OPINION: Imagine sitting in a crowd of 1000 or so students in a university lecture hall and not understanding something. Do you ask a question or do you just zone out and log onto Facebook instead?

Outside our university lecture halls, the rest of the world is in the grips of a digital communications revolution offering an ever increasing number of options for truly engaging, personalised learning.

Today's standard lecture, as a knowledge delivery model, is a legacy of our pre-digital past. We already have decades of research behind us which says that, as far as learning goes, having one person stand up in front of lots of people and talking non-stop is about as ineffective as it gets.

The idea that much learning, and indeed wisdom, was to be found on campus at the foot of the masters — learning by osmosis alongside a visionary physicist in a university science lab, for example — might have once rung true.

But bring in the big, modern lecture halls of mass higher education and those same masters do not necessarily inspire as teachers, nor do they have the opportunity to connect with students on an effective, personal level.

So why persist with a teaching model dating back to the 1200s when alternative, superior digital communications tools are evolving so rapidly around us? Perhaps old habits die hard. Perhaps we haven't yet worked out an alternative strategy to teach the ever increasing cohorts of tertiary students in Australia and worldwide.

But, if universities don't move fast, the rest of the world of teaching and learning  – now increasingly online, global and outside the ivory tower of academia — will have moved on without them.

Just as the implosion of the print media, epitomised by the recent restructuring at Fairfax and News Ltd, was triggered by the change in information delivery models enabled by digital communication, higher education is facing similarly profound online challenges. There is no reason to believe the roller coaster ride for universities will be any less bumpy than it has been for the media, the music industry or book and magazine publishers.

Accessible online education options are expanding exponentially. Some are offered by entirely new players in the market like the US-based Khan academy, a Bill Gates-backed not for profit online educator which has already delivered some 158 million lessons for free. Others are offered by internationally renowned universities like MIT and Harvard, which recently announced a US $60 million online joint venture to offer their courses worldwide, free.

Following closely in their footsteps are a new breed of online education companies using technology to connect to wider audiences. Then, further along the value chain, a new crop of companies are emerging like mushrooms after the rain with learning technologies which are transforming online education from passive video clips and multiple choice quizzes into interactive and immersive virtual learning experiences. Investor funding is pouring into this new ed-tech sector.

At the same time, the global demand for mass higher education is outstripping the capacity and infrastructure of traditional on-campus universities. In Australia, the federal government is actively pushing university enrolments towards new higher education attainment targets; potentially cramming more students into already crowded lecture halls.

But, why run mass lectures on campus at all? Student attendance and attentiveness is falling, and many lectures can now be viewed on YouTube anyway.

Universities could take the first step towards the future by shifting the classroom, with its human scale interaction, to the top of the on-campus education agenda. Much of the common "content" for particular disciplines can be effectively delivered online.

We could turn back to Confucius for a way forward. He said: "I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand." Hearing and seeing is what we call "lean back learning". But doing- via problem solving – is "lean forward learning".

We should be using precious face time in classrooms for these lean forward types of teaching — to ask hard questions, to take part in interactive tasks, for guided problem solving, for working in groups and for engaging with directly and productively with teachers or tutors. Not for "talking at" students en masse. This could lead to a better "productivity of learning" - a measure of how fast and well a concept is learnt.

If students can get through the basic maths, for example, at home using online adaptive eLearning modules which guide them through the steps and give them personalised feedback as they go, wouldn't that mean that universities could concentrate on higher level learning and inquiry and research in class? That is, the future of universities may lie in shifting away from dispensing knowledge on campus towards interpreting and applying knowledge, with consequent gains for innovation.

What will happen next? No one knows. But the fundamentals of this revolution are clear: globally demand for higher education is exceeding the capacity of traditional on-campus institutions to deliver. At the same time as we are developing the technological capacity to deliver personalised, interactive learning online anytime, anywhere to hundreds of millions of people.

This means traditional universities, especially small and medium-sized institutions without the "brand power" or online global presence of players like Harvard and MIT, need to move very fast now to stay relevant, and viable, into the future.

Dr Dror Ben-Naim is a keynote speaker at the Adaptive eLearning Forum (July 13) - an international event hosted by UNSW to discuss the rapid developments in the impending online revolution in higher education. Dr Ben-Naim has a PhD in Intelligent Tutoring Systems and Educational Data Mining from UNSW where he led the adaptive e-learning research group in the School of Computer Science and Engineering.

This opinion piece first appeared in Fairfax's National Times