Alison Ahearn, Principal Teaching Fellow, Educational Development Unit

Students on the Department of Civil Engineering’s MSc courses can choose a project management module in which they form a consultancy firm which researches and gives advice to the ‘Secretary of State for Transport’ on five elements of a real-life civil engineering challenge – building a third runway at Heathrow Airport. Module leader Alison Ahearn had to move the last two weeks of the module online due to the campus closure required by the coronavirus pandemic.

After preliminary lectures on project management practice, the project runs over 6 Fridays in Spring Term. 45 students on the PGT course are put into five groups of 9, each group mingling their diverse educational backgrounds (environmental, transport or structural engineering), before the classroom is handed over entirely to them to operate their civil engineering consultancy firm. They are given an authentic brief, outlining the requirements of the project, from their client, Bill McElroy, Head of Consulting at Turner and Townsend, who takes the role of Secretary of State for Transport (SoST). Bill introduces his ‘client team’ which includes another two more industry experts and the module leader. From this point on, each student group acts as a division of the consultancy, with a project manager for each group and a programme manager for the cohort, coordinating the five teams. The groups are not in competition but must work together as a firm to analyse and advise on different aspects of the challenge, such as testing the assumptions of the original economic case; structural engineering issues of moving the M25 motorway, or responding to pushback from local residents and environmental concerns..

After 4 weeks of scoping, defining, researching and cross-conferring, the consultancy firm’s groups each give an interim presentation to the SoST and his team. In 2020, this interim presentation was the last class that was held face-to-face. The interim presentation offers the students real, professional feedback from industry professionals. For many, this is the first time they have received feedback in a formal, business style. By this point, the global pandemic’s severity was increasing and a few students had left the UK, meaning students had to collaborate across the world using Microsoft Teams but most were present in the classroom and the five teams heard/saw all presentations and feedback in real time. The ‘hard’ Q&A discussions showed students how astute their industry colleagues can be at spotting inconsistencies, over-optimism, bias, errors or gaps in advice, within and between groups. The interim presentation earns a coursework grade.

Students then used that interim feedback to redirect or reinforce their preparation of the final presentation, two weeks later. But the lockdown intervened. Self-organising using Teams, the students were supported by module administrative staff as the UK’s full lockdown went into effect. As no groups had the same challenge but all related to third runway issues, they worked in complement not competition. Project managers liaised between teams to provide non-competitive mutual support as a consultancy firm.

The final presentation moved online via Teams software. It was decided that it was unrealistic to expect the whole cohort to participate in a four or five hour online assessment event, even though the normal classroom final presentations were run with the whole class in a four-hour session that counted as coursework and oral exams. The plan was changed to having each student group present in turn (without the rest of the cohort online). After five separate presentations, the whole cohort gathered online for an extended feedback session from industry partners.

Practical administrative support is important for such events that count towards grades. On the day of the final presentations, logistical support was provided by Postgraduate Taught Courses Manager Fionnuala Donovan, who used the Teams environment to provide waiting rooms for students before they appeared in front of their industry assessors. Fionnuala and Alison (as host of the assessed sessions) used the chat function to keep an eye on delays to the schedule and communicate this to students. While it may have seemed unusual to deliver such a high-profile presentation online, the students thrived when the clients (all industry practitioners in real life) discussed how this online work was already the new normal in industry and described how they themselves were working online in their day-jobs on serious projects. The online setting gave an authentic snapshot of the professional skills required to work in the current environment.

Looking ahead to the future of the module and the challenges of remote team work, Alison reflected on the need for

  • an online induction to cultivate the group dynamics and trust among students: project-based teaching in second term benefited from students having built up social relationships in first term from intense all-day classes
  • Re-scripting the preliminary ‘lectures’ as hosted ‘discussions, conversations and explanations’ to make 9 hours of intense classes more consumable by individuals, online, who are not caught up in the classroom mood of interaction with an expert. The advantage of pre-filmed is that students in different time zones can watch.
  • Pre-filmed lectures gives the advantage of students having more chance to absorb the vocabulary of project management. Putting them online early may help students to be quicker to understand their roles and start working in the project-based module
  • The briefing session may need to be done live (in real-time online), with filming of it for the students who are in different time zones.
  • There would need to be ‘follow-up’ to make sure that students do not get left-behind if they were not ‘there’ at the creation of their team: project roles allocations, for instance, should not be determined by which time zone the student is in.

Reflecting on the experience, Alison said: “I have already seen how well my students self-organised online for oral exams, after lockdown started, so I know that my next cohort will cope too. I had the advantage that my module was about groupwork with shared marks: without competition, the students were instantly collaborating and giving each other peer support.

Individual learning summaries after the module ended showed me that the students coped very well with the sudden switch to online learning and some found it less daunting to do oral exams online than speaking in classroom presentations. Also, the Civil Engineering admin staff had set up a website with FAQs and an inform-and-reassure ethos. Thus my students impressed my industry partners with excellent technical work and enthusiastic presentations, despite the difficult situation.”