In recent years, distance learning programs – where students can gain qualifications without ever setting foot on campus – have become a massive revenue opportunity for education institutions across Australia. Between 2007 and 2012 the sector reportedly grew by an impressive 20 per cent, and was estimated to be worth $5.09 billion (US $4.68 billion) in 2012, according to ICEF Monitor. Over the next 10 years further growth is predicted from international students in Asia seeking Australian taught programs, which could see the country become one of the world’s leading providers of online education. 

The opportunity is largely being driven by people wishing to return to education alongside their careers using recent technological advances which makes it easy to study remotely. So how can colleges and universities across Australia update their distance learning programs to ensure they’re cutting edge and using the most up to date technology, which attracts the best talent to deliver a share of the revenue available?

One education institution stealing a march is the University of New England (UNE), based in North-Central New South Wales. The university is currently rolling out Microsoft Lync 2013, the largest deployment of its kind within the APAC education sector, to provide its 23,000 students and staff communication and collaboration capabilities anytime and from virtually anywhere.

With 80 per cent of its students already studying online, UNE is enhancing its communication platform for all students, delivering an interactive educational experience regardless of whether they are in the classroom or not. Undoubtedly, face-to-face communication is the most effective means of interaction, and Microsoft Lync’s video conferencing features deliver this capability to UNE’s distance learning programs. Students also need to be able to rapidly communicate with lecturers and peers to achieve a streamlined and superior learning experience, and Lync’s instant messaging and voice call features enable this as well.

The learning advantages enabled by Microsoft Lync do not stop there, however. The rise of people studying later in life means universities must consider those tasked with juggling work and family commitments alongside their studies. Microsoft Lync’s capabilities allow students to comfortably achieve this delicate balance, making UNE an attractive proposition for people looking to re-enter the education system.

UNE’s collaborative distance learning programs will also prepare students for remote working processes, which are becoming a common feature in the workplace. Being familiar and experienced in working outside traditional environments will help make UNE’s students an attractive proposition to Australian and global organisations.

Through Skype’s connectivity with Microsoft Lync, UNE can also reach an international audience and attract a larger talent pool. For example, potential international and interstate students interested in the university will be able to call UNE on Skype, whereas previously they would have incurred international call charges. Additionally, UNE has plans to leverage the broader Microsoft hardware platform, in particular Xbox, PixelSense and Surface, which will only enhance its offerings.

It’s great to see UNE embrace and invest in a truly unified communication platform that removes the “distance” from distance learning programs to accommodate the rise in online learning. Working with Microsoft, the university will be able to use an innovative, collaborative and effective communication platform to deliver a superior learning experience that enables UNE to stand out from the education crowd.