OPINION: Over the past couple of years we’ve been literally tearing down the walls of our 19th and 20th century classrooms to revolutionise the way we teach and the way our students learn. The result is a 21st century university art and design school and the end of a very significant era in education, dating back millennia to when the first groups of students sat captivated at their masters’ feet.

Over centuries our educational infrastructure has been built to accommodate a one-way communication model. Conventional classrooms and lecture halls were designed to enable the learned, the so-called sage on the stage, to impart their knowledge to the many in the most efficient manner then available, given the limitations of communications technology of the time.

We’ve long known, however, that having one person stand up in front of a class or large group doesn’t get the best results. As Confucius so famously said; “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

While great teachers will always be at the heart of great education, no matter where they teach and whatever their surrounds, the design and flexibility of the buildings we teach and learn in, and the infrastructure and technology embedded within them, can go a long way to enhancing educational experiences and outcomes.

In our re-imagined and rebuilt campus, UNSW Art and Design (formerly COFA), we are teaching for a globalised, ultra-networked future in which the most important skills our graduates will take away are transferable across disciplines — like creativity, originality and the ability to size up and solve complex problems.

While proficiencies working with a particular craft skill, design software or even the evocative sweep of a student’s paintbrush on canvas can tell us a lot about today’s achievements there is only one thing we know for certain about the future. That is, the profound, disruptive changes digital technologies have unleashed will continue to take us in directions we haven’t even dreamed of. A truly valuable art and design education prepares students to work critically and innovatively, no matter what our future societies and economies throw at them.

So what does our new school look like? We have retained the heritage shell of our original 19th century buildings because they are an important part of our history as the site of one of Sydney’s early schools. Beyond that, however, imagine what the real world equivalent of a user-centred website might look like.

Real world architecture is emulating the networked models of virtual worlds, and that makes good sense. On a location-based campus, students can learn directly from teachers and each other, access state-of-the art studios, new technologies and facilities and interact using a wide range of flexible, open working spaces they ordinarily wouldn’t be able to access. Students bring whatever of their own technology they like to ‘plug in’ and so can remain constantly linked to their own external virtual networks or the school’s own large community of collaborators and contacts.

A student might, for example, develop a concept at home, bring it in on a digital device, use the maker space to print it out as an object using a 3D printer, discuss it with their peers or liaise with a lecturer, and then take it back home and share it with a different community online before working on a new iteration of the idea, remotely or on campus. Real and virtual interaction is integrated, as is the transition from digital concept to real world object or artwork.

While art and design education might still suffer from a ‘berets, paint smocks and easels’ stereotype, in fact creativity ranges across an almost infinite number of media.

It’s vital that art and design schools link students to both facilities and creative communities and individuals they mightn’t otherwise be able to access. That might be a surround-sound recording studio, a high-end photographic studio with the latest lights and cyclorama, a hi-tech maker space or a new digital gallery with a myriad ways to project or view images and light. And it might be that an incidental conversation in a studio or in the courtyard allows one student to teach another how to work with a new technology, or suggests a different way to think. By ensuring learning is dominated by doing, not watching or listening, we know students can get the most out of their on-campus and virtual experiences.

The intellectual backdrop to every great art and design school is the role of art in challenging conventional world views and asking hard, often uncomfortable questions. That’s why combining art and design practice with research and theoretical inquiry is so important.

It is becoming ever more apparent that critical and creative ways of thinking are vital to understanding our modern world. Which means the same goes for great art and design schools.

Why? Because artists and designers understand our image saturated, mediatised, experiential and material world. Their creativity, originality and inventiveness elicit deep human responses to the most perplexing aspects of contemporary life.

Whatever our future holds one thing is for certain: we need more real world critical spaces of inquiry to engage, encourage and support the most creative thinkers and makers of our times.

Professor Ross Harley is the Dean of UNSW Art & Design, formerly COFA. The campus in Paddington will be officially relaunched today.

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian.