EdTech as a facilitator for engineering across cultures and nations

Wouter Van der Hoeven, Educational Researcher & Wim Van Petegem, Professor Learning Technologies at the Catholic University of Leuven
Online learning STEM / STEAM Blended Learning Course & Learning Design Methodologies Innovation in practice

The ability to live and work in a contemporary global community is an important requirement for a modern engineering professional. Along with broad engineering skills they also need to be able to communicate, collaborate and interact in an international environment. KU Leuven (BE) and Pennsylvania State University (VS) try to tackle this challenge by organizing a joint course using the opportunities created by EdTech through virtual classrooms to facilitate actual learning across cultures and nations.

Working in a global community

The Institute for the Future (IFTF) and their ‘Future Work Skills 2020’ report identified the drivers reshaping how we think about work, what constitutes work and the key skills we will need to be productive contributors in the future. A substantial part of these drivers focus on collaboration and communication in an international and digital global environment.

Therefore modern-day engineers should be able to live, work and communicate in our contemporary global community, across cultures and nations, by combining their technical expertise with an understanding of how professionals in different cultures define problems and develop solutions.

Cross-cultural skills at KU Leuven (BE) and PSU (VS)

To prepare future engineers for these new professional challenges, educators at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium (KU Leuven) and Pennsylvania State University in the US (PSU) are integrating genuine EdTech supported virtual team learning experiences in the following curricula for engineering students to develop these intercultural competences:

  • KU Leuven - Postgraduate Programme on Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Engineering
  • PSU - Engineering Leadership Development programme (ELD)

The match between the ambitions of these two programmes was obvious. This led to the development of a common course, called ‘Professional and Cross-cultural Skills in Engineering’ at KU Leuven and ‘Engineering Across Cultures and Nations’ at PSU. This course is offered for students at both sides, since the academic year 2015-2016.

Course description

The course examines individual and cultural differences and how they impact business practices, communication and team dynamics when solving engineering problems in global contexts. These topics are central to international and multicultural engineering teams. Students that complete the course will be able to understand sources of conflict that can arise in multicultural teams and effectively use the tools and resources learned in class to manage individual and team motivation and minimize or effectively deal with conflict, while harvesting the benefits of diversity as they work on a real world virtual team project, producing effective solutions to challenging engineering problems.

The live interaction between the two universities through a virtual classroom makes this course a great real life learning environment.


Course design

The following course design was developed to enhance and enrich the intercultural and international virtual learning experience for the students (and for the teachers):

  1. Synchronous web lectures delivering the course content to the students, which are given by faculty staff from both institutions and by guest speakers from the corporate and academic world, complemented by readings, case studies, individual assignments and group discussions. Evolved to a blended learning approach with flipped classroom model from the second run.
  2. Virtual team projects in which the students, in mixed teams across the ocean, encounter virtual, cross-cultural challenges. In this interdisciplinary project students combine their engineering knowledge and entrepreneurial spirit with their professional and intercultural skills in order to find innovative and feasible business opportunities.
  3. An online learning course was added in the second run of the course when the amount of lectures was reduced to free up more time for in-class interactivity

Learning about collaboration across cultures and nations while experiencing it yourself in a virtual and technology supported environment in the meantime, was what made this course really stand out against its traditional counterparts for me.


EdTech as a facilitator for cross-cultural learning

On the one hand the use of EdTech is an important prerequisite to organize these kind of international joint courses, without which they could otherwise not take place. On the other hand it provides these students with the real life experience of actually working in this global, intercultural and virtual world they are learning about. A mixture of the following EdTech components was used, varying and gradually evolving during the different runs, to facilitate this international course:

  1. Web conference system (Polycom → Skype → Zoom) – Used to organize the synchronous virtual class sessions.
  2. Online collaboration tools (Choice of students) – Tools to facilitate the project work of the mixed virtual student teams.
  3. Online learning materials/course (Digital material → Canvas) – Evolution from shared digital course materials (1st run) to a complete online learning course on the Canvas learning management system (2nd – 4th run).


Gradual growth and improvements

Over the years the course components (learning approach, materials and EdTech) have been optimized, in order to enhance and enrich the intercultural and international learning experiences for the students (and for the teachers). This was a process of continuous improvement of the course since its first run, based on yearly feedback from the students and teachers. This process can be linked to recurrent cycles of using the ADDIE instructional design model, although the different steps are not always taken explicitly.

Pilot Run

Details: Fall 2015 - 12 students
Web Conference System: Polycom Video Conferencing Portal
Online Collaboration Tools: Personal choice students
Online Learning Materials: Digital course material

With any new venture, prototypes are invaluable to the design process. The same is true for course development, especially when EdTech is involved. The pilot offered both institutions a great opportunity to get their feet wet without drowning themselves.

A virtual classroom was set up to facilitate the synchronous web conference lectures twice a week given by faculty from both institutions and by guest speakers. With a main focus on lecturing followed by in-class discussions, the Polycom system and software was selected based on educational and practical needs, previous experiences and availability. The accompanying course material was shared online. For the project work in mixed virtual teams the students came up with their own a mixture of collaboration (file sharing and editing) and communication tools.

An intensive, but rewarding ‘real life’ learning experience across several borders showing the potential of EdTech for future education.


Despite the occasional organizational and technical hiccups during the start-up, student feedback indicated that students loved the joint virtual set-up of the course: “Joining my 5 virtual classmates was a weekly highlight.” and “By far the best online learning and collaboration experience I’ve had.”. The main suggestion for improvement was to free up more time for virtual
in-class interactivity and discussion. For the teachers this pilot run was also very insightful: learning how to cope with different educational settings, time-zones and academic calendars, technical hiccups, … .

Second/Third Run – Work in progress

Details: Spring 2017 - 16 students, Spring 2018 – 14 students
Web Conference System: Polycom Video Conferencing Portal – Skype for Business
Online Collaboration Tools: Personal choice students
Online Learning Materials: Online course on Canvas learning management system

Based on the experiences during the pilot run of the course, followed by student feedback, a number of significant improvements were planned for the second run offered in the Spring 2017 term. In order to free up class time for more in-class interactivity and discussion, the PSU teaching team developed a fully online learning course on their learning management system Canvas, complete with online learning materials, activities and assignments. Care was taken to make sure learning activities and assignments were tied more closely with the course project, in a coherent way to meet the course objectives. To achieve this the YouSeeU EdTech was used to integrate video assignments and assessments in the online learning course.

At PSU, the students were engaged only in online learning (Canvas course and virtual joint sessions), while the students at KU Leuven were offered a combination of face-to-face and online learning (i.e. blended learning) in a flipped classroom model. Next to the virtual joint sessions with PSU, students at KU Leuven met now for one face-to-face session a week. Each week they were supposed to study the online course material and one student in particular prepared the face-to-face class discussion about the topic.

Due to the positive feedback on the blended learning approach with flipped classroom model at KU Leuven, this approach was also adopted by PSU for the third run of the course in the Spring 2018 term. All students were now supposed to study the online material on a weekly basis and each week one student prepared the class discussion, which was now set up as a synchronous web conference. Technically the switch was made to Skype for Business as the preferred web conference system, because it offered a better balance between the required features, stability, user friendliness and flexibility.

During the second and the third run, no structural changes were made to the project work of the mixed virtual teams. To stimulate group bonding and to bridge the ‘virtual gap’ between the students some extra time was allotted to introduce themselves, their native languages and cultures during the virtual joint sessions.

Fourth Run – Consolidation and expansion of a working format

Details: Spring 2019 - 13 students
Web Conference System: Zoom Video Conferencing
Online Collaboration Tools: Personal choice students
Online Learning Materials: Online course on Canvas learning management system

The fourth run of the course was offered in the Spring 2019 term and focused mainly on the consolidation of the format and expansion of the online learning course. Therefore no worth mentioning changes were made to the course format, assignments nor project work. Now these aspects were optimized during the previous runs, consolidating the format and expanding the online learning course became the main focus point. This was done by fully integrating the language lessons into the online course, adding online journal entries with cultural scenarios that required students to apply what they learned to make a recommendation in a work setting and introducing the development of a ‘personal intercultural development plan’. On a technical level the switch to Zoom as technology for the web conference sessions was made, making full use of the functionalities of and integration with the Canvas learning management system.

Opportunities and challenges of virtual EdTech facilitated learning

After four runs the course and its components (learning approach, materials and EdTech) have been fully integrated and consolidated in the KU Leuven and PSU engineering curriculum. It has become a vital part of how they train modern-day engineers in how to live, work and communicate in our contemporary global community, across cultures and nations.

The use of EdTech is an important prerequisite to organize this kind of international joint course, without which it could otherwise not have taken place. It provides the educators with opportunities that are difficult (or even impossible) to achieve in regular course formats like:

  • Enabling global cooperation between partners with similar educational ambitions to share their knowledge and expertise with each other and students all over he world.
  • Developing specific (soft) skills through a real life experience of actually learning, communicating and working in this global, intercultural and virtual world the students are learning about.
  • Developing and integrating an online learning course to shift from a more traditional lecture-based approach to a blended learning approach with a flipped classroom model to free up more time for in-class discussions, interaction and collaboration.
  • Freeing up time for educators to spend on course development/optimization and student contact/guidance by using a learning management system to automate some practicalities (planning, communication, gradebook) and educational tasks (assignments, exercises, assessment).

EdTech plays a vital role in what makes this course so unique and a success story, but it also brings with it different kinds of challenges. What follows is an overview of the main challenges encountered during the different runs of this course and how the KU Leuven and PSU educators succeeded in countering most of them:

  • Educational challenges – Differences in institutional setting (KU Leuven vs PSU), educational culture (teaching and learning styles, assessment strategy) and the educational background of the student (knowledge and skill level) determine how to design your course. → Meticulous planning, sufficient (face-to-face) meetings between both partners and continuous optimization cycles based on feedback helped to create a course that suited the characteristics and needs of all people involved.
  • Practical challenges – Staggered time-zones and differences in (academic) calendar can make organizing an international virtual course a practical nightmare. → Planning, making clear agreements and being flexible when necessary are essential to bring such an international endeavour to a good end.
  • Intercultural challenges – Differences in language and cultural background can complicate communicating, collaborating and learning in a cross-cultural context. → Informal introductory meetings between all partners and the addition of language lessons in the (online) course helped to alleviate the friction .
  • Technical challenges – Occasional technical hiccups will always happen, but finding the right balance between required features, integration possibilities, stability, user friendliness, availability and flexibility requires patience and practice. → Thorough testing, getting acquainted with the technology being used, adequate preparation before a session starts and always having an alternative up your sleeve when everything else fails are key to avoid technical hiccups.

Don’t use EdTech in a classroom because it’s a buzzword or trend. Use it because connecting students with the world will prepare them for the future


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