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The university campus of the future: what will it look like?

Universities campuses need to adapt to the new reality of mobile students and online education. Flickr/Jill

FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION: We continue our series on the rise of online and blended learning and how free online courses are set to transform the higher education sector. Today Victoria University’s David Lamond looks at how online education will change the university campus.

Article after article on online education predicts that bricks and mortar universities are set to be replaced by “clicks and mortar.”

The sudden popularity of the MOOC (or Massive Open Online Course) – where brand name universities offer the same courses available to fee paying students for free, online – has seen some experts question the need for university campuses at all.

While it may be a little premature to write off the need for a campus entirely, there’s no doubt online mobile education is set to radically alter university architecture.

Exaggerated warnings

For those with long memories, the predictions of empty universities may sound familiar. In the 1990s, the same was said about the demise of the central business district (CBD). With teleworkers working from home and sending the fruits of their labour across the internet, the CBD would become redundant.

Of course, these prophecies were proved greatly exaggerated.

There are two significant reasons why the university campus, like the CBD, will survive. First, humans are social and political animals that need spaces to interact with each other. Just as Facebook and Twitter have not stopped people congregating in public places to socialise, online education won’t mean students will stop going to a university space to learn.

Second is the University Vice-Chancellor’s edifice complex – a “my building is bigger than your building” mentality. Universities will continue to compete to attract students and academics by building ever more impressive facilities.

What’s needed

But how should university campuses change given the new dynamics of online education? And can the edifice complex – the desire for great spaces – be harnessed to create a learning environment fit for the 21st century?

Let me say first of all that I welcome the transformation that is set to take place in university learning and the new ideas, technologies and opportunities that it will bring.

Physical changes can help enhance this learning experience and universities will start to compete to offer more and more technologically and student friendly spaces.

A step in the right direction has been the creation of collaborative learning spaces, most often referred to as “learning commons”. These spaces are much more suited to the new dynamics of online and student-centred learning than the lecture theatre.

The lecture theatre supports a one-way style of teaching, where learning commons provide a space for dialogue.

Learning commons are also able to take advantage of mobile IT capacities and wireless connectivity. These new learning spaces need to be populated not by whiteboards, but by electrical outlets and USB ports to enable individuals or groups to interact using laptops and iPads, incorporating a variety of audio-visual equipment, and interactive displays.

Along with learning commons and fewer large lecture theatres, universities also need broadcast studios. Broadcast studios are essential for developing video content for virtual classrooms, framed by the screens of laptops and desktops, in situ and on the move.

Future universities

If universities are to be the future of education rather than relics of the past, they do not need to have a campus on every corner but, rather, be accessible wherever our learners are, at times and in forms to meet their learning, social and psychological needs.

Above all else, students must be at the centre of this new architecture. We should welcome the MOOCs challenge as an opportunity to create the virtual and physical learning spaces of the future.

The series will conclude next week with a panel discussion in Canberra co-hosted with the Office for Learning and Teaching and involving the Minister for Tertiary Education, Chris Evans.

We’d love you to take part: leave your comments, join the discussion on,

This is part nine of our series on the Future of Higher Education. You can read other instalments by clicking the links below:

Part one: Online opportunities: digital innovation or death through regulation?, Jane Den Hollander

Part two: MOOCs and exercise bikes – more in common than you’d think, Phillip Dawson & Robert Nelson

Part three: How Australian universities can play in the MOOCs market, David Sadler

Part four: MOOC and you’re out of a job: uni business models in danger, Mark Gregory

Part five: Radical rethink: how to design university courses in the online, Paul Wappett

Part six: Online education: can we bridge the digital divide?, Tim Pitman

Part seven: Online learning will change universities by degrees, Margaret Gardner

Part eight: Deadset? MOOCs and Australian education in a globalised world, Ruth Morgan

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