Developments such as tele-medicine, where students can watch operations via a live television link, have encouraged the move. The networked medical school plan would differ from the traditional OU course in that it would be full-time. There would be on-line seminars and course work would be done at home.
"We will not have students cutting up bodies on the kitchen table. It is not a case of lessons by self-instruction," said Janet Grant, the OU's professor of education in medicine. Instead of being grouped together at a teaching hospital, students will attend courses and work at centres at a series of general district hospitals and will be backed up by local tutors.
However, the degree is likely to be aimed at post-graduates and a foundation course, run in the conventional OU fashion, would be offered to students converting to medicine. It would offer a basic science syllabus, laboratory work and residential courses. Much of the work will be done at home using CD Roms and texts.
Professor Grant said the OU did not intend to replace the hands-on nature of traditional medical courses. "You can never substitute for clinical practice. You can't work on an electronic patient and then be released onto real patients," she said.
The plan could tie in with Government plans to tackle the shortfall of medical students. An extra 1,000 doctors must qualify each year to satisfy demand, despite the fact that many medical schools are at breaking point, according to a recent report.