Karin Schmidlin

Wicked Teams

Wicked Teams: A Pedagogical Exploration of Project-Based Learning (PjBL) in Post-Secondary Design Education

This paper is the first of three papers for my comprehensive PhD exam, March 2024


This paper explores the pedagogical potential of Project-Based Learning (PjBL) in higher education design programs, focusing on its role in equipping students to live fully in the 21st-century. Innovative and flexible instructional methods are paramount in a world increasingly shaped by technological advancements, social disparities, and environmental emergencies. By examining the history and evolution of PjBL, the paper emphasizes its connection with critical 21st-century competencies such as collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity and how it fosters deep, reflective learning. It also delves into the concept of wicked problems and the formation of wicked teams – interdisciplinary groups capable of devising holistic solutions to complex challenges. The paper discusses the challenges and opportunities of implementing PjBL in online environments, highlighting the importance of interactive and engaged learning experiences. It provides case studies and recommendations for further investigation, emphasizing the importance of ongoing adaptation in design education to prepare students for a rapidly changing world.


Keywords: Project-based learning, design education, human-centred design, wicked teams, 21st-century skills

1. Introduction

2. Literature Review

3. Beyond Human-Centred Design

4. Design Education in the 21st-Century

5. Project-Based Learning (PjBL)

6. Wicked Problems, Wicked Teams

7. Benefits & Challenges

8. Recommendations

9. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Various challenges and global events have significantly affected people's lives in recent years. These include rapid technological advancements, racial and social disparities, wars in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East causing suffering among civilian populations, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as regional and global environmental disasters (Lehtonen et al., 2023). While not all these events have the same influence on teaching and learning, they all serve to remind us of the critical role higher education plays in equipping our students with the ability to address real-world problems effectively (Carvalho et al., 2022). One of the inevitable side effects of a distressed, globally and digitally connected world is increasing uncertainty and rising complexity (Augsten & Gekeler, 2017), underscoring the need for innovative and adaptive pedagogical approaches.

PjBL has gained broad acceptance in design education in recent years. Design has moved beyond the traditional focus on the aesthetics and functionality of products and instead now incorporates a broader, more integrative approach. This shift has led to more complex design roles and activities (Flores et al., 2012). It is no longer sufficient to create visually appealing products; designers must also possess the ability to recognize and adapt to rapidly changing societal and environmental conditions, all while understanding the ethical implications of design (Justice, 2019). The emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration and teamwork in PjBL offers the added advantage of emulating the professional design practices students will meet upon entering the workforce. Throughout this paper, I will use the abbreviation PjBL to distinguish project-based learning from problem-based learning, or PBL. While there are overlaps between the two, the main differences are scope and output. While both project -and problem-based learning are forms of experiential learning that put the student at the centre, in a project-based course, students work on a final artifact or prototype that considers the larger scope of societal, economic, ethical, and ecological contexts (Helle et al., 2006; Kirschner & Norman, 2021). This is relevant for PjBL in design education, as designers create products and services for actual usage within this larger societal context.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the integration of the principles of human- and life-centred design (Borthwick et al., 2022) with the pedagogy of PjBL and its potential to successfully equip undergraduate students from various disciplines with the necessary skills and competencies to tackle the complex problems mentioned in the introduction. Young (2013) writes that design education “cannot exist in isolation, purely as a process of art and design learning” (p. 185), but instead, is a holistic approach to structure collaboration between different disciplines (Augsten & Gekeler, 2017; Burnett, 2009; Rylander, 2009; Sanders & Stappers, 2008). Or, as the designer and educator Viktor Papanek notes, "design can and must become a way in which young people can participate in changing society" (Papanek, 1985, p. xiv).

Given the complex societal challenges at the start of this paper, design students must acquire both technical skills and broader competencies to effectively address and develop meaningful solutions for the urgent challenges of our present era. Skills include technical and practical abilities, such as user experience (UX) design methods, digital prototyping, usability testing, and design-specific software and technologies. Skills are commonly viewed as practical, teachable, and measurable abilities (Griffin & Care, 2015) that students require to effectively accomplish a particular activity or task. Competencies, on the other hand, include collaboration, critical thinking, and empathy with the end user. The combination of skills and competencies is essential for effectively addressing and developing meaningful solutions to the urgent challenges of the present era.

The need for this enhanced problem-solving necessitates the formation of diverse teams consisting of people with varied viewpoints, cultural backgrounds, and areas of expertise. These teams can introduce fresh perspectives and enrich discussions on design and innovation. As such, I argue that by integrating project-based learning (PjBL) into current design education, we might develop an effective strategy for preparing students to work in high-performing, wicked teams. By immersing students in real-life situations, we enable them to utilize interdisciplinary knowledge and collaborate with peers from various backgrounds. This method resembles the dynamics of wicked teams in real life, giving students hands-on experience tackling challenging issues through collaborative effort and diverse perspectives.

Although domain-specific expertise is still highly valued in several professions, including design (Brosens et al., 2023), employers are now placing greater emphasis on hiring graduates with strong communication, collaboration, and teamwork abilities (Cortázar et al., 2022; Vartiainen et al., 2022). Since 2015, several skills have been identified for inclusion in higher education curricula to prepare students for life in the 21st-century (Brosens et al., 2023). A helpful way to conceptualize these 21st-century abilities is the model for educators developed by Binkley et al. (2012), which categorizes these skills and competencies into four distinct categories. “Ways of thinking” covers several cognitive processes, including creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving competencies. “Ways of working” comprise collaboration and communication; “tools for working” include domain-specific software and tools, and information literacy. Lastly, “living in the world” involves an understanding of social responsibility, cultural awareness, and local and global citizenship (Binkley et al., 2012, pp. 18–19). As I will outline below, students can acquire all these skills and competencies in a collaborative, project-based learning environment.

PjBL can enhance students' learning outcomes (Blumenfeld et al., 1991) and promote collaboration (Jalinus et al., 2020) by motivating students to collaboratively solve real-world, open-ended problems. The methodology fosters critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and creativity skills essential for students to thrive in the 21st-century. Furthermore, PjBL embodies the sociocultural perspective of learning, aligning with modern educational goals to cultivate students as global citizens (Fortune et al., 2019), meaning self-directed and lifelong learners capable of collaboratively solving real-life problems.  

2. Literature Review

I carried out the following steps for this literature review on the efficacy of project-based learning in online design education: 1) identified key papers about project-based learning in a broad context, specifically in design education, 2) examined the definition of project-based learning, 3) synthesized information on prior research on PjBL, and finally, 4) analyzed the rationale for the potential effectiveness of PjBL in equipping students for the demands of the 21st-century.

Project-Based Learning (PjBL)

The literature on Project-Based Learning (PjBL) in post-secondary education is extensive and multidisciplinary, reflecting this pedagogical approach's diverse and dynamic nature. John Dewey’s seminal research on reflective thinking (Dewey, 1933) and its connection to the educational process form the theoretical foundation of PjBL, highlighting experiential and hands-on learning. Bradley-Levine and Mosier (2014) provide an extensive examination of the existing literature on PjBL, including a wide-ranging analysis of its theoretical and practical elements, while Blumenfeld et al. (1991) examine the motivational aspects of PjBL, highlighting the significance of maintaining student engagement throughout the learning process. Helle et al. (2006) present an in-depth analysis of PjBL in higher education, effectively connecting theoretical concepts with practical applications. Alvarez-Bell et al. (2017) examine student engagement and instructional practices in innovative teaching, emphasizing the significance of team-based learning methods. Grossman et al. (2019) investigate the training of educators for project-based teaching, a crucial element in successfully adopting project-based learning. Belland et al. (2009) offer a critical evaluation of the validity of project-based learning research, offering a framework for assessing learning outcomes in online environments, while Cortázar et al. (2022) explore the effects of scaffolding and regulation on collaboration in online project-based courses, explicitly focusing on the challenges of collaborative learning in digital environments. Blumenfeld et al. (1997) examine the distinction between cooperative - and collaborative learning. The authors characterize collaboration as less structured, allowing students to negotiate their roles, duties, and the project's overall direction. The results of their research are consistent with PjBL in the ill-defined design domain. In their study, Fathi et al. (2019) investigate using structural modelling for teamwork training in higher education. This research is relevant to understanding the team dynamics in PjBL.

Design Education in 21st-Century Skills

While most of the studies in this review stemmed from engineering, math, and science, Aflatoony et al. (2018) offer valuable insights into developing effective design curricula for secondary schools. These insights can serve as a strong foundation for understanding PjBL in design education. Design has seen a shift from conventional craftsmanship to the advancement of innovation, which includes fostering creative collaboration in modern design education (Augsten & Gekeler, 2017). Borthwick et al. (2022) expand the definition of design from human-centred to “life-centred design” (p. 3), promoting a more holistic view of design.Fiorini et al. (2022) introduce creative approaches for design education, offering a global perspective. Fortune et al. (2019) echo this global outlook in a study that examines the transformative student experience and the skills acquired in an international project-based capstone design course. The authors emphasize the significance of situating projects in global settings. Goodyear and Markauskaite (2019) highlight the impact of “wicked problems” (p. 42) and uncertain futures on practical application, aligning with the need for flexible and adaptive teaching methods in design education. Bender's research on customizing instruction for the 21st-century (2012) offers valuable insights into how PjBL may address diverse student needs.

The literature in this review emphasizes the importance of PjBL in providing students with the necessary skills and mindset to address complex, real-world challenges in design and other fields. It underscores the need for flexible teaching methods, cross-disciplinary cooperation, and a holistic approach to design education that addresses the constantly evolving societal and technological landscape.

Back to top

3. Beyond Human-Centred Design

The term design has slightly different connotations depending on the educational context. For example, in engineering and other STEM fields, the term design commonly refers to the methodical and intelligent process of creating a solution for devices, systems and processes (Dym et al., 2005). Design in this context emphasizes a product or system's practical functionality, reliability, and efficiency. It is often concerned with physics, materials, structural integrity, robust code, and safety considerations. Digital design, on the other hand, encompasses the creation of visuals, graphics, and layouts, often resulting in user interfaces for digital platforms, such as websites, mobile apps, wearable devices, digital kiosks, and other visual digital products. As Stephen Eskilson (2023) notes, "digital design is still an emerging concept; it connotes a slippery discourse, continually contested and evolving. In its narrowest sense, “digital design” is often used as a synonym for “screen-based graphic design.” (p. 5).

The design field has experienced significant expansion in recent decades, from emphasizing product development and aesthetics to addressing complex human-centred problems (Flores et al., 2012; Hernandez et al., 2017). This marks a significant change in how designers approach their work (Augsten & Gekeler, 2017; Cautela et al., 2014) and the kinds of skills and competencies required to lead a successful design career.  While user- or human-centred design (HCD) has been the de facto lens through which digital products have been designed (Mattelmäki et al., 2011), there is surmounting evidence that putting the human at the centre of the product cycle may raise tensions. For example, focusing strictly on the human end user can have unintended consequences, damaging global systems that can cause harm to life on this planet (Borthwick et al., 2022). A second tension occurs because human-centred design aims to understand both the present situation of a user and design a solution for the future (Ehn, 1988; Kanstrup & Christiansen, 2005; Steen, 2011). Spinuzzi (2005) supports this notion in his description of designers having to perform a "juggling act between […] collecting and analyzing data versus […] initiating and sustaining significant change" (p. 168), creating a tension between “what is versus a concern for what could be” (Steen, 2011, p. 48).

Amid heightened global consciousness and mounting challenges, the design industry is increasingly advocating for a more holistic definition of design (Hernandez et al., 2017; Norman & Stappers, 2015) that encompasses not only human considerations but also environmental aspects and the full spectrum of a product's lifecycle—from raw materials to disposal—impacting everyone involved. The designer and educator Don Norman proposes a new definition of design that is in line with the complexity of our world:

We need design as a way of thinking, of approaching large sociotechnical systems, of recognizing each person as a component in the complex system of the world that comprises all living things, the earth, land, and sea, where each component impacts the others. (p. 13).

Norman’s systemic view of design is confirmed by researchers who have adopted complexity as the framework for understanding the significant shifts that the design field is currently undergoing (Bar-Yam, 1997; Flores & Morán, 2017; Thackara, 2005). In his incomplete design theory, the social scientist and mathematician Herbert Simon recognized the potential of design as a problem-solving method to address complex problems (Hatchuel, 2001). One such evolving field of design developed by Borthwick et al. (2022) expands the definition of design from human-centred to “life-centred design” (p. 3). The authors draw on Thackara's work on designing for all life forms, not just humans (2005). Life-centred design promotes the idea of going beyond a focus on humans, encompassing a more holistic understanding of the design field that aligns with the ethical dimensions of design education. In this sense, design evolved from a perfectionist form-shaper discipline to a holistic, explorative approach to collaboration (Burnett, 2009; Rylander, 2009; Sanders & Stappers, 2008). Today's designers face increasingly complex challenges beyond mere product creation, yet many design education programs fail to prepare design students for these challenges. For this paper, it might be helpful to consider a definition of design as it relates specifically to an educational context of teaching human-centred design principles in a project-based course that aims to teach students skills for the 21st-century. Therefore, my definition of design is:A student-driven process that prioritizes empathy, creativity, and collaborative problem-solving. It encompasses creating products, services, or systems and the mindsets and abilities essential to living fully in the 21st-century.  

Back to top

4. Design Education in the 21st-Century

Traditionally, design education has been siloed, focusing on teaching inefficient processes of tacit knowledge (Meyer & Norman, 2020). Considerable emphasis was placed on enhancing the value and economic feasibility of mass-producing products for the marketplace. While some contemporary design programs have moved towards a more interdisciplinary approach, most are still housed in design-only university departments or stand-alone design schools. Therefore, the much-needed cross-pollination with other academic domains is challenging to achieve. As Victor Papanek writes, “The main trouble with design schools seems to be that they teach too much design and not enough about the ecological, social, economic, and political environments in which design takes place” (Papanek, 1985, p. 291).

As societal challenges grew more complex, design evolved and expanded beyond aesthetics and now includes a robust collaborative aspect (Hernandez et al., 2017). Furthermore, the authors point out that design has gained an important place in these collaborations, highlighting the idea that “design goes beyond styling activities, it is, for example, a mechanism to articulate people, ideas and processes within a system; a thinking process; a human-centred approach; and a creative way to solve wicked problems” (pp. 2823–2824). This notion of design evolving from individual endeavours to fostering creative collaboration connects to John Thackara (2005) who writes that “designers have to evolve from being the individual authors of objects, or buildings, to being facilitators of change among large groups of people.” (p. 7). To assume the responsibilities of facilitators for interdisciplinary teams and, in some cases, to develop the overall team process (Augsten & Gekeler, 2017; Perks et al., 2005; Ruhl et al., 2014; Valkenburg & Dorst, 1998), designers must acquire an entirely new set of skills and competencies. This necessitates a shift in the approach to design education by offering students the opportunity to work in collaborative environments that much closer mirror professional design practices. Below is an illustration of what an efficient collaboration in design education may look like.

Project-Oriented Learning Environment (POLE)

The POLE project was developed in 2001 by the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (Flores et al., 2012; Holliger & Elspass, 2006). The project platform involves 16 international universities participating in semester-long projects that bring together students, teachers, and industry partners to collaborate across cultural borders and academic domains. The goal is to develop “soft skills that enable students to assume social roles to coexist as a team, to take on leadership roles, and develop empathy and respect for the other team members” (Flores & Morán, 2017, p. 71).  

Back to top

5. Project-Based Learning (PjBL)

The prevalence of PjBL has increased significantly in recent years, contributing greatly to the discourse on effective learning methods in higher education. Gulbahar and Tinmaz (2006) note that organizing learning around projects is not a novel idea but that PjBL differs succinctly from many applications. In a project-based course, the project is led by the students and is core to the curriculum. Google’s Ngrams viewer [1], which monitors word frequencies in published materials, indicates that the term "project-based learning" gained significant traction in the early 1990s and has maintained its rise in popularity throughout the following decades. Multiple studies have indicated that PjBL is not a passing trend and is well-suited for equipping students with the necessary abilities to address societal issues and develop meaningful solutions to the challenges that lie ahead (Augsten & Gekeler, 2017; Kirschner & Norman, 2021).  

PjBL – A Definition

While no universally accepted definition of project-based learning exists, scholars agree on its foundational element of student-centredness (Grossman et al., 2019; Kurt & Akoglu, 2023). PjBL courses encourage comprehensive and deep learning as students grapple with solutions to problems and engage in reflective practices, assessing their individual contributions to collaborative endeavours (Parra Pennefather, 2022). This iterative process ensures that learners are equipped with both the technical know-how and the metacognitive tools essential to tackle the challenges of the 21st-century. A central problem or question determines the learning trajectory, serving as the starting point for all subsequent learning activities (Blumenfeld et al., 1991; Helle et al., 2006). In the context of design education, the initial step might involve using a design brief, which outlines the overall project topic. However, it also provides students with the freedom to determine their own approach and direction. Bradley-Levine and Mosier (2014) draw on the work of Thomas (2000; see also Jones et al., 1997) to define PjBL as "complex tasks based on challenging questions or problems that involve students in design, problem-solving, decision-making, or investigative activities; allow students to work relatively autonomously over extended periods; and culminate in realistic products or presentations" (p.1). The following example demonstrates a project of this nature.

Project-Based Internships            

A case study of Australian occupational therapy students participating in a project-based internship in Vietnam and India, where students worked with community health services, noted how transformational the experience turned out for the students (Fortune et al., 2019). Although the study does not explicitly focus on design education, one notable finding from the exit survey caught my attention. The students expressed discomfort with being perceived as 'experts' by the local Vietnamese and Indian health providers, primarily due to their Australian origin (p. 60). Emphasizing a complex colonial past, when even students from a Western university may be perceived as more competent than the local community partners. The study stresses the significance of establishing sustainable partnerships between universities and community groups to facilitate transformational learning experiences that are advantageous for both students and the communities they serve.  

PjBL – A Brief History

Multiple forms of learning put inquiry at their core, e.g. inquiry-based -, experiential -, experimental -, work-based -, and service-learning (Alvarez-Bell et al., 2017; Belland et al., 2009; Helle et al., 2006; Jones et al., 1997). The focus on learning through real-world problems is not new; it traces back to John Dewey’s central educational philosophy of experiential learning (Dewey, 1916). He championed a departure from traditional didactic teaching methods, advocating instead for immersive learning experiences that foster the learners’ abilities, interests, and intellectual progress. He considered this student-centred focus to be the goal of education. Later, Kilpatrick (1922 ) expanded on Dewey’s work on progressive education and developed the project method. Designed to foster a love of learning, his method includes the following fundamental principle: a “purposeful activity” (p. 4), in which students choose their activities (or projects) connected to their real-life experiences. Therefore, students are intrinsically motivated beyond simply completing an assignment for a grade. Like other student-centred pedagogies, the instructor's role shifts from that of a traditional authority figure to that of a guide or facilitator, providing students support when needed but otherwise letting students take the lead. One other project method element that pertains to this paper's subject is the integration of disciplines, which breaks down academic silos and gives students a chance to use a variety of skills and knowledge areas. The project method diverges from PjBL in that it focuses on the learning process rather than developing a tangible product. In that way, it might be more closely related to problem-based learning. Even though Kilpatrick is considered a pioneer in project-based learning, what is missing from his definition is the incorporation of conscious reflection and action, which are critical components in more modern conceptualizations of this learning approach (Helle et al., 2006).In the rapidly evolving landscape of the 21st-century, PjBL stands out as a seminal pedagogy, adept at emphasizing essential skills such as creative problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration (Blumenfeld et al., 1991; see also Kokotsaki et al., 2016). As students transition their classroom learning to real-world contexts, they can reinforce academic concepts and enhance their readiness for post-academic pursuits. PjBL aligns with constructivist learning paradigms, positioning students as active participants in their learning rather than passive recipients of knowledge (Bada, 2015; Diana et al., 2021; Grant, 2002; Jonassen, 1992; Wang et al., 2023). Kirschner and Norman (2021) note that designers must learn to collaborate with people from various disciplines. This requires the skills to navigate and understand the different value systems inherent in these fields, necessitating self-regulation and directing one's learning (Tekkol & Demirel, 2018). PjBL enables students to determine their learning paths by promoting self and co-regulation, enhancing student engagement, and stimulating a more profound comprehension through hands-on application. The following example will explore this further.

Scaffolding for Socially Shared Regulation            

The study conducted by Cortázar et al. (2022) investigated the impact of offering scaffolding support for socially shared regulation in a collaborative online project-based engineering course. Scaffolding socially shared regulation in the context of this study refers to the assistance provided to teams to improve collaborative learning by facilitating the negotiation, planning, alignment, and monitoring of their collective goals and actions. The study utilized a quasi-experimental design, comprising 421 students in the experimental group and 413 students in the control group. The scaffolding intervention targeted the first phases of the design process, intending to improve the human-centred and social aspects of the process. Both groups engaged in independent tasks and collaborative exercises, whereas the experimental group received supplementary assistance through socially shared control. The study evaluated collaboration through peer assessments, individual assessments, and assessments conducted by external stakeholders. The results emphasized the capacity to provide support and guidance for socially coordinated regulation to enhance collaboration in online project-based learning. However, it is important to recognize the constraints imposed by the COVID-19 framework, the specific group of students involved, and the necessity for more investigation. The authors noted that the study's findings demonstrated more equal contributions in team meetings and a fairer distribution of contributions to the team's work overall.

[1] https://books.google.com/ngrams

Back to top

6. Wicked Problems, Wicked Teams

The concept of wicked problems was first introduced by Rittel and Webber (1973), who described problems arising within a social policy and planning context. The authors used the term to describe complex, ill-defined problems with no true-false solutions and are, therefore, challenging to solve (Goodyear & Markauskaite, 2019). These problems often have incomplete, conflicting, or fluctuating information. In modern society, there is a growing prevalence of such wicked problems - intricate and multifaceted issues that defy straightforward solutions. These issues are characterized by their interdependence and dynamic nature. Solving such challenges necessitates an approach beyond traditional, linear problem-solving methods.This is where designer Bruce Mau’s concept of “new wicked teams”  (Mau & Ward, 2020, p. 450) becomes significant. The essence of a wicked team lies in its collective ability to approach problems from multiple perspectives. These teams usually consist of members from different fields like science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics, each offering unique viewpoints and methods. This multidisciplinary approach enables a comprehensive grasp of complex problems, fostering innovative solutions that a single-discipline team may not envision. The interactions of various disciplines in a wicked team amplify the understanding of the problem landscape, making it possible to unveil the interconnectedness and complexity of the issue. Each member’s expertise contributes a distinct dimension, enriching the team’s collective intelligence. Furthermore, the diverse backgrounds foster a convergence of ideas, leading to innovative and holistic problem-solving approaches. In the context of design education, preparing students to be part of such wicked teams is increasingly essential. Young people progressively need a wider range of skills and competencies to flourish in a globalized and increasingly diverse society. Many will work in jobs that do not yet exist, with technology we cannot imagine today. The ways of tackling wicked problems are profoundly social and require people to be able to take action in designing the world humans want to live in. Goodyear and Markauskaite (2019) make an excellent case for a socially driven problem-solving method to be taught that focuses on designing the future collaboratively. This is contrary to the idea of individualistic, profit-motivated problem solvers. They suggest that with the rapid pace of technological advancement, the fundamental question shifts from predicting the future to actively shaping it using “teachable strategies and shareable instruments in helping students learn to work on wicked problems” (p. 50). While the concept of multidisciplinary teams in addressing wicked problems has its merits, it is essential to acknowledge the potential challenges and limitations that come with it. Balancing diverse perspectives and expertise within a team framework requires careful management and consideration to ensure effective collaboration and decision-making. It can lead to challenges in decision-making and consensus-building (Bowers, 2005; Hussein, 2021). Moreover, coordination and communication within diverse teams might present challenges. Given the many professional backgrounds of its participants, establishing a common language can be challenging. This could lead to misinterpretations and misunderstandings, hindering the team's progress in addressing the issue effectively. By harnessing interdisciplinary team members' diverse skills and experiences, wicked problems can be approached from numerous angles, resulting in innovative and holistic solutions that go beyond conventional limitations.

Back to top

7. Benefits & Challenges

There is ample evidence that PjBL is an effective instructional method, resulting in higher student engagement and overall achievement (Belland et al., 2009; Bender, 2012; Larmer & Mergendoller, 2010). One of the significant benefits of encouraging students to take ownership of their learning and develop skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and working with others (Kurt & Akoglu, 2023) helps to improve retention and student satisfaction (Dym et al., 2005). Project-based learning has increased student interest because it allows students to work on real solutions to real-world problems that are meaningful to them. These projects can enhance a deep understanding of the learning material because students are involved in all aspects of learning, e.g. identifying a problem, formulating a plan, tracking their progress, collaborating with others, and evaluating the final artifact. Jia et al. (2023) note that integrating PjBL with design thinking practices demonstrates a noticeable improvement in students' creativity and problem-solving abilities.

Pedagogical Implications

However, in a seminal article by Blumenfeld et al. (1991), the authors suggest that without adequate support for teachers and students, PjBL, however innovative the method might be, will not be widely adopted. Students require explicit instructions and ample support to successfully engage in multidisciplinary teamwork, as Kauppi et al. (2020) noted. Parra Pennefather (2022) points out that PjBL presents a shift from traditional lecture-based courses and could be a “bit of a shock to learners used to that type of passive learning method” (p. 19). It is, therefore, important to describe the course structure, delivery and learning goals at the outset to allow students to adjust their expectations. In PjBL, the role of the instructor changes to that of a guide or facilitator (Arkun Kocadere & Ozgen, 2012; Augsten & Gekeler, 2017; Diana et al., 2021; Leow & Neo, 2023; Sioukas, 2023). Depending on the specific problem, an instructor might be required to wear multiple hats: from group facilitator to lead designer to industry advisor and, ultimately, mentor (Parra Pennefather, 2022). To take advantage of all the benefits of online PjBL while addressing its inherent challenges, instructors must actively participate in strategic planning, thoughtful course design, and continuous adjustments. This involves establishing an inclusive online community, designing engaging and user-friendly digital resources, and ensuring every student receives the essential assistance they need to succeed. By navigating these issues, instructors can leverage the unique opportunities of online PjBL to provide impactful learning experiences that prepare students for the complexities of the modern world, and constant communication is another crucial element of online PjBL. The absence of face-to-face interactions might result in misunderstandings or a lack of clarity regarding project objectives and expectations.

To fully capitalize on the advantages of online PjBL while addressing its inherent challenges, educators must actively engage in strategic planning, meticulous course design, and ongoing adaptations. This entails creating a comprehensive online community for students, developing engaging and user-friendly digital materials, and guaranteeing that each student has the necessary support to achieve success. Consequently, instructors must provide detailed project guidelines, consistent feedback (Grossman et al., 2019), and accessible channels for student inquiries. This ensures that students remain aligned with the project objectives and can handle the challenges of collaborating remotely. The flexibility and convenience of online learning are notable benefits of PjBL, particularly for students who must balance their education with other commitments.

Back to top

8. Recommendations for Future Research

There is growing pressure on universities to demonstrate the learning outcomes of their courses. As previously stated, substantial evidence supports the efficacy of PjBL in preparing students for life in the 21st-century (Fortune et al., 2019). Yet, methodologically sound and longitudinal evidence proving that PjBL produces skills and abilities valued outside academia remains sparse (Schwering, 2015). The analysis of complex sociotechnical systems in the design work by Norman and Stappers (2015) has created possibilities for integrating these systems into PjBL, therefore enriching the learning experience with greater depth and immersion. Flores and Morán (2017) have emphasized the necessity for PjBL to evolve with the changes in design education. The authors propose that the learning systems within PjBL should adjust to contemporary technologies and practices. The structural modelling of teamwork training by Fathi et al. (2019) and the progressive peer assessment methodologies by Wang et al. (2023) and Yu (2011) present novel techniques to assess the outcomes of collaborative PjBL.

In addition, Parra Pennefather's (2022) research on mentoring in digital media projects highlights the potential of PjBL for professional development. However, further research is needed to determine the usefulness of PjBL in developing the essential skills required for the 21st-century workforce, namely in the design field. To effectively prepare students for a complex future, research must investigate the adaptability of PjBL to diverse educational settings, including a range of technological resources and platforms. This should encompass a thorough evaluation of online learning platforms and their ability to facilitate collaborative learning. In summary, a concentrated research endeavour is required to establish project-based learning as a dynamic and relevant pedagogical approach in design education.

Back to top

9. Conclusion

Design education has recently become "a powerful force in shaping national and global cultures, economies, and societies in culturally diverse nations" (Fiorini et al., 2022, p. 93). During a design conference in San Francisco [2] , the educator and designer Don Norman delivered a speech on the future of design education. He argued that Design should be taught in large research universities rather than dedicated design schools. He stated that a comprehensive design education should incorporate perspectives from disciplines such as medicine, mathematics, environmental studies, the sciences, engineering, business, and the humanities. Establishing connections with different faculties and domains will enable the development of a versatile designer who can proficiently work across disciplines. This deeply resonated with me, as my teaching practice has consistently been conducted exclusively within the context of higher education institutions. This notion is echoed by Flores and Morán (2017) who argue that the educational environment of a design course must be adapted to reflect the various contextual elements impacting society, as these are the conditions under which future designers will work. When faced with complex and pressing problems, they can only be solved with a myriad of small contributions from an interdisciplinary group, creating a system that allows them to pool their expertise and intelligence to create a whole.

In summary, the challenges posed by wicked problems in our world necessitate the formation of new wicked teams (Mau & Ward, 2020) — interdisciplinary groups capable of innovative, holistic solutions. Design education as an ill-defined discipline combined with PjBL can play a crucial role in this scenario by imparting technical skills and fostering the mindset and capabilities needed for effective collaboration. By adapting the curriculum to include project-based, interdisciplinary learning experiences, design education can equip future professionals with the tools necessary to navigate the complexities of the modern world.

[2] Interaction 15, San Francisco, 2015, https://interaction15.ixda.org/index.html

Back to top


Aflatoony, L., Wakkary, R., & Hawryshkewich, A. (2018). Characteristics of an effective secondary school design thinking curriculum. Formakademisk, 11(5), 1. https://doi.org/10.7577/formakademisk.1626

Alvarez-Bell, R. M., Wirtz, D., & Bian, H. (2017). Identifying keys to success in innovative teaching: Student engagement and instructional practices as predictors of student learning in a course using a team- based learning approach. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 5(2), 128–146. https://doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.5.2.10

Arkun Kocadere, S., & Ozgen, D. (2012). Assessment of basic design course in terms of constructivist learning theory. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 51, 115–119. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.08.128

Augsten, A., & Gekeler, M. (2017). From a master of crafts to a facilitator of innovation. How the increasing importance of creative collaboration requires new ways of teaching design. The Design Journal, 20(sup1), S1058–S1071. https://doi.org/10.1080/14606925.2017.1353049

Bada, S. O. (2015). Constructivism learning theory: A paradigm for teaching and learning. Journal of Research & Methods in Education, 5(6), 66–70.Bar-Yam, Y. (1997). Dynamics of complex systems.

Addison-Wesley.Belland, B. R., French, B. F., & Ertmer, P. A. (2009). Validity and problem-based learning research: A review of instruments used to assess intended learning outcomes. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 3(1), 59–89. https://doi.org/10.7771/1541-5015.1059

Bender, W. N. (2012). Project-based learning: Differentiating instruction for the 21st century. Corwin Press.

Binkley, M., Erstad, O., Herman, J., Raizen, S., Ripley, M., Miller-Ricci, M., & Rumble, M. (2012). Defining twenty-first century skills. In P. Griffin, B. McGaw, & E. Care (Eds.), Assessment and teaching of 21st century skills (pp. 17–66). Springer Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-2324-5_2

Blumenfeld, P. C., Marx, R. W., Patrick, H., Krajcik, J., & Soloway, E. (1997). Teaching for understanding. In B. J. Biddle, T. L. Good, & I. F. Goodson (Eds.), International Handbook of Teachers and Teaching (pp. 819–878). Springer Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-011-4942-6_21

Blumenfeld, P. C., Soloway, E., Marx, R. W., Krajcik, J. S., Guzdial, M., & Palincsar, A. (1991). Motivating project-based learning: Sustaining the doing, supporting the learning. Educational Psychologist, 26(3/4), 369. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.1991.9653139

Borthwick, M., Tomitsch, M., & Gaughwin, M. (2022). From human-centred to life-centred design: Considering environmental and ethical concerns in the design of interactive products. Journal of Responsible Technology, 10, 100032. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrt.2022.100032

Bowers, C. A. (2005). The false promises of constructivist theories of learning: A global and ecological critique. Peter Lang.Bradley-Levine, J., & Mosier, G. (2014). Literature review on project-based learning. University of Indianapolis Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning.

Brosens, L., Raes, A., Octavia, J. R., & Emmanouil, M. (2023). How future proof is design education? A systematic review. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 33(2), 663–683. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10798-022-09743-4

Burnett, B. (2009). Building new knowledge and the role of synthesis in innovation. International Journal of Innovation Science, 1(1), 13–27. https://doi.org/10.1260/175722209787951251

Carvalho, L., Martinez-Maldonado, R., Tsai, Y.-S., Markauskaite, L., & Laat, M. D. (2022). How can we design for learning in an AI world? Computers and Education: Artificial Intelligence, 3, 100053. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.caeai.2022.100053

Cautela, C., Deserti, A., Rizzo, F., & Zurlo, F. (2014). Design and Innovation: How Many W ays? Design Issues, 30(1), 3–6. https://doi.org/10.1162/DESI_a_00244

Cortázar, C., Nussbaum, M., Alario-Hoyos, C., Goñi, J., & Alvares, D. (2022). The impacts of scaffolding socially shared regulation on teamwork in an online project-based course. The Internet and Higher Education, 55, 100877. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2022.100877

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. Project Gutenberg; NetLibrary.

Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Heath.

Diana, N., Yohannes, & Sukma, Y. (2021). The effectiveness of implementing project-based learning (PjBL) model in STEM education: A literature review. Journal of Physics: Conference Series, 1882(1), 012146. https://doi.org/10.1088/1742-6596/1882/1/012146

Dym, C. L., Agogino, A. M., Eris, O., Frey, D. D., & Leifer, L. J. (2005). Engineering design thinking, teaching, and learning. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(1), 103–120. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2168-9830.2005.tb00832.xEhn, P. (1988). Work-oriented design of computer artifacts. Arbetslivscentrum.

Eskilson, S. (2023). Digital design: A History. In Digital Design. Princeton University Press. https://doi.org/10.1515/9780691253244

Fathi, M., Ghobakhloo, M., & Syberfeldt, A. (2019). An interpretive structural modeling of teamwork training in higher education. Education Sciences, 9(1), 16. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci9010016

Fiorini, V., Orr, S., Stopher, B., Tedeschi, A., & Tsui, C. (2022). Global directions: Unique approaches to design education. In Introduction to Design Education (pp. 93–114). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003049166-11

Flores, R. I., & Morán, R. L. (2017). Advanced design as a paradigm for design education: Learning systems within its platforms and practices. The Design Journal, 20(sup1), S814–S821. https://doi.org/10.1080/14606925.2017.1353027

Flores, R. I., Soto, C. M., & Holliger, C. (2012). Internationalization and transdisciplinary education in design: Success factors and pitfalls. Strategic Design Research Journal, 5(2), 70–74. https://doi.org/10.4013/sdrj.2012.52.02

Fortune, T., Borkovic, S., Bhopti, A., Somoza, R., Nhan, H. C., & Rangwala, S. (2019). Transformative learning through international project-based learning in the global south: Applying a students-as-partners lens to a “high-impact” capstone. Journal of Studies in International Education, 23(1), 49–65. https://doi.org/10.1177/1028315318814571

Goodyear, P., & Markauskaite, L. (2019). The impact on practice of wicked problems and unpredictable futures. In Challenging Future Practice Possibilities (pp. 41–52). Brill. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004400795_004

Grant, M. (2002). Getting a grip on project-based learning: Theory, cases and recommendations. Meridian, 5.Griffin, P., & Care, E. (Eds.). (2015). Assessment and teaching of 21st century skills: Methods and approach. Springer Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-9395-7

Grossman, P., Dean, C. G. P., Kavanagh, S. S., & Herrmann, Z. (2019). Preparing teachers for project-based teaching. The Phi Delta Kappan, 100(7), 43–48. https://doi.org/10.1177/0031721719841338

Gulbahar, Y., & Tinmaz, H. (2006). Implementing project-based learning and e-portfolio assessment in an undergraduate course. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 38(3), 309–327. https://doi.org/10.1080/15391523.2006.10782462

Hatchuel, A. (2001). Towards design theory and expandable rationality: The unfinished program of Herbert Simon. Journal of Management & Governance, 5(3–4), 260. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1014044305704

Helle, L., Tynjälä, P., & Olkinuora, E. (2006). Project-based learning in post-secondary education—theory, practice and rubber sling shots. Higher Education, 51(2), 287–314. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-004-6386-5

Hernandez, R. J., Cooper, R., & Jung, J. (2017). The understanding and use of design in the UK industry: Reflecting on the future of design and designing in industry and beyond. The Design Journal, 20(sup1), S2823–S2836. https://doi.org/10.1080/14606925.2017.1352794

Holliger, C., & Elspass, W. (2006). A novel form of distributed interdisciplinary project-based design education. International Conference on Networking, International Conference on Systems and International Conference on Mobile Communications and Learning Technologies (ICNICONSMCL’06), Morne, Mauritius. https://doi.org/10.1109/ICNICONSMCL.2006.26

Hussein, B. (2021). Addressing collaboration challenges in project-based learning: The student’s perspective. Education Sciences, 11. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1307458

Jalinus, N., Syahril, Nabawi, R. A., & Arbi, Y. (2020). How project-based learning and direct teaching models affect teamwork and welding skills among students. In Online Submission (Vol. 11, Issue 11, pp. 85–111). https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED610846

Jia, L., Jalaludin, N. A., & Rasul, M. S. (2023). Design thinking and project-based learning (DT-PBL): A review of the literature. International Journal of Learning, Teaching and Educational Research, 22(8), 376-390. https://doi.org/10.26803/ijlter.22.8.20

Jonassen, T. M. D., David H. (1992). Constructivism: New implications for instructional technology. In Constructivism and the technology of instruction. Routledge.

Jones, B. F., Rasmussen, C. M., & Moffitt, M. C. (1997). Real-life problem solving: A collaborative approach to interdisciplinary learning (1st ed). American Psychological Association.Justice, L. (2019). The future of design education. Design Management Review, 30(1), 33–37. https://doi.org/10.1111/drev.12159Kanstrup, A. M., & Christiansen, E. (2005). Model power: Still an issue? Proceedings of the 4th Decennial Conference on Critical Computing: Between Sense and Sensibility, 165–168. https://doi.org/10.1145/1094562.1094590

Kauppi, S., Muukkonen, H., Suorsa, T., & Takala, M. (2020). I still miss human contact, but this is more flexible—Paradoxes in virtual learning interaction and multidisciplinary collaboration. British Journal of Educational Technology, 51(4), 1101–1116. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12929

Kilpatrick, W. H. (1922). The project method, the use of the purposeful act in the educative process. Teachers’ college, Columbia University.

Kirschner, P. A., & Norman, D. (2021). The teaching and learning of design. Kirschner-ED. https://shorturl.at/cDV29. (Retrieved March 31, 2024).Kokotsaki, D., Menzies, V., & Wiggins, A. (2016). Project-based learning: A review of the literature. Improving Schools, 19(3), 267-277. https://doi.org/10.1177/1365480216659733

Kurt, G., & Akoglu, K. (2023). Project-based learning in science education: A comprehensive literature review. Interdisciplinary Journal of Environmental and Science Education, 19(3), e2311. https://doi.org/10.29333/ijese/13677

Larmer, J., & Mergendoller, J. R. (2010). 7 Essentials for project-based learning. Educational Leadership, 68(1), 34–37.

Lehtonen, M. J., Kauppinen, T., & Sivula, L. (Eds.). (2023). Design education across disciplines: Transformative learning experiences for the 21st century. Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-23152-0

Leow, F. T., & Neo, M. (2023). Critical factors for enhancing students’ collaborative learning experiences in a project-based connectivism learning environment. International Journal of Learning, Teaching and Educational Research, 22(7), Article 7. https://doi.org/10.26803/ijlter.22.7.21

Mattelmäki, T., Brandt, E., & Vaajakallio, K. (2011). On designing open-ended interpretations for collaborative design exploration. CoDesign, 7(2), 79–93. https://doi.org/10.1080/15710882.2011.609891

Mau, B., & Ward, J. (2020). Mau MC24: Bruce Mau’s 24 principles for designing massive change in your life and work. Phaidon Press Limited.

Meyer, M. W., & Norman, D. (2020). Changing design education for the 21st century. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 6(1), 13–49. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sheji.2019.12.002

Norman, D. A., & Stappers, P. J. (2015). DesignX: Complex sociotechnical systems. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 1(2), 83–106. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sheji.2016.01.002

Papanek, V. J. (1985). Design for the real world: Human ecology and social change (2nd ed.). Academy Chicago.

Parra Pennefather, P. (2022). Mentoring digital media projects: project-based learning and teaching for professional development. Apress. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4842-8798-9

Perks, H., Cooper, R., & Jones, C. (2005). Characterizing the role of design in new product development: an empirically derived taxonomy. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 22(2), 111–127. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0737-6782.2005.00109.x

Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169.

Ruhl, E., Richter, C., Lembke, J., & Allert, H. (2014). Beyond methods: Co-creation from a practice-oriented perspective. DRS Biennial Conference Series. https://shorturl.at/rvwC1

Rylander, A. (2009). Design thinking as knowledge work: Epistemological foundations and practical implications. Design Management Journal, 4(1), 7–19. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1942-5074.2009.00003.x

Sanders, E. B.-N., & Stappers, P. J. (2008). Co-creation and the new landscapes of design. CoDesign, 4(1), 5–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/15710880701875068

Schwering, R. E. (2015). Optimizing learning in project-based capstone courses. Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, 19(1), 90–104. https://shorturl.at/cDGK0

Sioukas, A. (2023). Constructivism and the student-centered entrepreneurship classroom: Learning avenues and challenges for US college students. Industry and Higher Education, 37(4), 473–484. https://doi.org/10.1177/09504222221135311

Spinuzzi, C. (2005). The methodology of participatory design. Technical Communication (Washington), 52(2), 163–174.

Steen, M. (2011). Tensions in human-centred design. CoDesign, 7(1), 45–60. https://doi.org/10.1080/15710882.2011.563314

Tekkol, İ. A., & Demirel, M. (2018). An investigation of self-directed learning skills of undergraduate students. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 2324. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02324

Thackara, J. (2005). In the bubble: Designing in a complex world. The MIT Press. https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/3702.001.0001

Thomas, J. W. (2000). Research: A review of the research on project-based learning. PBLWorks. https://www.pblworks.org/research/research-review-research-project-based-learning

Valkenburg, R., & Dorst, K. (1998). The reflective practice of design teams. Design Studies, 19(3), 249–271. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0142-694X(98)00011-8

Vartiainen, H., Vuojärvi, H., Saramäki, K., Eriksson, M., Ratinen, I., Torssonen, P., Vanninen, P., & Pöllänen, S. (2022). Cross-boundary collaboration and knowledge creation in an online higher education course. British Journal of Educational Technology, 53(5), 1304–1320. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.13186

Wang, X.-M., Yu, X.-H., Hwang, G.-J., & Hu, Q.-N. (2023). An online progressive peer assessment approach to project-based learning: A constructivist perspective. Educational Technology Research and Development, 71(5), 2073–2101. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-023-10257-6

Young, R. (2013). Design’s increasing capacity to act as a mediating discipline. In J. Yee, E. Jeffries, & L. Tan (Eds.), Design transitions (pp. 184–187). BIS Publishers.

Yu, F.-Y. (2011). Multiple peer-assessment modes to augment online student question-generation processes. Computers & Education, 56(2), 484–494. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2010.08.025

Back to top

Karin B. Schmidlin, PhD student

Department of Language and Literacy Education (LLED), Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia. Supervisors: Dr. Leah Macfadyen & Dr. Heather O'Brien Committee Members: Dr. Jillianne Code Dr. Patrick Parra Pennefather