E-learning guru Steve Molyneux has been appointed director of a national research centre that will investigate the impact of information technology on education, training and employment.
The Department for Education and Employment's research centre will conduct, commission and coordinate research into the effect of information and communications technology on these areas.
Professor Molyneux, who holds the Microsoft chair of advanced learning technology at Wolverhampton University and is an expert in delivering education through the internet, said: "The government's aim is to make the United Kingdom the most networked community in Europe."
Professor Molyneux is seeking funds from industry to beef up research in learning technologies. The centre will draw up a database of researchers, with a rapid response team able to give ministers information on what research exists on particular topic areas. It will translate the research into summaries to help ministers and civil servants understand new developments. It also aims to commission relevant research where none exists.
Professor Molyneux said, in a lecture at the University of Abertay Dundee, that less than two years ago, the idea that a university education could be delivered via a computer did not seem feasible. But many overseas universities were now offering entire degree programmes online.
"We are recognised as having the best education system in the world, but we are not fully exploiting it in terms of the global market," he said.
Professor Molyneux warned that universities must take e-learning seriously if they were to succeed in attracting students.
"The students starting to arrive are very IT and net aware. We've found students don't just ask what's the nightlife like, what's the male-female ratio, but what's the student-PC ratio?" he said.
Wolverhampton is a pioneer of technology-enhanced learning, which is used by almost a third of students -more than 8,000 individuals.
"Our strategy is that by the summer of this year, all foundation and first-year modules will be supported online; by 2005-06, all undergraduate programmes; and by 2008, all undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. Then we will be capable of being a true e-university," Professor Molyneux said.
He said some departments were tinkering with e-learning, but it must be put on a par with institutional teaching and learning strategies, and integrated into the curriculum.
Professor Molyneux added: "The fear is that IT is there to automate the process, but cognitive processes can't be automated, and good lecturers can't be replaced."
Wolverhampton's staff had found many benefits from reduced class contact time as a result of e-learning. They could devote more time to students who needed extra support, carry out more research and develop better e-learning courses.
"The biggest problem I can see is getting collaboration among higher education institutions. The new universities are already primed for collaboration, but I get the feeling that the traditional universities are still sitting in ivory towers," he said.
The centre's first conference will be held from June 18 to 22 at Wolverhampton's Telford campus.