Universities are pursuing with increasing confidence and creativity the education opportunities presented by online technologies that can link teachers and students from around the world.

Down at the track, a high-performance, aerodynamically sophisticated racing car is put through its paces. In the heady atmosphere of a trading room, investment bankers make split-second decisions as they buy and sell, gain and lose. In a virtual laboratory, using virtual materials, pharmaceuticals of myriad forms are created and perfected. And in a tutorial room that looks much like any other, a student turns to chat to a classmate – who just happens to be on the other side of the world.

Welcome to university education, 21st-century style. Although lecture theatres are still a part of life in education institutions around the globe, technology and shifting expectations are progressively unsettling and undermining the generations-old model by which academics transmit knowledge to students.

The internet and mobile devices give extraordinary access to information from just about anywhere: students no longer need to be in the same place at the same time as their teachers. The same rapidly developing communications technology that is behind that change has also contributed to a world in which employers increasingly seek graduates who come ready primed with an international outlook and a cultural understanding that transcends the boundaries of their home country.

Universities everywhere are feeling the pressures, even as they take up the opportunities that new capabilities are making available.

"We are in a disrupted world of education," says Professor Darrell Evans, who as Vice-Provost (Learning and Teaching) is instrumental in taking Monash University into the future. "We must ask ourselves how we are going to tackle things differently. How are we still going to be a university in 20 years' time if we don't transform the way we understand education?"

You can come away from a course with knowledge but you need the interaction to really excite the learning journey.
– Professor Darrell Evans

An academic world still coming to terms with flipped classrooms and blended learning was further challenged by the advent in the past few years of massive open online courses (MOOCs). The New York Times dubbed 2012 "the year of the MOOC" and take-up has been phenomenal. MOOCs are mostly short courses; they are often provided by a leading professor at a top-drawer university, and they are both free and freely available to anyone. Harvard University, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with many other elite American universities, have swept into the world of MOOCs, working through platforms such as edX, Coursera and Udacity.

The US leads the field, but in 2012 the UK's Open University founded a MOOC platform called FutureLearn, listing among its partners not only top UK universities but also cultural institutions such as the British Library and British Museum. Last year Monash became its only Australian partner, with two courses scheduled to start this year – one on computer programming for creative design and the other about the science behind medicines.

Photo: Paul Jones

The measured approach taken by Monash contrasts with the enthusiasm with which others have embraced MOOCs, but is entirely in keeping with Professor Evans's view that keeping education in good shape calls for a flexible framework, not a cookie-cutter approach. His guiding principle is to search for the best of what is available.

"Technology is an enabler," he says. "It allows us to do things we never dreamed of, but it must still be fit for the purpose for which it is used. We are experimenting in the online course world with FutureLearn and other companies such as Pearson. It is a matter of understanding what the technology can bring to those initiatives and assessing it. What will be the impact on students? What can we learn from online assessment that we can then bring back into the campus learning experience? Is it better than something we currently do?"

The last question, broadly applied, is at the heart of the new approach to education he is introducing at Monash through the "Better Teaching, Better Learning" agenda.

A challenging philosophy

"I want our teaching to be challenged in the same way our research is," Professor Evans says. "Researchers are always coming up with new ideas, testing them, making changes. No one would ever use 'I've done it this way for 10 years, it must be all right' as a philosophy for research."

Modern communication technology most clearly threatens lecture-based teaching, but it is not simply a question of the pros and cons of moving online. Personal connection is important; curriculum design is important; learning spaces are important – and all, Professor Evans says, must work together.

Sometimes this may mean quite practical changes, such as those undertaken recently by the Monash School of Physics when it reconfigured a workshop to provide more areas for small-group learning, with appropriate equipment from tables to technology.

In the shift from lecture-based to more interactive learning, the set-up encourages students to be fully involved as they grapple with the principles and problems inherent to this field.

Rooms were also made available for pre and post-class discussion and activity: Professor Evans admits to a qualm about their appeal but it was quickly laid to rest. "If you go in there, it's stunning," he says. "There are the students, without teachers around, immersed in discussion and debate, and working collaboratively."

Other programs take the university into a world that not so long ago would have been impossible outside science fiction. Thanks to Skype, an expert from anywhere in the world can readily appear in a classroom, but the real–virtual mix goes beyond that.

When pharmacy students at Monash learn the complexities of tablet-making, they do so using software, gaming technology and a virtual laboratory rather than an industrial machine and real ingredients – and it is not only more effective, it is also a lot cheaper (see 'Cyberspace Pharmacy').

Meanwhile, their counterparts in business and economics gain similarly effective training without leaving the classroom, which in their case is the STARLab trading room. Here a "real" trading environment prevails as students get to practise the theories learned in management studies, banking and finance, and economics.

But for all its wow factor and ability to provide a new perspective, technology is not always going to be the answer, Professor Evans says. Sometimes, that time-honoured connection between teacher and students, aided only by a whiteboard and some coloured pens, is the best way to get the message across. Provided it stands up to the challenge of being questioned, he sees no reason to throw it away and would indeed actively promote it.

Engagement that is not just personal but seriously hands-on has also proved its worth. Teams of engineering students from hundreds of universities and colleges around the world, including Monash, get engaged in the building of race cars for Formula SAE, a competition that started in 1978. They do the hard practical laps of design, construction and testing, and in the process they must also reinforce the academic aspects of their study, learning to defend, support and explain what they are doing.

A new world of learning

One of the challenges for modern universities, says Professor Karen O'Brien, Vice-Principal (Education) at King's College London, is combining students' "virtual connectivity" to information and to each other with the face-to-face interactions and collaborations that are still important in classrooms and laboratories.

"As educators today, we must create radical new learning opportunities from the multiple ways in which our students interact and gain access to information and knowledge," she says.

Another, says Professor Evans, is the need to interact and operate on a global scale. Like others around the world, Monash is a multi-campus university; it has hubs not only in Australia but also in Malaysia, India, South Africa, China and Italy, with strong connections to the University of Warwick in the UK, thanks to the Monash–Warwick Alliance.

Universities will increasingly seek to link learning between campuses, and to do so in a way that includes personal connection. "You can come away from a course with knowledge but you need the interaction to really excite the learning journey," Professor Evans says. "With distance learning, it's especially important for students to learn as communities – how do we do that?"

An early step towards answering this is the "international portal" that links a classroom at Monash University's Caulfield campus in Melbourne with one in Warwick, allowing students from both universities to do the same course, at the same time and in – virtually – the same room.

"It's across time zones. In Melbourne, we stay late – they get up early; everyone interacts. It's a first stage, but it shows what can be done when you are working with multiple campuses or of course if you have other kinds of links with overseas audiences."

With an enthusiasm for learning that has pushed his career from research in biology to a full focus on education, Professor Evans is keen to seek out scope for improvement anywhere he can find it.

"We can give people the opportunity to learn anywhere. There are people who like to learn on the bus or train, because they like the buzz but they still get immersed; others prefer to be at home. Technology should enable us to learn differently; to learn where we want to learn."

Overall, he says, it's a question of generating an approach that can adjust to the many different needs of different fields of study, while also remaining open to inevitably changing pressures and demands.

"We must stay responsive to change. Once you have a model, then you lose that flexible quality because it just becomes the way you do things. We want to keep things dynamic so that we can keep hitting the changes that are happening very quickly at the moment in education."