Group design project work - online and remote working

Posted in: Blended learning, online learning, teamwork

Background Context

In the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering, Dr Robert Grover co-teaches a design project with Dr Victoria Stephenson, to a combination of four different cohorts, across the two disciplines of architecture and civil engineering.  The project is delivered in Year 3 of undergraduate degree programmes. This case study highlights the experience of delivering this during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, where the majority of learning and teaching was carried out remotely, and online.

The five-week project tasked students with designing the refurbishment of a power station in Manhattan, into a cultural centre. Previously the brief would have included a site visit but as the students would be unable to carry out visits, due to government restrictions, Manhattan was chosen to provide students with the opportunity to be ambitious in their plans.

The following characteristics describe the four participating cohorts:

  • 230+ students, split 50/50 between the two disciplines.
  • Architecture students have experience of working on design projects but have little experience of group work.
  • Civil engineering students have limited experience of project work.
  • Approximately half will have completed a placement year where they will have experienced authentic collaboration work.
  • The project carried slightly different weighting for the two disciplines, with engineers subsequently moving onto a reflective exercise and architects moving onto another design project.


The students were allocated to groups of 6 or 7, with each group consisting of a mixture of architecture and civil engineering students.  The group allocation involved a mixture of manual and automated process, to enable each group to have students from a mix of disciplines.

  • Architects used Moodle group choice to organise themselves into groups of 3.
  • Engineers were assigned into groups of 3 by staff, with some choice if the students had a preference.
  • Groups were then paired up so that each group contained a mix of architects and engineers.

In preparation for working in groups, students were able to:

  • Watch a video lecture from Academic Skills staff on how to work in groups.
  • Attend a talk from practicing architects on how they work in groups, and particularly when remote working.


Whilst working on the project students were allowed to choose how they worked collaboratively, in a number of ways:

  • Zoom – a Bath supported webinar tool for synchronous meetings and discussions.
  • Concept Board – a non-Bath-supported web-based, whiteboard collaboration space for brainstorming and sharing ideas.
  • Attending IPT (in-person teaching) sessions on campus where the lecturers would facilitate direct discussion, followed by groups working together (socially distanced).
  • Meeting socially distanced in other study spaces on/off campus when allowed.

The project included two review points (interim and final) for formative feedback to be provided, before a final project submission was made for summative grading.

Reflection / Results

The overall reflection is that the project worked successfully.  During the five-week process there were no reports from students being unable to work in their team.  However, there were comments from students about group work being challenging, although this is frequently recorded feedback from any group project.

Some benefits of online/remote working were identified:

  • The project was easier to administer, and more efficient to run.
  • There was a reduction in staff having to intervene in group ‘politics’ than in previous in-person group projects.
  • Improved ‘scaffolding’ and in particular where formative review points required evidence, led to students being more focussed.  The previous mad rush to complete projects was reduced this time.
  • Students appreciated the structured approach to the project completion as their efforts could be built on for the final submission.
  • In some cases. lecturers were able to use Zoom to good effect, using annotation tools to demonstrate specific concepts.
  • Student work was comparable to work of previous cohorts, and although the experience was different, the quality of work was retained.

There were also some drawbacks that would need adapting for future iterations of the project:

  • IPT sessions often involved students who were working remotely, whilst others attending campus.  This could be difficult to manage to ensure all parties benefited.
  • Staff would go to an office on campus to present to students in class and online, but this required commitment from students to engage fully.
  • Students missed out on doing a site visit, and also on making models.  These are key elements in making the exercise more authentic.
  • Workshop spaces were open on campus but were mostly impractical for students to use in a meaningful way due to time constraints (applied for safety).
  • There was a lack of peer interaction between groups, which in normal time would be a strong part of the process.
  • The student online evaluation feedback showed that the two cohort groups viewed the experience differently and suggested that the engineering students needed more preparation for working in groups and using technology for collaboration.

Future Projects

There were aspects of the exercise that would be beneficial to incorporate into any future campus-based run of this project.

The students benefited from clearly stated instructions and weekly deadlines. These were a requirement of having to support students remotely, but the clear benefits to the groups, in terms of supporting their organisational skills, illustrate that this approach should continue.  It’s especially helpful when bringing groups with varying experience together. Scaffolding content and activity were much more important than previously recognised.

It was still clear that some of the more enjoyable aspects of peer interaction were missed by students, and it’s not obvious how these aspects could be replicated online:

  • Being able to work in the design studio.
  • Socialising around other groups for ad-hoc discussion.
  • Seeing how other projects were being developed.
  • Hearing discussions of other teams.

Thank you to Dr Robert Grover who offered his time to share this recent teaching and learning experience.

Posted in: Blended learning, online learning, teamwork


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