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International Journal of Construction

Education and Research
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Building Collaborative Construction

Skills through BIM-integrated Learning

Dong Zhao Ph.D., LEED , Andrew P. McCoy Ph.D. , Tanyel Bulbul


Ph.D. , Christine Fiori Ph.D. & Parisa Nikkhoo


Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg,

Virginia, USA
Published online: 06 Jan 2015.

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To cite this article: Dong Zhao Ph.D., LEED, Andrew P. McCoy Ph.D., Tanyel Bulbul Ph.D., Christine
Fiori Ph.D. & Parisa Nikkhoo (2015): Building Collaborative Construction Skills through BIMintegrated Learning Environment, International Journal of Construction Education and Research, DOI:
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15578771.2014.986251


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International Journal of Construction Education and Research, 00:124, 2015

ISSN: 1557-8771 print/1550-3984 online
DOI: 10.1080/15578771.2014.986251

Building Collaborative Construction Skills through

BIM-integrated Learning Environment

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia, USA

The integration of technology and team collaboration is increasingly becoming a critical juncture in construction education of the work environment. Through literature
review and interviews, the authors find that students equipped with knowledge of BIM
technology is not the ultimate goal, while the collaborative process of using BIM
to solve practical construction problems emerges as key to individuals entering the
industry. However, a majority of BIM-relevant courses have been taught as technology training without the context of a collaborative learning environment, while the
industry values training in collaboration as a paramount skill in possible employees.
To fill this gap, the authors assume that the collaborative construction skills can be
obtained through training in higher education of construction. This work applies a case
study analysis of one of Virginia Techs Department of Building Construction courses,
the Integrated Construction Studio (ICS), to demonstrate how the BIM process help
students to build their collaboration skills in 4Cs: Common goals, Communication,
Coordination, and Cooperation. This work then uses a survey analysis to validate
the assumptions, and results from statistical analysis reinforce findings from the case
study and also suggest some noteworthy observations for the educational integration of
technology and collaboration in the industry.

BIM, collaboration, construction, education, leadership

The construction industry is a major sector of the U.S. economy, contributing $558.7 billion
worth of value to gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012. Through time, the construction
industry has experienced a variety of changes in terms of operation and organization, influenced by the need to improve methods, keep current, and promote growth. Some drivers
of industry change over time include: the need for companies to maintain or improve market share; the need to comply with local regulations; and clients needs to have projects
provided faster, less expensively, and with better quality. Modern technologies, such
as building information modeling (BIM), have also driven profound changes in the construction industry (Azhar, 2011). Today, industry change is continuously propelled by
innovative products, means, and methods.
Such changes in turn require shifts in construction education, while the unique,
decentralized, and project-based nature of the industry makes teaching across industry
This article is not subject to U.S. copyright law.
Address correspondence to Dong Zhao, Myers-Lawson School of Construction, Virginia
Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1345 Perry Street, Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA. E-mail:

D. Zhao et al.

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needs a challenge. The dynamic nature of construction, including recent trends in technology, requires technical savvy as well as high-level thinkers, innovators, and collaborators.
As a result, construction education needs to also be dynamic in its approach to producing
future industry leaders and practitioners. Such an approach should be adaptable to current
and future industrial practice as well. The dramatic changes in the social, economic, and
environmental features of construction force construction education to produce more
prepared personnel (Namhun, Ponton, Jeffreys, & Cohn, 2011) and seemingly more
adaptive thinkers.
The goal of this work is discuss the gap between the construction industrys expectation of their future employees and the responses from current training in higher education;
and then demonstrate that the gap can be filled through an education integration of technology and collaborative process. This work applies mixed methods of case study and survey
analysis to achieve the research goals.

Gap Statement
Some believe the current United States higher educational system to be in failure, presenting significant challenges to any classroom environment (Christensen, Johnson, & Horn,
2010). Publications that provide solutions to Architecture, Engineering and Construction
(AEC) educational needs are often separated by discipline, while Christensen and colleagues (2010) discussed a universal set of teaching aspirations that align well with the
interdisciplinary needs of the AEC: 1) maximize human potential; 2) facilitate a vibrant,
participative democracy; 3) hone skills, capabilities, and attitudes that will help our economy remain prosperous and competitive; and 4) nurture the understanding that people can
see things differently.
Educational institutions have valued co-operation with industry and putting effort
towards facilitating industrial relationships for many years (Cerych, 1989). The principle of
industrial partnerships is widely accepted as a part of the development of higher education
systems including construction education. Many construction educators realize the value of
establishing effective partnerships with industry and even view firms as customers of construction school curriculums (Tener, 1996). In this regard, satisfying industrys needs is an
important aspect of linking between education and industry (Wandahl, Olsen, & Ussing,
2011). However, the engineering world has continually changed during recent decades,
including trends in construction technology. Perception of this change and the respective
adjustment back to the classroom remains critical to an institutions success. The following section discusses the construction industrys current expectations and reviews literature
around current construction education needs, with an attempt to find out any possible gaps
between the two topics.
Industrys New Expectations
Taking a cross-sectional view of the construction industrys expectations today,
construction-major graduates are expected to develop and obtain a mixture of expertise in
both technical and non-technical competencies (Ahn, Pearce, & Kwon, 2012). This multidisciplinary knowledge includes, but is not limited to construction engineering, building
science, design, estimating/planning/scheduling, computer science, interpersonal communication, leadership, management practice, and team collaboration. These capabilities truly
reflect the changes of the construction industry over the last 30 years, as a result of global
advancement in technology and management.

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Building Collaborative Construction Skills

Besides the above basic requirements, recent trends in industrys expectations require
attention. Through literature review and interviews (Kim, 2012; Ku & Taiebat, 2011), the
authors identified two critical needs in current construction education: the increasing attention to information technology and the appropriate application of collaborative practices
(also termed integrated delivery in literature). These topics mirror current technological
and institutional change and resulting challenges within the AEC industry (Becerik-Gerber
& Kensek, 2010).
As a result, the construction industry expects future employees to contain knowledge
and skills in information technology, especially through its growing demand for construction professionals with Building Information Modeling (BIM) knowledge and skills (Ku
& Taiebat, 2011; Pikas, Sacks, & Hazzan, 2013). After 30 years of development, BIM is
quickly becoming the gold standard and one of the most promising recent developments
in the AEC industry (Azhar, 2011) and is the basis of many technological trends in the
industry as well. At the same time, the understanding of BIM has improved significantly
(Lu, Peng, Shen, & Li, 2013). According to a survey on 582 AEC industry stakeholders
in North America (McGraw-Hill Construction, 2012), 71% of architects, engineers,
constructors and owners report they have become engaged with BIM on their projects, a
75% growth surge over five years. Particularly, constructors lead all firm types with a 74%
adoption rate, higher than architects (70%) and civil engineers (67%). The McGraw-Hill
survey also forecasts adoption to stabilize at about 90% of the North American market,
with the remainder seeing BIM as not relevant to their role, specialty or project type. The
Construction Management Association of America (CMAA) is working on implementing
BIM as required design and planning document for its member constructors and subcontractors. Large property owners and facility managers are becoming aware of the benefits
of using BIM tools, moving from specific applications towards more comprehensive
solutions (Howard & Bjrk, 2008). Overall, BIM-relevant technologies are no longer
optional value-added features of construction graduates but basic fundamental skills of
industrys expectation.
The construction industry values competency in collaboration and leadership as core
to market competitiveness. Literature reports that construction students are now being
required to have certain non-technical competencies, such as innovative, adaptive and
collaborative skills. According to a survey on corporate recruiters from over 100 U.S.
construction companies, the most important key expectation of construction graduates is
the affective competency, which denotes collaborative skills, leadership and interpersonal skills (Ahn et al., 2012). A people-oriented attitude, good interpersonal relationships,
effective team and collaborative skills (e.g., communication, cooperation and trust) are
defined as vital for successfully accomplishment of todays construction project (Arain,
2010; Badger, Walsh, & Mayo, 2005). This argument is also supported by another recent
survey from Ku and Taiebat (2011) which focused on BIMs implementation and impact.
The results showed that most BIM-engaged respondents consider collaboration as a key to
successful virtual construction.
Coupling the two primary expectations of BIM and collaboration, one finds that their
priorities are different. According to the same study from Ahn and colleagues (2012),
compared with the first-ranked affective competency, the technical competency denoting computer skills, technical skills and estimating skills ranks lower. Findings suggest
that soft skills competitiveness like collaboration weighs higher for construction graduates than hard technical skills, like BIM, in a construction employers perspective. This
observation was also supported by interviews and discussion with construction companies
during a career fair at Virginia Tech in 2013(Zhao, Sands, Wang, & Ye, 2013). When asked

D. Zhao et al.

generally what type of students that they desire from undergraduate construction programs,
construction companies answers concentrated on innovative, self-motivated students with
collaborative abilities within a team-based environment.

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Responses from Construction Education

Construction education has been, and still is, highly dynamic. It evolved from roots
grounded in business, architecture, and engineering coalescing into a solitary program.
As early as the 1960s and into the 1980s, construction-specific programs began to be developed and emerged across the United States (Oglesby, 1982; Rounds, 1992). Adding to
this evolution, the American Council for Construction Education (ACCE i.e., the accrediting body of construction education programs), was formed in response to lobbying by
those in the construction profession for recognition and quality professional education for
graduates unique to their industry (Rebholz & Shahbodaghlou, 1989). Today, that evolution is apparent with continuous modifications made to increase the quality of its product
at the demands of industry. Simply looking at the ACCE requirements (see Table 1),
though, competencies valued by industry such as, interpersonal skills, leadership, adaptability, collaborative skills, interdisciplinary application, computer skills, communication,
and environmental awareness, are not at the core of its requirements.
Outside of ACCE requirements, the researchers also purposively selected five undergraduate construction programs within the Associated Schools of Construction (ASC)
as a sample to illustrate a mixture of academic responses to the need for expertise, in
both technical and non-technical competencies, by industry. These five ongoing undergraduate programs included the Building Construction program at Virginia Tech (VT),
Table 1. ACCE requirements for construction education



Oral communication
Written communication
Environmental science
Business laws
Construction law
Project management
Building systems
Building graphics
Construction surveying
Design theory


Business Management



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Building Collaborative Construction Skills

the Construction Science and Management program at Clemson University, the Building
Construction program at Georgia Tech (GT), the School of Construction at the University
of Florida (UF), and the Building Construction Management program at Purdue University.
It is important to note that all schools provide differences in education and could be appropriate for mentioning in this work. Table 2 summarizes course information from these
programs, which the researchers captured directly from each institutions website. The
information reflects components outside of ACCEs construction education requirements,
which responds to reported industry changes (Zhao et al., 2013) and course offerings
needed in order to satisfy evolving requirements of the industry.
Even as a basic review, courses in Table 2 that are outside of accreditation requirements highlight the dynamic nature of the construction industry. Sacks and Pikas (2013)
observed the similar findings from their study in which they evaluated 18 existing BIM
course syllabi from seven U.S. universities and compared them with the industrys requirements. As a result, the study concluded that most current BIM curriculums have focused
on model creation and, in contrast, somewhat neglected the practical construction collaboration and management. Meanwhile, BIM-related high education exists in a variety
of majors, for example, the architecture (Poerschke, Holland, Messner, & Pihlak, 2010),
building construction (BC), civil engineering (CE) (Sacks & Barak, 2010), and construction engineering and management (CEM) (Becerik-Gerber, Ku, & Jazizadeh, 2012). How
to integrate these different disciplines also turns to be a challenge. One of the reasons
for this challenge is that BIM is usually treated as a self-contained topic in construction education. The core concept that led the industry to BIM is interoperability and
continuous information flow between all stakeholders. Even though architecture, engineering, construction and facility management (AEC-FM) teams have to collaborate and,
in many cases, work together during the building delivery process, the education system is fragmented. Construction industry professionals are educated in specific domains
with very clear boundaries, and are rarely exposed to multi-disciplinary work environment
as students. In addition to this, BIM has a very steep learning curve in comparison to
computer-aided design (CAD) based drawing systems. Users need to have a clear understanding of building systems and construction methods. With these requirements, limiting
the BIM education to only one class in one domain leads to teaching BIM tools without providing any exposure to collaborative aspects. In sum, even beyond obvious course
offerings, construction programs must incorporate needed competencies in other ways covering multiple disciplines throughout a curriculum. As owners adopt innovative means and
methods, so must the industry and its students.
Gap between Industrys Expectations and Education Practices
Literature review indicates that many construction programs provide courses focusing separately on BIM and/or collaborative practice (Ahn et al., 2012; Ku & Taiebat, 2011). BIM
is a comprehensive method of information management in opposite of only a tool for
design, and thus BIM-based education cannot be approached in a fashion of teaching CAD
(Sacks & Pikas, 2013) techniques. However, few institutions offer a curriculum that fully
integrates BIM-related skills into team-based collaborative exercises (Kim, 2012; Nikolic,
Jaruhar, & Messner, 2011). In fact, rather than a technology innovation, BIM represents a
new paradigm or process that encourages integration of all stakeholders and collaboration
on an AEC project (Azhar, 2011). As a result, BIM might be utilized not only as a topic,
but more importantly, a tool for performing real-world tasks taught within design, engineering, analysis and management courses (Pikas et al., 2013). Lu and colleagues (2013)

D. Zhao et al.

Table 2. Construction education responses

Academic Responses

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Information Technology

Collaboration and

Safety and Ethics


BC 2114 IT in Construction (VT 2013)
BCN 3255C Graphic Communication in Construction (UF
BCN 4252 Introduction to Building Information Modeling
(UF 2013)
BCN 4258 3D Modeling for Construction (UF 2013)
BCN 4720 Construction Planning and Control (UF 2013)
TECH 12000 Technology and the Individual (Purdue
MGT 218 Management Personal Computer Applications
(Clemson 2013)
BC 4444 Construction Practice II (VT 2013)
BCN 3255C Graphic Communication in Construction (UF
BCN 4258 3D Modeling for Construction (UF 2013)
BCN 4723 Design-Build Delivery Methods (UF 2013)
MGT 307 Personnel Management (Clemson 2013)
COM 11400 Fundamentals of Speech Communication
(Purdue 2013)
OLS 27400 Applied Leadership (Purdue 2013)
COA 1012 Fundamental Design and Built Environment II
(GT 2013)
BC 2984 Soft Skills (VT 2013)
MGT 3304 Management Theory and Leadership Practice
(VT 2013)
BC 3004 Construction and Society (VT 2013)
CSM 411 Safety in Building Construction (Clemson 2013)
MGT 307 Human Resource Management (Clemson 2013)
BCM 45700 Construction Safety (Purdue 2013)
BC 3004 Construction and Society (VT 2013)
BCN 1582 International Sustainable Development (UF
CSM 304 & 305 Environmental Systems I & II (Clemson
BC 4710 Green Construction (GT 2013)

also supported this concept, stating that BIM should not be separated as a virtual design
and construction environment (Zhao & Lucas, 2014), a communication vehicle among
stakeholders, or an education platform that can be used in universities and colleges; rather,
BIM can also be used as a learning tool that can aid team members in familiarizing themselves with many aspects of a construction task. Therefore, the integration of technology
(such as BIM) and team collaboration becomes more critical than either of them for construction education. To meet industrys current requirements, students equipped with BIM
knowledge is not the ultimate goal, while the collaborative process of using BIM to solve
practical construction problems emerges as key to the individuals entering the industry.

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Building Collaborative Construction Skills

BIM serves as an ideal interface, integrating the demands of collaborative practice with
its mobility, flexibility and availability of information (Finger, Gelman, Fay, & Szczerban,
Construction education through collaboration also needs to respect students diverse
backgrounds. The construction industry is complex with many stakeholders (i.e., owners,
designers, engineers, and constructors) and construction courses usually cover a variety
of topics such as design, engineering, and/or management. The current culture of distinct and quantifiable content in Engineering and creative process in Architecture can be
in direct conflict and adversely impact students culture of collaboration. For example,
design-centered students often spend long hours in studio classrooms with much individual engagement between pupil and teacher, arguing ideas and engaging in exploration.
In contrast, engineering-centered students rarely allot long hours a week to exploration
and intuitive process, per se. Therefore, effective higher education in construction needs
to embrace students different learning cultures and especially emphasize collaboration
through aiding students in building personal knowledge and reflecting on what they have
learned (Finger et al., 2006).
Finally, education requires the important distinction of generational differences in
collective thought (Stewart, 2012). Without generational context, certain student-based
objectives and educational goals might not have the same success as others (Jones &
Shao, 2011). The current generation of students passing through higher education was
born between the years 1981 and 2001, making their ages range from 9 to 28 years.
Howe and Strauss (2007) termed them millennials, and advocated that these students
contain the following collective characteristics: they are Special, Sheltered, Confident,
Team-Oriented, Achieving, Pressured and Conventional. Also termed digital natives
or the net generation, these young students have been immersed in technology all their
lives, imparting them with sophisticated technical skills and learning preferences for which
traditional education is unprepared (Bennett, Maton, & Kervin, 2008). Christensen and
colleagues (2010) discussed a universal set of educational aspirations (which also fit this
generations characteristics): 1) maximize human potential; 2) facilitate a vibrant, participative democracy; 3) hone skills, capabilities, and attitudes that will help our economy
remain prosperous and competitive; and 4) nurture the understanding that people can see
things differently. However, the traditional classroom environment does not seem to be
meeting these aspirations.

Research Methods
Findings from literature review show a gap in that a majority of BIM-relevant courses
have been taught as technology training without the context of a collaborative learning
environment, while the industry values training in collaboration as a paramount skill in
possible employees. To fill the gap, the authors decided on a case study as a qualitative
method (Simons, 2009; Yin, 2009) and survey analysis as a quantitative method to explore
whether a BIM-integrated learning environment allows educators to develop a curriculum
capable of building students soft competitivenessthe collaborative construction skills,
especially in the following four aspects:

combining BIM technology with collaboration training;

integrating various roles in a construction project;
building students leadership through participatory team collaboration; and
respecting differing cultures and generational characteristics.

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D. Zhao et al.

The case study investigated the Integrated Construction Studio (ICS) class offered
by the Department of Building Construction (BC) at Virginia Tech. Four major reasons drove this decision. First, the authors had multiple years of teaching experience
(as instructor, teaching assistant, or administrator) in this class and were familiar with
it. This exposure allowed the researchers to observe students closely, collect organized documents such as lecture notes, slides, assignments and grades, and retrieve
students feedback directly. Second, BC is a major part of the Myers-Lawson School
of Construction (MLSoC), a joint venture between Architecture and Engineering colleges. This multiple-disciplinary diversity of both educators and students provided good
opportunity for insight to the integrated collaboration in a classroom setting, one that
is not easily available at other construction institutions. Third, the consistent observations on some degree of a repeatable context and across multiple academic years enabled
a comprehensive comparison (Shelbourn, Bouchlaghem, Anumba, & Carrillo, 2007).
Finally, the context of ICS focused on collaboration during design and preconstruction
stages, in which BIM is most commonly used in real-life AEC practice (Ku & Taiebat,
The authors also conducted a survey as a supplementary evaluation of the course to
investigate the integration of BIM tools into a collaborative environment. Survey questions were generated to focus on two areas: performance metrics of team collaboration
and integration and the experience of using the technology. Data were collected from
students over three years who attended all sections of the ICS class and survey instruments were voluntary (delivered outside of class requirements). The process was vetted
with and supervised by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at Virginia Tech to ensure
safety of human subjects. The major objective of the survey was to gather quantitative evidence on class standings, skills, and collaboration tactics from the students perspectives.
Results of the quantitative instrument were prepared using descriptive statistical analysis
and analysis of variance (ANOVA) to examine participants responses regarding perceived
performance of and technology experience in the BIM-integrated learning environment
during preconstruction simulation.

Case Study
The Integrated Construction Studio (ICS) classroom environment is an attempt to simulate the real-world working conditions of the preconstruction phase of a project. The
ICS course simulates preconstruction processes by grouping students at differing academic
class levels to complete preconstruction processes for a specified portion of a real project.
The course involves students at the sophomore, junior, senior and graduate level, as well
as students from different academic programs and disciplines (i.e., Engineering, Building
Construction, and Architecture).
Studio Framework
ICS spans multiple levels of curriculum (Sophomore through Graduate) and contains measureable objectives for technical, collaboration and leadership education within the preconstruction process simulation for a locally observed commercial facility. The objective
of ICS is to address employers new expectations of students soft skills, while simulating self-directed or team-based learning, mentoring, and collaboration. ICS integrates two
major themes through its teaching methodology: one is of technical and leadership
education in a collaborative studio environment; and the other is of students with different

Building Collaborative Construction Skills

levels in one big collaborative project framework. This integrated framework consists of a
mixture of students from four specific courses all of which will be referred to as ICS for
simplicity. These specific courses are:

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BC 2064 Construction Principles Lab (sophomore level) focusing on structural

BC 3064 Building Systems Technology Lab (junior level) focusing on mechanical systems
BC 4064 Construction Practice Lab (senior level) & CNST 5124 Integrated
Construction Studio (graduate level) focusing on managerial systems
It is important to note that, due to the mix of students and their curriculum backgrounds
(i.e., Engineering, Architecture, or other disciplines), some junior students and graduate
students enter ICS without previous experience from taking other levels of the course.
Students may select the ICS more than onceas a sophomore, a junior, a senior, or even
as a graduate.
Within this big framework, teams are then paired according to curriculum level (in separate teams as 1 sophomore team, 1 junior team and 1 senior/graduate mentor each) and
across all curriculum levels (in combined teams as sophomore+junior+senior/graduate)
(see Figure 1). The value-added portion of the work requires teams to react to client-driven
changes in the project and re-purpose their preconstruction solutions. Sophomore teams
(S-teams) act as structural sub-contractors for the semester and are required to coordinate
work with junior teams (J-teams) and senior mentors (M-teams) at various stages of work.
Junior teams (J-teams) act as mechanical sub-contractors for the semester and are required
to coordinate with S-teams and senior mentors at various stages of work. Senior/Graduate
mentor teams (M-teams) act as General Contractors for the semester, mentor subcontractors and coordinate a 3D simulation of the preconstruction plan. Professors act as project
owners, supplying project materials and information to all the teams. All teams are required
to appoint a project manager, implement their preconstruction plan with other levels of
teams at various stages of work, and work with the same teams throughout the semester.
The students of the ICS course, playing a variety of roles, must interact across grade levels
in order to fulfill all project requirements. Additionally, the roles (e.g., technical officer,
safety officer, technical officer) are not limited to what Figure 1 illustrates, and may vary
due to team size and team decisions.
Overall, the ICS framework aims to provide students with a learning environment in
which a variety of project roles are simulated and multiple disciplines are engaged. The
varied course objectives and setting provide a basis for our assumed curriculum capabilities, #2 (integrating various roles in a construction project) and #4 (integrating differing
cultures and generational attributes), which were previously in the research methodology
section. For example, students from multiple disciplines and multiple levels play important
roles in the preconstruction of a commercial facility such as: project manager, procurement
officer, safety officer, estimator, and MEP engineer.
Studio Pedagogy
ICS combines students in sophomore, junior, senior and graduate levels of education to
replicate the preconstruction and bidding of a commercial construction site being built
locally. For example, the cited project for the case study in Figure 1 (from Spring 2012 to
Fall 2013) is Virginia Techs Signature Engineering Building on the Blacksburg, Virginia

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D. Zhao et al.

Figure 1. Standard framework of integrated construction studio.

campus (Virginia Tech, 2013). Real construction project documents provided the students
the same 2D medium they would encounter in their future construction careers, closely
representing much of the industrys real-world participation and engagement. A local,
ongoing project also provided students with opportunities to visit the site and communicate with actual construction workers. Site managers also frequently visited the classroom
to describe their processes and decisions. While the course provided a complete set of
project working drawings (including: architectural, structural, mechanical, electrical and
plumbing [MEP]), students were not responsible for design issues but required to re-create
and focus on using BIM as the basis of their collaborative preconstruction solutions (see
Figure 1).
As a result, students were subjected to few lectures and frequent team-oriented and
project-based assignments throughout the semester. The students were expected to already
have the knowledge needed for performing the course work (based on their level in the
curriculum) or to acquire additional information that could help their construction solutions. Hence, class tasks were assigned to teams (e.g., M-team, S-teams, or J-team), which
then divided the work according to their own management plans, with each educational
year responsible for tasks within its level of overall construction education. For example, sophomores performed tasks relating to structural concrete or steel systems as that
level of knowledge was appropriate to their educational progress. All assignments required
students of both socially-intensive and writing-intensive collaboration through the teambased BIM process towards a final deliverable. Teams were expected to also learn from
other teams among levels of the curriculum, including top-down mentoring. Finally, the
studio pedagogy emerged through frequent meetings with professors who guided the work
and provided feedback on a continual basis. Consequently, final deliverables varied among
teams, which were all expected to defend separate solutions as they vied for the top spot or
winning proposal to the client (the professors).

Building Collaborative Construction Skills


Table 3. Overview of syllabus

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3-4 weeks




8 weeks



(As I See

3-4 weeks


Cash Flow

(As Others
See Me)

Section One included
investigation and
understanding (of
the building and
oneself), including
contact with mentor
Section Two included
(team) investigation
into the systems of
the building based
on your separate,
academic level,
culminating in a bid
document per team
Section Three
investigation across
all levels of
academic position
(Sophomore, Junior,
and Senior/
culminating in a
best value

Each ICS syllabus and semester was divided into three sections: Individual,
Organizational, and Value-added Work, shown as an overview in Table 3. Depending on
the technical or leadership section of the education, students were required to perform various tasks as individuals or teams. From a technical point of view, Individual work
required each student to study the set of plans and specifications and take an individual quiz
as to his or her knowledge. Organizational work (Teams) began with students deciding on a
five-member team and collaborating through the BIM and a common set of preconstruction
objectives: work breakdown structure (WBS), quantity take-off (QTO), labor productivity
(LP), cost estimating, procurement planning, scheduling and critical path method (CPM),
construction method diagramming and safety hazard mitigation plan.
From a team collaboration and leadership viewpoint, all levels (Sophomore through
Graduate) went through similar stages of training and development. The ability to

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D. Zhao et al.

collaborate within a team was measured through the characteristics of individual emotional
intelligence (EI, Goleman, 2012). The effectiveness of EI objectives within the construction education setting were established through: 1) an integrated curriculum for technical
and leadership deliverables; 2) personalized student training in leadership skills based on
EI parameters; and 3) the administration of two surveys that measured EI, one prior to
course deliverables and one at the end. Specifically, Section One required each student to
individually take a test online that described and sorted his or her temperament (Mead,
2001). This exercise was meant for students to think of their personal habits and attitudes.
Section Two then required individuals to take an online test that gauged their behavioral
style towards others (and team-based work), based on personal insight. This section also
required teams to complete a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT)
analysis, to identify factors inherent in the teams, including personality and internal features or external factors that could affect the team. Section Three then asked ten external
reviewers, who know the teams individuals, to go online and gauge individual behavioral
styles. Between Section Two and Three, faculty used individual behavior styles and aptitudes to create a team-based leadership plan that the team could also implement during
Section Three.
Students were graded on collaboration and leadership, presentation skills and the organization, quality and quantity of the deliverables. The final submittals were preconstruction
deliverables, which included a schedule, estimate, and 4D simulation (see Figure 2).
Successful team deliverables contained the integration of larger contexts (big picture
items) as part of the final grade. Grading was processed based on faculty ratings and the
ratings of other teams in the classroom. S and J-teams gave presentations for the M-teams
between section two and three. The M-teams ranked the subcontractor performances and
these rankings provided the basis for section threes final, projectwide assignment solution
(in other words, they could decide on different subcontractors to pair with in the final proposal, such as the case in the professional world). All teams presented a final, project-wide
solution, with grades based on all associated teams performance and the technical solution
presented at the final bid opening.
In conclusion, the ICS pedagogy provides students a learning environment that allows
for initiative within team collaboration and team-based skills through the virtual environment of BIM technologies and construction processes. The environment aims to support
assumed aspects #1 (integrating BIM process) and #3 (integrating leadership development). In requiring all team levels to work collaboratively and through BIM, for example,
technology and leadership skills are integrated through the training process. Measured

Figure 2. Demonstration of site logistics in 4D environment.

Building Collaborative Construction Skills


deliverables, through written assignments, team assignments, grading, and peer-reviewing

consider interpersonal skills and leadership in the team context.

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Discussion: Collaborative BIM Process

The ICS case study description supports the need for a collaborative and integrative learning environment. The ICS course illustrates how BIM can be at the center of the process
rather than simply building models and teaching technologies, which has been widely
accepted in the AEC industry. Therefore, the authors define a process of integrating BIM
into the team collaboration environment through the term collaborative BIM process.
The collaborative BIM process is similar to the collaborative working environment but
presents more of a sense of dynamic work, as opposed to traditional, and often separated,
working environments. The following sections will further examine how a collaborative
BIM process works in the Integrated Construction Studio case.
It is important to define collaboration before examining how it works. Schrage (1990)
defined collaboration as the process of shared creation among two or more individuals with
complementary skills interacting to create a shared understanding that none had previously
possessed or could have come to on their own. Denise (1999) discussed the relationship
between collaboration and three Cs that represent Communication, Coordination, and
Cooperation. Combining all above, this work proposes a definition of collaboration as a
combination of 4Cs comprising the following four elements:
Common goals collaboration is about using information to create something new
that could be a process, a product, or an event with common will.
Communication emphasizing information exchange, the aim is to achieve that
members well understand each other and information is effectively transferred in
Coordination assuming the existence of differences, it strives to aligning activities
and avoiding gaps.
Cooperation the essence is working together and being involved in teams by
sharing or participating in work.
Based on the tenets of the 4Cs, Figure 3 demonstrates how the BIM process (left
column), Collaboration (middle column), and Leadership Education (right column) are
related and directly or indirectly interact within the scope of the Integrated Construction
Studio. Arrows in the figure represent contributory relationships. For example, preconstruction Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) tasks mainly require direct coordination that
emphasizes differences among subcontractor roles and responsibilities. Also as a primary
example for this work, the 3D modeling effort is divided into three areas for each team
throughout the collaborative process: the M-team is responsible for the overall model
coordination task of the final deliverable while J- and S-teams are respectively responsible for their subcontractor model and merging (see Figure 2). Further, within each team,
the modeling tasks (e.g., MEP model) are further split into various parts for team members. To successfully fulfill an individual teams mission, the entire preconstruction team,
including M-, S-, and J-teams, must effectively coordinate together, which requires collaboration. Figure 3 illustrates how the scope of a Collaborative BIM process, consisting of
technical and collaborative areas highlighted in green, while included into the scope of ICS
are also the basis for integrating collaboration and leadership education.
Collaboration in the ICS case study is also reflected through the communications
within and across teams. Communication values effective information exchange is a critical

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Figure 3. Collaborative BIM process in ICS.

part of a collaborative concept. Hence, ICS recognizes clear communication as a cornerstone to proposal success. Figure 4 outlines the information exchange flows among teams
in the case study. The exchanges are achieved through formal communications (solid lines)
and informal communications (dashed lines). The formal communication methods (inside
circles) include regular team meeting, project review session, official Request for information (RFI), etc. The informal communication methods (inside ellipses) include verbal
discussions, emails/massages, team operation, etc. Project managers from M-, S-, and
J-teams are responsible for the formal communications across teams, while any team
member may initiate or join the informal communications.
Overall, the presented case of Integrated Construction Studio course provides a
solid example that combines BIM technological education and collaboration training.
Nevertheless, there is room for improvement and lessons learned. While ICS did not
include drawing design exercises, students work was derived directly from drawings
whose designs had already been refined considerably. This setup is particularly good
for Design-Bid-Build (DBB) project delivery understanding, which is now an emerging
method in the industry to deliver projects. In this regard, ICS might evolve towards other
emerging delivery methods as a means towards including additional students across more
disciplines. Including more Architecture majors, for example, might expand the breadth of
integration thus reap benefits of simulation for Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) projects.
Such changes need to work in conjunction with industry advisors who can introduce these
trends into the classroom and guide the process. Another potential improvement pertains to

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Figure 4. Information exchange flows in ICS communication.

software and hardware. Modeling processes were especially fragmented and caused frustration, where coordination of teams efforts and the large (RAM-intensive) files, which
needed to be exchanged often via a flash drive/email between team members or relying on
external cloud services (e.g., Dropbox). This may lead to losing files or overwriting files by
mistake. Further, students who established a schedule, assigned tasks and responsibilities
and met weekly to progress towards team goals in the modeling space were considerably more successful in the course goals as well. The same experience also existed for
non-software-and-hardware-related tasks and goals for teams across the course timeline.
In the future, the collaborative BIM process must rely on common goals and also communication, coordination, and cooperation, the 4Cs this work has promoted for use. Often
a resource issue, department-based BIM servers could also provide needed software and
hardware assistance for students, offering an online BIM file synchronization service to
students and catalogue of the preconstruction process for accreditation, further promoting
the effectiveness of and case for collaboration.

Survey Results and Findings

The research team analyzed survey results using frequency analysis and ANOVA. As previously stated, the major objective of the survey was to gather quantitative evidence on class
standings, skills, and collaboration tactics from the students perspectives. Results examine participants responses regarding perceived performance of and technology experience
in the BIM-integrated learning environment during preconstruction simulation, further
contextualizing and supplementing case study findings on the collaborative BIM process.
Respondent Demographics
A total of 59 qualified responses were collected. This sample size was deemed favorable
due to the class sizes of ICS over that time. Results (see Table 4) show that respondents


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Table 4. Respondents demographic information

Academic Grade


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By Team







Note: denotes that a round-off error may occur causing a sum not equal to 100%.

were from all enrolled academic levels including sophomore (31%), junior (27%), senior
(31%), and graduate (12%), and covered various majors including building construction
(BC, 73%), civil engineering (CE, 12%), construction engineering and management
(CEM, 9%), and others from Interdisciplinary Studies (IDST, 7%), a University-wide
degree that includes those interested in AEC fields. The findings indicate the diversity of
students background, which provide a solid base for the multi-role team collaboration.
Pertaining to team structure, the average team size is five people, and within the team,
an average of two members had worked together in the past. Regarding team proportions,
M-, S-, and J-teams accounted for 37%, 36%, and 27% of respondents, respectively. This
team distribution is also in accordance with the corresponding distribution of workloads,
and hence is acceptable.
Perception of BIM
Figure 5(a) illustrates that the majority of responses recognized BIM as process (85%) as
opposed to technical software (8%). Thirty-four percent of responses favorably acknowledged BIM as a process for generating and managing building data, albeit 51% as process
for only creating 3D models. Also, Figure 5(b) indicates that an overwhelming majority (96%) acknowledged the importance of BIM knowledge, especially for their future
employment. The option of very important accounted for highest perception of BIM at
39%. These results suggest that the students overall recognition of BIMs importance as
well as its broad impact on process is favorable. BIM as a process (85%) is where much of
the collaborative process exists.
Students perception of BIM is also reflected in answers to the open question: Please
describe the benefits/challenges you experienced while using BIM tools. Due to the free
response, several interesting and representative objections to the course were logged as
I am upset about the fact that we were given a 1000 page tutorial for Revit MEP
and only an hour long lecture to introduce it, and also feel unreasonable to expect
such a complete model from students who did not learn the software in a previous

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Figure 5. The (a) definition and (b) importance of BIM students perceive.

(BIM) is hard to figure out without guidance.

Didnt use BIM before this class.
Of note is that most objections were on the technical operation on BIM tools from
the students who had not received any BIM technology education before they attended
the Integrated Construction Studio (ICS). Interestingly, a majority of these objections were
from non-construction majors, such as interdisciplinary majors or graduate students who
came from a non-AEC background. Civil Engineering (CE) and Building Construction
(BC) undergraduate majors, who were required to take a BIM-related course in their junior
or sophomore year, did not have the same complaint. Those with previous training also
significantly embodied the group that found BIM to be a process. Such findings suggest
that BIM requires training to properly set the stage for collaboration, across disciplines.
However, responses for this open question should also alert educators to carefully consider the needs of individual students, especially for such a course with large diversity.
As Christensen and colleagues (2010) noted, the interface could provide the ability to
diagnose issues and set the course for future training. Collaborative BIM processes do not
seem to be the exception, based on the small sample produced in this study. In the future,
ICS could arrange more external assistance around BIM tools for students. This assistance
could be, for example, more office hours by teaching assistants or faculty, more inter-team
sessions that the M-, S-, and J-teams may mentor each other, or more collaborative BIM
tutorial videos/presentations, as opposed to impersonal booklets and guides. Also, when
organizing teams the instructor may suggest adjustment on certain team members to avoid
a team that never received any BIM-related education before the class.
Varied perceptions of BIM also reflect the diversity of students in the course. Varying
levels of students, including novices to the AEC industry or BIM were immersed in
BIM collaboration and collaboration responses support the research assumption that BIMintegrated learning environments allow for diverse backgrounds. Outside of the University
setting, findings suggest that technological skills, such as BIM, might not be a fundamental obstacle to effective collaboration. Based on previous literature (Ahn et al., 2012),
interpersonal skills (or non-technical skills) are essential elements of successful construction professionals and a central component for team effectiveness. The perception of
BIMs importance was also consistent, setting a basis for BIM skills to become a basic
competency for construction employees in the foreseeable future.
Perception of Collaboration
Participants were asked to provide feedback on the collaborative environment by grading
eight collaboration-relevant statements and answering one open question as free response.


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The grading of eight statements was set with Likert scale choices including: strongly satisfied, satisfied, neutral, dissatisfied, and strongly dissatisfied. The open question was:
Please describe the benefits/challenges you experienced in collaborating with teams.
Results of these eight single-choice questions are shown in Table 5, from which
respondents demonstrated a generally positive feedback in their perception of collaboration
in ICS, since the mean response for all criteria is above 3 (Neutral). Results of ANOVA
tests indicate that the students from different academic levels perceive intra-team information exchange and overall experience in ICS significantly differently (p = .031 and
.036, respectively). Regarding the open question, responses that indicate lessons learned in
ICS are as follows:
Scheduling meetings through email results in lack of accountability for some
through differing class schedules.
Undergraduate teams are very open with information and most graduate teams
arent willing to share information.
Exposure to work with people of different behavioral styles required different
methods to get the work done.
Lack of experience with networking tools (resulted in) scheduling issues with
meeting times.
Team members showing up late or not attending meetings, (and) not dividing work
Many of these open responses complement the findings of the ICS case study.
As before, students who lacked an established schedule, assigned tasks and responsibilities
were considerably less successful in meeting their goals or those of the course. Students
did not mention software as an obstacle to collaboration. While open responses do not offer
conclusive evidence of BIMs effect on collaboration, the focus on basic management processes suggests that measured progress towards team goals in the modeling space could
provide considerable success in meeting overall course goals as well.
Outside of the open responses, data suggest other noteworthy findings. To begin,
when looking at the means of intra-team information exchange, intra-team work breakdown and intra-team BIM sharing, the former two scores are above 4, at 4.186 and
4.017 respectively, while the latter score is below 4, at 3.276. The difference in mean score
could be explained by students dissatisfaction with the collaborative experience, focusing
more on cooperation in the model space (intra-team BIM sharing) than on the ability
to communicate within the team. The authors interpret such a problem as that of the BIM
software or hardware rather than collaboration. To reinforce this assertion, the case study
also contained a lesson learned of students in class usually using flash drives or emails for
exchanging and sharing their building model information to others, as opposed to working in the space collaboratively. These traditional file-sharing methods are inconvenient and
may also result in missing information or files as well. A single model file, especially when
performing real-world projects, is always of many megabytes (MB) and often too big to be
attached in an email. Hence, through many model iterations, exchanges and assemblages,
students experience process fatigue. The process of cooperation became less possible when
working across teams as well, which is reflected in the lowest score (3.000) of inter-team
BIM sharing. Also, this observation is reinforced by other lessons learned in the case
study section, which suggest that a local, department-based BIM-server could also provide
effective means for collaboration in data-rich courses. Products such as Revit 2014 now
contain tools for using one software program, as opposed to MEP versus Architecture





Note: denotes a significantly statistical difference at 95% level.

Std. Deviation
Std. Deviation
Std. Deviation
Std. Deviation
Sophomore Mean
Std. Deviation



Intra-team info.
(communi(communication) cation)

Table 5. Results of descriptive and ANOVA analyses





BIM sharing BIM sharing

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in ICS

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versus Structure which should also alleviate the need to exchange information outside of
the model space.
Another observation is that each of the overall intra-team scores was higher than
its corresponding inter-team score. Findings indicate higher satisfaction from collaboration within teams as compared to that across teams, which is understandable. Members
from M-, S-, or J-teams from the same academic level often had similar backgrounds and
behavior styles, had worked together in other classes before, and hence made for better
collaborative work and experiences. This finding is supported in the survey result that
an average of two members had worked together in the past. Based on the open question responses, this finding provides another reasonable explanation that conflicting class
schedules of students from different academic standings may result in less frequent and
less effective communication that is a critical factor affecting collaborative process (Littler,
Leverick, & Bruce, 1995). Therefore to improve, ICS could better arrange for opportunities (even outside the class) where M-, S-, and J-teams gather. Outside of the University
setting, such a finding could also suggest that collaborative BIM processes require dedicated tasking, timing and support of individuals and the larger organization to allow
teams (across disciplines and with varied knowledge) to properly collaborate. Without
these arrangements, BIM collaboration success might be limited within and outside of
the organization.
The third important observation is the statistically significant differences on the intrateam communication and overall collaboration experience among various academic
levels. When looking at the intra-team communication of differing academic levels (with
a p-value of .031), findings suggest that the graduate student level contained the least
satisfaction (mean = 3.286) while the seniors expressed the greatest satisfaction, albeit
sometimes graduate and undergraduate students were within the same M-team. An answer
from the open question of the survey, namely that undergraduate teams are very open
with information and most graduate teams arent willing could, to some extent, explain
this phenomenon from the undergraduate perspective. As previously explained, the seniors
(undergraduates) often had 1 to 2 years of experience in the previous levels of the course,
while graduates were fresh and without previous experience. Could this be a root cause to
their lack of interest in sharing information, lack of inter-team and intra-team satisfaction
and lack of satisfaction with the course in general? The other group of students who contained a large portion of inexperienced team members and were expected to mentor based
on their knowledge is the junior teams. The J-team low average score could reinforce the
need for experience (i.e. training) in order to adequately collaborate through BIM.
In another attempt to answer questions around BIM collaboration, the researchers tried
to understand the opposite situation. Graduate students often bring a culture to the classroom that is either based on previous experience or a result of years outside of construction.
Many graduates might have differing work ethics, course loads or simply feel that undergraduates are too young to understand their perspectives. Attention to the culture of individuals in the team-based BIM environment has been proposed as important to success as well.
This contrast with industry also brings about another interesting question: how can people
with a comparatively higher level of status (e.g., graduates) effectively communicate with
those with a lower level (e.g., undergraduates) in one team (e.g., M-team) and across teams
(S and J-teams)? Software might not be the answer, but training around the software could
be one solution. The authors believe that higher-level team members need to adjust their
outlook on technology and train in it as well, in order to successfully immerse themselves
and integrate into a teams working environment. Otherwise, isolation might not only be
individual but a team-based issue. ICS made an effort to focus on upper classmen and
bring them more into the fold regarding technology and its role in the team environment.

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Leadership was also a major part of the course design and is considered important
to the collaborative BIM process. From a leadership perspective, survey findings do not
indicate limits to skills in oral/written communication, rather they suggest a need to also
improve interpersonal skills such as active listening, or timely giving/receiving of feedback (both praise and criticism) that many leaders find demanding (Robbins, Bergman,
Stagg, & Coulter, 2012). Other experiences, such as required courses like Soft Skills
for BC undergraduates, might contribute to their comfortability with inter-and-intra-team
When looking at the difference on the overall collaborative experience (with a pvalue of .036), two pairs of comparisons are worthy of mentioning. One pairing is the
comparison between graduates and seniors both of which belonged to the same mentor
teams. Results illustrate the slight dissatisfaction from Graduates (2.429) while the greatest
satisfaction from Seniors (3.643). In fact, graduate students, especially the ones from nonconstruction majors (e.g., Civil Engineering), did not have any BIM training in the past
but have high expectations as well as respective workload. Status, combined with other
pressures of school (or professional education in this case of industry) and social lives, can
lay the groundwork for students pressure and dissatisfaction. This pressure might hinder
the adoption and successful collaboration of new technologies in the firm. On the contrary, students (the seniors) who had received technical training expressed high satisfaction
in their roles of collaboration, management and mentoring. The other interesting pairing
is between seniors and sophomores, from which the seniors showed greater satisfaction
than the sophomores. This observation suggests that confidence in the interactive process
grows (e.g., from freshmen to senior) with experience, and that, as is consistent with literature (Hoegl & Parboteeah, 2007), firms must support the process and provide employees
with opportunities for these efficiencies to occur (e.g., scheduling, budgeting). Feedback
from junior teams could be an exception since their assignment was MEP modeling and
was not familiar to newly entering students, and possibly even those with a construction
background (e.g., CEM majors).

This article discusses the need for educational integration of technology and the collaborative process which is significant, original, and vital for meeting the needs of the industry;
and how an integrated learning environment can provide students to build such soft skills
competitiveness by analyzing Virginia Techs course of Integrated Construction Studio
(ICS). At the beginning, through literature review and interviews, the authors found gaps
between the AEC industrys new expectations and current educational responses: many
BIM-relevant courses are taught as technology training without a context of a collaborative environment. Currently, the industry values collaboration as a major requirement for
future employees. The article described ICS as a case study to show one solution to the
assumption that a collaborative process can integrate BIM technology and collaboration
training in higher education for construction. The BIM-integrated learning environment
allows educators to develop a curriculum with capabilities of integrating BIM process,
integrating various project roles, integrating collaboration and leadership development, and
integrating multiple professional backgrounds. As a result, 4Cs were presented at the base
of this environment: Common goals, Communication, Coordination, and Cooperation.
Lastly, researchers presented results from a small sample survey that complemented case
study findings and proposed interesting additions to the case, expanding the needs of
collaborative BIM processes.

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In the educational setting, a collaborative technology process could provide opportunities (even outside the class) where teams gather across a curriculum. Students who
established a schedule, assigned tasks and responsibilities and met weekly to progress
towards team goals in the modeling space were considerably more successful in the course
goals as well. Such successes could be modeled for and achieved in student competitions,
clubs or outside the classroom in industrial collaborations. Future collaborative technology systems might learn from and rely on the 4Cs of Common goals, Communication,
Coordination, and Cooperation for improved success. In industry, the use of cybergrid
technology where teams of designers, constructors and owners deliver projects collaboratively, in virtual environments and over the web suggest the need for collaborative
educational goals early in the process and among all members of the team. Collaborative
technology servers could also provide needed software and hardware assistance for students and the industry. Finally, those with previous training significantly found BIM to be
a process, were satisfied with collaboration using BIM and were effective in providing leadership in the team setting. Such findings suggest that BIM and similar technology could
benefit from training early to properly set the stage for successful collaboration across
Outside of the University setting, findings suggest that technological skills might not
be an obstacle for effective collaboration, while BIM skills will become a basic competency for construction employees in the foreseeable future. Findings could also suggest
that collaborative BIM processes require dedicated tasking, timing and support of individuals (training and beyond) and the larger organization to allow teams (across disciplines
and with varied knowledge) to properly collaborate. Without these arrangements, BIM
collaboration success might be limited within and outside of the organization and hinder
adoption across the industry.
As extensions for this work, future research may evaluate the findings from the current
work using more industrial cases; or may develop another curriculum to help students build
the collaborative skills. In addition, these construction education programs assessed in the
gap statement section of this study are occasionally all from the East coast institutions,
which may lead to a possible debate, and thus future research may put more efforts to
examine the programs from the West coast.

The authors would like to acknowledge the early efforts on data collection from David
Gagliano, Justin Gore and Neil Wright, the contribution to literature reviews from Dr.
Kenneth Sands, and also all the endeavors from reviewers and editors.

Dong Zhao http://orcid.org/0000-0002-2404-7669
Andrew P. McCoy http://orcid.org/0000-0002-3827-0458

Ahn, Y., Pearce, A. R., & Kwon, H. (2012). Key competencies for U.S. construction graduates:
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