the remote delivery of its hands-on and collaborative project-based activities.  This has related particularly to guiding students through the collaborative design process, the development and construction of physical prototypes, and the showcasing of project outputs.  Since March 2020, the university has developed and rolled out a number of new online solutions that target these particular areas.  Examples include team-based games (such as multi-player logistic simulation games hosted on a remote server and gamified virtual labs to teach cell biology) and e-exhibitions (such as virtual showcases of students’ product design solutions, including for Capstone projects.  Where on-campus hands-on activities have been possible, smart cameras with facial recognition have been adopted to limit the number of students using prototyping facilities at any given time, with robotics supporting real-time monitoring of safe distancing among the users.

What is the impact of ‘emergency teaching’ on future educational strategy?

While SUTD’s fundamental emphasis on hands-on collaborative problem-solving and innovation remains unchanged, the COVID-19 restrictions have accelerated the university’s plans for the development of cyber-physical systems to support its on-campus learning.  In particular, the period of emergency teaching has fast-tracked SUTD’s work to develop digital twins and AR/VR content as substitutes for physical systems and prototypes.  These advances will also be used to underpin new and immersive modes of collaboration with overseas students and global partners.  A second priority is the development of personalised approaches to teaching and learning, be that online (through new advances in learner analytics) or in the classroom (through sensor technologies tracking student behaviour that will allow the university to optimise the physical learning environment).   SUTD’s experiences during this period have also underlined the distinctive culture and educational approach of the university and its student community, which is reflected in the ways such technologies are accessed and used.  This has galvanised SUTD’s ambition to pursue bespoke, rather than off-the-shelf, educational technology solutions in the future. 

Selection criteria

Why was the VIC selected as a case study?

As a self-contained two-day activity, held in June 2020, the VIC was the first fully online experience offered by SUTD to take students through the full design process.  With student participants spanning all SUTD year-groups – including the ‘incoming’ cohort yet to matriculate – the experience allowed faculty to trial and reflect upon how best to scaffold each stage of the design process and support student engagement, progression and learning in the online environment.  The university also exploited the remote nature of the activity to develop the VIC, as its most ambitious integration of external stakeholders into an undergraduate project to date.