E-learning could be a key vehicle for new collaborative arrangements in higher education sought by the government, a conference heard this week.
It might also open up markets and help institutions to play to their strengths. But univer- sities hoping to exploit the medium will have to be prepared to work with private partners and to invest significant time and resources themselves, delegates at the THES -supported e-learning conference in Manchester heard.
Tony Toole, director of online services for Camarthenshire College, said the flexibility and freedom provided by e-learning had knock-on implications for competition, course development and potential collaboration in further and higher education.
He said that joint development and ownership of courses made more sense, and duplication of programmes less sense, when they were available online.
Professor Toole said: "If the whole sector could pool the best material and use it collaboratively, there is real potential for cost-effective development.
"I know we live in a competitive world, and who is going to develop a world-beating course just to give it to their competitors? But it's not just the material that counts - it's what you do with it and whether you have the brand and the expertise to exploit it."
This kind of thinking has led further and higher education institutions in Wales to create a South West Wales e-learning consortium, which is sharing the development of courses to meet training needs.
Professor Toole said: "It took us nearly a year to sort the politics out, but once we got there it really did work."
Drummond Bone, vice-chancellor of Liverpool University, warned that institutions planning to enter the e-learning market should realise they will need the financial backing and the customer focus of the private sector to succeed.
Liverpool has 1,350 e-learning students on information technology masters courses that were developed with the backing of its Dutch corporate partner, KIT.
Professor Bone said: "It's not an easy option, and you should not underestimate the timescale involved. It took us three years before we were actually into delivery.
"The good news is that it does seem to work, both from the corporate customers' and the students' point of view.
"The fact is as well that it has taught us a lot about how we can improve courses for our regular students."