The heads of United Kingdom universities need to look up from their check-out tills and prepare for radical change by asking hard questions about their mission, values and purposes, according to Sir John Daniel, vice-chancellor of the Open University.
Sir John told academics, new education providers and technology enablers at the "Internet Education Revolution" conference in London that the process would have great benefits.
"Napoleon once called England a nation of shopkeepers, and meetings of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals often resemble a convention of academic shopkeepers. If the threat of the e-commerce of ideas leads us to raise our sights from our check-out tills and review our fundamental purposes it will do us a power of good," he said.
But Sir John warned of the dangers of adopting new technologies to underpin learning.
"To predict a permanent, turning-upside-down revolution in something so profoundly rooted in the human experience as education is a brave act. We've been here many times before. The idea of education technology as an intellectual forklift truck that can carry us to greater heights has a long pedigree," he said.
The inventors of the blackboard, motion pictures, televisions and computers had successively been hailed as the harbingers of a revolution in education, Sir John said.
"If all the technologies that I have mentioned had delivered even a small proportion of the education revolution that was anticipated by the enthusiasts when they were introduced, then surely the UK government of the year 2000 would not need to have 'education, education, education' as its key priority," Sir John said.
Sir John added that he was not a Luddite but a pragmatist and sceptic. "The OU is in a different position from most other universities which are seizing hold of the internet as if it were the map to a buried treasure. The treasure is, of course, distance and distributed learning.
"The OU has both the advantage and the handicap of having carried out distance teaching successfully for 30 years."
Sir John said that university education was a complex process and using technology as if it were just about information transfer was not likely to add much value. "The internet is such a remarkable technological advance that we must devote our best intellects to ensuring that it promotes, rather than undermines, the millennial ideal of the university. If we do our job well, the internet could indeed become the most revolutionary innovation in education since the invention of printing with moveable type," he said.