The Australian government has committed A$200 million (£73 million) to a World Bank plan to offer education and skills training to developing countries via the internet.
The scheme was launched by Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer and World Bank president James Wolfensohn in Sydney last week.
Named the "virtual Colombo plan", after an aid scheme in the 1950s that brought thousands of young Asians to study at Australian universities, the programme will begin early next year.
Funds provided by Australia will help to establish eight distance-education centres in Papua New Guinea, curriculum material for the African Virtual University and 200 electronic scholarships each year for teachers in developing countries.
University lecturers and students will receive help with information technology training, distance-curriculum development, virtual scholarships and policy-making skills. Australia's overseas aid agency, AusAID, will consult with potential providers among Australia's universities over the next few months.
Mr Wolfensohn, an expatriate Australian, put forward the idea during a visit to the Olympic Games in Sydney last year. Australia is the first country to make a public commitment to the plan and has responsibility for the Asia Pacific region and Africa.
The first stage of the multi-government scheme will be the provision of online teaching for primary school children and basic education for teachers. Mr Downer said the A$200 million, to be spent by Australia over the next five years, was a minimum and he would ask the cabinet to put more money into the plan as it developed and ideas flowed in from Australia and developing countries.
A spokesman for Australia's research universities said the plan would complement development in digital education services across the higher education sector. The federal education department is assessing online courses offered by universities to determine which could be adapted for the plan.
But some academics working in Asia have ridiculed the idea of providing electronic learning to impoverished villagers. Ian Campbell, who works in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, said most people living in villages in that country had not even completed primary school.
"These people have no electricity, no telephones and sometimes not enough to eat and Australia plans to provide them with internet access," Dr Campbell said.