Established higher education providers were warned last week that the "death of distance" gave new competitors a strategic weapon in the battle for customers.
Michael Zastrocky, vice-president of academic strategies at Gartner Group, told delegates to the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association management conference in Glasgow that new commercial interests as well as established players were targeting profit-rich elements of higher education.
"The death of distance is here. It does not matter whether you are close by or on the other side of the world. Your competitors are cherry-picking easy-to-deliver, high-demand and lower-cost courses," Dr Zastrocky said.
He cited a recent Gartner Group study of 300 universities that offered some insights into how institutions could develop distributed learning strategies.
Institutions will have to identify what makes them unique, their strongest markets and areas of common ground where they can collaborate. They will also have to understand that distributed learning does not mean the delivery of budget savings.
"If anything, in the short term it is more expensive. It is also not a question of doing more with less but also doing it differently," Dr Zastrocky said.
Collaboration is the key to practical development of distributed learning resources. The study indicated that most institutions first moved into distributed learning markets by developing content in-house but that they rapidly outsourced significant parts of the process. However, the close involvement of faculty in the development of course materials appeared to play a significant role in the "survival rate" of students, Dr Zastrocky said.
Institutions also need to pay close attention to "retraining and retooling" of staff with adequate support if they are to retain their best professionals.
Yves Epelboin, professor of computational physics and information systems at Pierre et Marie Curie University, Paris, urged delegates to seek a uniquely European solution to the development of distributed learning.
Professor Epelboin, also president of Eunis, the European Information Systems Organisation, said that lessons could be learned from the American experience but that the higher education cultures between the two continents differed drastically.
He bemoaned the fact that information systems professionals were uniquely positioned to enable distributed learning development models in Europe but could not find a visible funding niche in the European Union framework. "As we have no money, we must share experience," he said.