TLC2020: construction students hungry for 4IR-driven education

28 September 2020 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Adobe Stock. Read time >10 min.
UCT’s built environment graduates want to be well versed in 4IR concepts and able to compete with other graduates across the world.
UCT’s built environment graduates want to be well versed in 4IR concepts and able to compete with other graduates across the world.

In line with the growth of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), the demand for digital and smart technology-based education related to the built environment is growing, driven by the demand from all industry stakeholders. And students at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Department of Construction Economics and Management in the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment are hungry for a curriculum driven by the 4IR, said Dr Alireza Moghayedi.

He was speaking at UCT’s virtual Teaching and Learning Conference 2020 on a platform shared by colleagues Karen Le Jeune and Mark Massyn. Their presentation was titled “The Future is Now: Preparing future built environment professionals for the 4IR”.

Graduates want to be able to compete with other graduates anywhere in the world, and industry wants young professionals well versed in 4IR concepts, such as artificial intelligence (AI), Moghayedi said.

Following the exponential development of technology, the department’s fledgling new research unit’s focus has markedly adopted “everything related to cyber”, but specifically bringing the Fourth and Fifth industrial revolutions into the classroom and curriculum through digital education, added Le Jeune.


“As educators we must supply graduates for the marketplace. As market leaders, we need to be leading the conversations.”

The department offers two three-year undergraduate programmes leading to a BSc in Construction Studies and a BSc in Property Studies respectively, with the option of a fourth year of study to obtain a BSc (Honours) in Construction Management, Quantity Surveying or Property Studies.

The curriculum is balanced between academic and practical disciplines, ensuring that graduates meet the requirements of the various professional councils and learn skills that will be useful throughout their careers. Through assignments and dissertations students also become involved in a wide range of funded research projects undertaken by the department’s staff.

The prime mission of those working in the built environment is sustainability, said Le Jeune. “We have taken the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs] very much to heart, especially SDG 4, which refers to equitable quality education.

“As educators we must supply graduates for the marketplace. As market leaders, we need to be leading the conversations.”


Technology has been used in the industry for some years, said Le Jeune. For example, architects use virtual reality extensively to assist them in enhancing and completing their designs. But COVID-19 and remote teaching catapulted the university into new ways of doing things – and new technologies to achieve this. This has to be mirrored in the skills students acquire.

“The challenge for the construction industry is that we keep doing the same thing,” Le Jeune added. “As they built the pyramids, we’re still building it that way – and we need to change. New technology is faster and is making things safer. But we can’t develop technology in a silo, separate from social issues. And we need to have that conversation across the board.”

The establishment of the S+CUBE research unit in the department two years ago has already gone some way to accelerate the unit’s development in this area – and forge those conversations.

“Our research unit is beginning to put us on the map,” she said.

The unit provides a platform – a virtual reality laboratory where they can test how best to apply technologies and tools in the classroom and to explore these nodes of digital technology to see what works best to bring built environment professional education, in line with the 4IR and 5IR.

The surveys UCT conducted in the wake of COVID-19 provided useful statistics on the department’s student cohort. The stats showed that most had access to a device and the internet.

“We’ve looked at all the aspects of the 4IR, and each is embraced by the disciplines within the built environment in one way or another: robots, simulation, big data, cyber security with property transactions, the Internet of Things, augmented reality. All of those are found, one way or another, within our discipline.”

They also looked at publications on digital education and sustainable education and conducted a bibliometric analysis of two major databases: Scopus and Web of Science. The trend showed that the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia were leading research in the field.


“They want graduates who understand and can use technology in their work.”

But South Africa has been slower to adopt it. And industry has been pushing hard, said Le Jeune.

“They want graduates who understand and can use technology in their work.”

A survey they did with their students to ascertain which digital technologies and techniques they were familiar with revealed some surprises: they knew very little about the core concepts and applications of technology associated with the 4IR.

Although they had already introduced some online courses, convened by Moghayedi and Massyn,

“[t]here’s huge scope for development and streamlining our curriculum in this direction,” said Le Jeune.

Their model for sustainable education and digital skills comprises three pillars to give a clear idea of where digital education is best placed in their curriculum – as well as the context, methods, tools and technologies needed to achieve this.

Context includes elements such as digital technology, the cloud, artificial intelligence, smartphones and 3D modelling. Methods look at distance education, collaborative learning, built environment education, interactive education and self-study. Tools and technology focus on the higher education context, design, innovation, privacy, teaching, the digital student and equality.

Gear and goggles

Hardware acquisition was their next challenge, and the unit is slowly adding to their basic stock of equipment, starting with a powerful server, a virtual reality set, drone, 3D projector and camera.

The dean of the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment, Professor Alison Lewis, a passionate supporter of the 4IR, was game to try out the virtual reality goggles and took a “flying” virtual visit around UCT and the city through the Google Earth platform.

Moghayedi took the unit’s 3D 360-degree camera and went on a walk around campus with colleague Associate Professor Francois Viruly to see what the nightlife is like on UCT’s campus and to look into health and safety considerations.

Under the directorship of Associate Professor Kathy Michell, S+CUBE has been successful in four funding applications to date, which allow for further research into improving the built environment through the use of innovative digital technologies.

“So, we’re by no means a huge operation, but we have the support of the department and a willingness to explore options,” said Le Jeune.

Site visits

The team has introduced technology to augment another aspect of their teaching and training: site visits.

“One of the biggest challenges from an education point of view is getting construction students onto sites so that they can actually see what’s happening, and virtual reality allows students to experience site life without necessarily being on site because health and safety is possibly one of the biggest concerns,” said Le Jeune.

“Whenever we take students onto sites, we have to go in small groups. They must have safety boots, helmets and reflective vests, and they must be inducted beforehand. And then there are the actual dangers of a building site to watch out for.”

Virtual reality has changed that.


“It’s one thing to see pictures, but it’s quite another to actually feel like you’re walking on a site.”

“It’s one thing to see pictures, but it’s quite another to actually feel like you’re walking on a site. So that was one of the great ways of allowing more experience into the classroom in a more real-time way.”

Massyn added: “We bought a 360-degree camera to do that. Alireza worked a way to fix the camera to the top of a hard hat so that we could go onto site and record the visit.”

The constraint of technology is that classrooms must be developed to use it.

“We don’t actually have a 360-degree venue to show the students yet. But Karen and Alireza are quite ingenious and … created a semi-dome screen to show the students what we’d recorded.”

Moghayedi has also acquired video footage from Australia, the United States and other countries to augment their range.

“Now we can go anywhere we want. It doesn’t cost us, and it’s safe. We don’t need all the safety protocols. It’s amazing because the students can now walk through the models and see all the different details.”


The research group also contacted counterparts at Stellenbosch University and were surprised to find that they were facing similar challenges. The network has grown and now they have a working group of three universities.

“Our idea is to try and break down the silos to try and get individuals together. And hopefully through this research drive we’ll be able to take this forward,” Massyn said. “There’s pressure from outside to employ graduates with suitable skills – and there’s big pressure too from our students. We did one or two presentations last year and saw that students are hungry for more information. And if we don’t adapt, we’re going to fall behind.”

Moghayedi agreed and said that progress was being made.

“Two years ago the honours and master’s topics in our department included a very small element of technology involved. Now in S+CUBE alone we have 10 groups researching how innovative digital technology can promote sustainability in various areas of the built environment. We have a few master’s students and a PhD student working on projects using technology ... So the trend is growing fast.”

Their progress in the research unit in only two years has highlighted the importance of support, he said.

“We got very good support from our head of department and from the faculty.”

But the 4IR is being followed closely by the emergence of the 5IR, Le Jeune said.

“While we all got very excited about technology with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Fifth Industrial Revolution is the part where humans come back into play: how they interact with the technology – and how technology can serve humanity.

“It’s defined as a revolution because we’re having to reconsider our humanity and ethics. It’s to remind ourselves not to lose track of where we’re headed.”

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