Applied Education in the Digitalization Age (Hands-On 4.0)

Background and Scope

The importance of hands-on elements in education has been acknowledged since ancient times when contemplation about education started. As Aristotle already stated in 350 BC: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them”.

Hands-on elements have accordingly been an important element in education throughout different times and cultures, though without much conceptual reflection in the early days. This so-to-say hands-on education 1.0 was typically based on a master-apprentice relation, where the apprentice is guided by the master on a learning path from executing simple tasks up to the full knowledge of the subject matter, i.e., until mastership of her/his own. Things got a bit more systematic and formalized with the rise of university laboratories as elements of academic studies. This hands-on education 2.0 is rooted in the use of laboratories for research, for which best practices and procedures are taught in lab courses. This includes especially the formalized concept of an experiment and the related best practices and procedures structured into hypothesis formulation, trials under controlled conditions, analysis of the outcomes, and formalized documentation. The hands-on education 3.0 can be linked to experiential learning. It not only encourages the learning by doing, but it also includes strong elements of reflection on doing by the learner. Experiential learning is rooted in psychological research including the work of Jean Piaget, John Dewey, and Kurt Lewin. An important element is the insight that education is most effective if the learner has an actual desire to adsorb the knowledge. Hence, experiential learning approaches often include playful elements.

In the spirit of Industry 4.0, we propose here a hands-on education 4.0 as a next step by providing

  • An individualized education that takes the interests, the existing knowledge, and the personality of the learner into account;
  • it features flexibility in achieving the Intended Learning Outcomes (ILO) by assigning the learner a role in a team, which can be dynamic in its scope as well as dynamic within and across teams.
  • The achievement of ILOs includes decentralized decisions in teams of learners with input from teachers and experts to define and assign roles.
  • The methods and tools include a high amount of interoperability, i.e., the lab components are based on standardized, open-source material developed in international communities.

In addition to sharing commonalities in concepts with industry 4.0, the term hands-on education 4.0 is also deliberately chosen to trigger associations with core technologies of the digitalization age including Cyber-Physical-Systems (CPS), Internet of Things (IoT) and Cognitive Computing, which are associated with industry 4.0 and which will be the prime topics for the start of hands-on 4.0 at Jacobs University.

The the project fell within the CoViD19 pandemic, which had quite some impacts on its execution. But this provided also some opportunities. Among others, we conducted an international survey on hand-on teaching in robotics & automation during the pandemic.


There are several publications related to the project:

  • Andreas Birk and Dora Simunovic. Robotics Labs and Other Hands-On Teaching During COVID-19: Change Is Here to Stay? IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine (RAM), DOI: 10.1109/MRA.2021.3102979, 2021 (Open Access Link
  • Andreas Birk, Evelina Dineva, Francesco Maurelli and Andreas Nabor. A Robotics Course during CoViD-19: Lessons Learned and Best Practices for Online Teaching beyond the Pandemic. Robotics, 10(1),, MDPI, 2021 (Open Access Link
  • Andreas Birk and Evelina Dineva. Improved Students’ Performance in an Online Robotics Class during COVID-19: Do Only Strong Students Profit? Robotics in Education (RiE), 2021 
  • Francesco Maurelli, Evelina Dineva, Andreas Nabor, and Andreas Birk. Robotics and Intelligent Systems: a new curriculum development and adaptations needed in Coronavirus times. Robotics in Education (RiE), 2021


The project is financed by the Jacobs Foundation within the B3 – Bildung Beyond Boundaries framework.