Problem-Based Learning in

South Asian Universities

PBL South Asia, co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme, developed best practices in problem-based education as a joint initiative among ten universities located in Finland, India, Nepal, Bhutan, the Netherlands and Lithuania. The project, implemented between 15.11.2018-14.11.2022, was coordinated by Aalto University, Finland.

Picture: Carles Martinez

PBL South Asia is an intercultural project that developed competencies and best practices for problem-based learning (PBL) under the theme of global sustainability at the participating South Asian higher education institutions. Core objectives were to develop PBL courses and materials that embed sustainable development themes as an educational approach especially in technical fields; to adapt educational content to fit intercultural and regional contexts in South Asia; to develop teaching competencies transitioning from traditional to student-led learning; and through these efforts to contribute to improved societal impact, critical thinking and innovation capacity, professional skills and student employability over time.

Participating higher education institutions (HEIs) adopted new courses and developed educational materials, adapting these to each HEI’s institutional environment and the needs of surrounding communities. Focusing on the generation of practical teaching skills and implementation capacity, the project facilitated student-led projects and interdisciplinary group work, bridging teacher training with peer teaching activities among the consortium members.

PBL South Asia aimed at long-term impact through adapted curricula, training materials and student projects. In doing so, the project encouraged increased engagement between academia and societal partners to define and address complex sustainability challenges, while building skills and knowledge among participating students, mentors and course coordinators.


Transformative experience

  • Realize how academic training relates to concrete challenges
  • Develop critical and systems thinking, design and fieldwork methods
  • Learn new skills with relevance for employment


Opportunity to shape education

  • Enhance societal impact through new methods of teaching
  • Broaden interdisciplinary and international research networks
  • Build partnerships with businesses, NGOs and governments


Strategic impact for society

  • Engage a new generation of problem solvers
  • Connect with academia and innovation ecosystems
  • Create an enabling environment for sustainable development

PBL student case methodology

PBL South Asia employed an iterative teaching approach based on group work led by heterogeneous student teams, closely followed and supported by faculty who act as mentors to the student teams. The intercultural and inter-institutional implementation process served as a testing and learning environment for the participating HEIs. Through feedback and reflections from students, mentors, course coordinators and stakeholders, the localised PBL student case methodology was then broadly defined and adopted.

In practice, student groups built a team, defined the problem, objectives and expectations, reviewed the current scenario, mapped the initial systemic context before embarking on joint field work. During field work, they explored, researched, tested, validated and verified their approaches and plans together with relevant stakeholders. After the field work, they formed feasible approaches and interventions and planned in detail how these would address the given problem now and in future. At the end they reflected on their learning process and communicated the interventions to relevant stakeholders, and participating faculty assessed the process from an educational perspective.

Typical steps of a student project

① Background

Universities identify community challenges and set up student teams. The teams review the current scenario and define objectives, expectations, risks and relevant stakeholders.

② Initial systemic context

The teams analyze the challenge from aspects such as socio-cultural,environmental, economic, institutional, political, or Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA). Teams formulate an initial ideal approach to address the challenge.

③ Action plan

The teams visit the site of inquiry and conduct fieldwork for 2-3 weeks. The teams conduct data collection such as interviews, mapping, photography surveys, and engage with the local stakeholders through workshops to validate the ideal approach.

④ Revisions

Based on feedback from relevant stakeholders, collected data, research and analysis , the teams revise the initial action plan and propose feasible approaches and interventions.

⑤ Theory of Change

The teams stay in contact with relevant stakeholders and put forward concrete ideas for the process of change. They participate in community meetings and iterate the requirements and the assumptions of the action plan and the proposed interventions.

⑥ Sustainable Impact

The teams present their findings and proposals to course coordinators and local stakeholders. They discuss and reflect their approaches. The long term development and the ownership of the interventions are also discussed as a part of the ways forward.

Outcome and ways forward

The PBL South Asia project resulted in the adoption of applied PBL teaching methods at the participating HEIs in Nepal and Bhutan, and influenced the educational approaches of project partners that already had PBL elements in their curricula. It has cast light on the significant differences of learning environments and the need to carefully adapt general educational principles to serve academically, culturally and institutionally diverging academic and societal communities.

There is an increased interest in the application of PBL pedagogy for global sustainability among the participating HEIs and among stakeholders such as innovation ecosystems, societal partners, faculty and course coordinators at other higher education institutions. This project is followed by various spin-offs and new initiatives in Europe, South Asia and other regions. For South Asian HEIs interested in contacting the project partners, we recommend liaising with the PBL South Asia Network coordinated by the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB), with support from the PBL Lab  at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). For cooperation with HEIs in Finland, we recommend contacting EDUCase Platform.

Aalto University
Riina Subra, Project Lead
Avinash Dhital, Project Coordinator

Indian Institute of Technology Bombay
Venkata Santosh Kumar Delhi
Nepal Engineering College
Durgaprasad Bhandari
Asian Institute of Technology & Management
Lena Sthapit
Kathmandu University
Diwakar Bista
Royal University of Bhutan
Hemlal Bhattarai

Delft University of Technology
Jan-Carel Diehl
Kaunas University of Technology
Andrius Jurelionis
Sagarmatha Engineering College
Ramesh Kumar Shrestha

Indian Institute of Science Bangalore
Apoorv Naresh Bhatt

The European Commission's support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.