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Date published: 6 June 2012

THE question could have unsettled Ed Byrne just as he was about to board a flight to China last week. Monash University's peripatetic vice-chancellor was off to attend the opening of yet another Monash overseas offshoot - this time a new graduate school near Shanghai to be run jointly with the Chinese Southeast University.

Higher Age wanted to know if the huge growth in online learning would inevitably mean the end of the traditional bricks-and-mortar university - including Monash's six Melbourne sites, its international bases in Malaysia, South Africa, and now China and its research centres in India and Italy.

Instead of being downcast at the prospect, Professor Byrne seemed cheerfully optimistic. "I have no doubt that campus-based learning will remain durable into the future except that more and more it will represent a breadth of experience where the latest [information and communication technology] environments and technology offer new interactive experiences," he said.

"I see online learning not as a threat but as an opportunity because we are on an incredibly exciting journey that will make higher education even more effective than it is at present for many people."

Professor Byrne dismissed the possibility of existing campuses shutting down. Young people, he said, needed an intense on-campus experience to get the "full university education and grow". The model in the years ahead, he said, would still be on-campus study at the end of school, supplemented by a much richer technology environment.

The reality, however, is that a vast and increasing number of the world's students are studying for degrees without ever setting foot on campus. Open University Australia, the 20-year-old pioneer of online learning, is a prime example, having experienced a doubling in enrolments over the past four years. More than 55,000 students now select from the OUA's 1400 units and 170 qualifications offered by 20 Australian universities and other tertiary education providers, including TAFE institutes.

"The expansion in student numbers is a reflection of the attractiveness of online education to fit with our students' lifestyles and work commitments," says Paul Wappett, OUA's new chief executive. "But we wouldn't have had that growth without quality education outcomes and that's because we have the best courses from the best universities and are able to choose those providers - that is very attractive."

Mr Wappett says 65 per cent of those studying with OUA are women, while the 10 most popular courses are primary school teaching, criminology, communications, study skills, education, accounting, management, information technology, marketing and behavioural sciences. As a not-for-profit company, OUA has a turnover of more than $200 million a year and in 2011 returned $11 million in "profits" to its seven university shareholders.

"There are no prerequisites to enrol in an OUA course, students do not need to have finished school or done well in the VCE or obtained a high ATAR score," Mr Wappett says. "Those taking core units can also access the federal government's Fee-Help scheme that enables them to obtain a HECS-style loan and 70 per cent of our students get them although many others pay the fees upfront, or the companies they work for do."

Australia's million-plus university students already have online access to lectures and whole subjects but increasing numbers are switching to learning solely via the web, often with the aid of the universities.

At Swinburne University of Technology, for example, online enrolments have jumped by more than 200 per cent over the past two years. In November, the university went a step further, negotiating a partnership with web recruiter Seek to establish a separate company to offer all the university's courses over the internet.

Professor Shirley Leitch, Swinburne's deputy vice-chancellor (academic), chairs the company. Speaking at the launch, she said: "We know today that our future lies outside the traditional classroom. We know we must move beyond the bricks-and-mortar model, beyond the 'sage on the stage'. Universities must change to survive, to remain relevant to the next generation of learners.

"Technology is having a profound impact on education - the way we teach, the way we deliver education and the way we learn. Today's students want education that is mobile and accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"When Swinburne introduced the learning platform Blackboard Mobile, where students can log on to courses using their mobile phones, the take-up was more than 8500 users in the first five weeks."

Professor Leitch says students not only expect education to be accessible around the clock but also available on every device. They also want ready access to real people, their tutors. That means universities have to make courses available through many channels, including smart phones and iPads.

Swinburne is not alone. Monash is also moving more into e-learning and has signed up as a "design program partner" with Pearson, the international educational publishing and technology company, in developing its open-access learning management system called Open Class, which is free and allows students to work via social media. Monash is the only non-US university in the project.

Deakin University has established a web-based learning system, Deakin Studies Online.

In the US, several Ivy League universities are putting more and more of their courses on the web, free to anyone anywhere but without offering credits. Last month, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology committed $30 million each to make available many of their courses on the internet at no charge.

When Stanford University's Sebastian Thrun put his introduction to artificial intelligence course online late last year, 160,000 students from dozens of countries enrolled. Professor Thrun resigned from Stanford and, backed by venture capital and $200,000 of his own, launched a virtual university called Udacity in January that he hopes will attract 500,000 students after 90,000 signed up in the first two months.

To Professor Simon Marginson, from Melbourne University's centre for the study of higher education, these latest moves represent "a game changer". "I think we finally have a new kind of product that draws on the intrinsic character of the internet - brand access for no cost or low cost as the key - and online is finally going to take off," he says.

"Called Massive Open Online Course, this MOOC format uses videos and interactive assessment exercises that gives students what they want - free content, file sharing and social networking. This could become another way of gaining credentials and, if enough employers accept them, MOOC will have such cost advantages that it could eventually replace mass education institutions.

"It won't replace the Ivy League universities � but it might make a sizeable dent."

Date: 6 June 2012
Publication: The Age
Title: Digital campus changes the game
Original article