Vodafone xone Innovators Series: Linewize's Scott Noakes on how to control internet usage at school

Vodafone xone Innovators Series: Linewize's Scott Noakes on how to control internet usage at school

To mark the arrival of the Vodafone xone business acceleratorIdealog is interviewing a whole heap of established New Zealand innovators, as well as the founders of the 10 startups selected by Vodafone to receive mentorship, funding and the potential benefits of working with a global network. One of the lucky ten is Linewize, developer of an app that helps control internet use in schools. We chat with founder Scott Noakes.

Ben Fahy, Idealog's publisher and editorial director: Scott, as the queen might say to Mick Jagger, what do you do and how did you come to be doing it?

Sure. Linewize is a startup we founded in Christchurch. And what we do is we help teachers manage internet access in the classroom. In this age of bring your own device, and the basic devices used in the classroom, we help teachers understand how students are using their devices educate digital citizenship, and also control internet use in the classroom.

The internet might be classified as a blessing and a curse, the blessing in that it's indexed most of the world's information, and made it accessible, but the curse in that it's not all suitable for kids. You don't want to limit, obviously, the learning opportunities, but you don't want them accessing inappropriate stuff. How do you manage that conflict?

That's the great challenge is that there are certainly things that are inappropriate and have no right to be in the classroom environment. We certainly take care of that. That inappropriate behaviour, we estimate to be between 1 and 2% of a child's internet use. What we're really concerned and focused on is distracted behaviour. That can affect 20% of students, where we should be having their attention focused at the lesson at hand, and on education. Instead we've got the world of internet, and entertainment, competing for their attention. In a classroom environment that can prove quite challenging and difficult for a teacher to manage. We provide teachers a very simple dashboard that allows them to understand which students are on task, which students are off task, and even what students are offline pursuing their own activity.

The teachers already have a fairly hard job, as the analogy goes, herding cats, without having to add this kind of thing in to it. Technology is used as a way to make things more efficient, to free up time for more productive activities. Is that something that you're aiming at with this product for teachers as well?

I think for us it's really helping the teacher to make sure the device is used for what it's good for. There are many lesson activities which are best pursued without devices, but equally there are just as many where digital technologies can make a massive difference to the children's learning, certainly around research. There's no need for books, or resource material. Everything you need is on the internet. We can help teachers to understand how these devices are being used, and ensure that students are on task, and engaged with the lesson, and allow them to understand which students are being distracted, and help re-engage them with the lesson.

You're primarily focused on schools at the moment, and you're in around 100 of them. You have a range of other products aimed at different sectors as well. Was that a case of looking for the best opportunity and seeing what sticks? Do you need to be adaptable and move to where the market is, rather than where you think it might be?

We specifically chose education for a number of reasons. Primarily that's where we saw the need was greatest. There's a massive amount of change happening in education, around integrating devices, the internet, SAAS products for teaching maths, or reading, or whatever. We really saw that teachers needed better tools in the classrooms, and schools needed better tools to manage internet access and what we saw was that traditional vendors would just shoehorn product designs for businesses, and corporate, into education. They didn't fit from either a price, or functionality perspective. We saw there was a unique opportunity to combine the changes in education, with the changes that are happening around telecoms, around big data, around network access, commodity hardware, and so forth, and provide a unique education specific solution, which at the time, no one else seemed to be doing.

That's often the way with technology where it seems to work better at home than it may do in the office or in the school. Is that something that needs to be increased, and improved?

I think so. This is one of the really attractive things about having the Vodafone Xone opportunity. We've always believed there's a great opportunity to help parents in a residential setting to understand, and control their internet use in the home. But to get there's quite challenging and the Vodafone Xone is an awesome opportunity for us to have conversations with one of the world's largest ISPs to understand what they're looking for in a residential product, and to understand how we can deliver that with the technology we've developed.

There's some concern, much of it proven to be warranted, that technology has led to maybe too much surveillance and has the potential to become slightly Orwellian if it's used in the wrong way. How do you get that balance right between ensuring you don't veer into creepiness, and instead you're useful?

I think this is one of the conversations of our time. Just as we understand what privacy means in the real world, we also have to define what privacy means in the virtual world. I guess when it comes to website use, yes, we have offered an ability to understand how students are using the internet, but what we won't do is actually drill down into what they're doing on a particular website. And the way we liken that is you can go to your doctor's waiting room, a stranger can sit next to you, it's perfectly fine that they're aware that you're going to the doctor, but if that same stranger sat in on your consultation, that would be a gross invasion of privacy. That's where we believe the line should be drawn and that in a school environment, it's fine for the school to understand which websites, or applications the student is using, but it's not okay to actually understand what they're writing on Facebook, or interrogate those personal conversations within a website, or within an application. That's where we define that line of privacy. We think that is a good place for it to be.

One of the things you're trying to incubate is some critical thinking in kids to understand what they're looking at. And as you’ve said, you learn from your choices. What have you learned from some of your choices over the years? Have mistakes led to revelations that you're now using to make this a success?

I think the internet is challenging for everyone in that to try and keep your attention focused on the task at hand is often challenging, especially when there's more interesting, other things to be doing. I think everyone faces that, whether in a workplace, or a student in school. I use a product which tells me how much time I spend to work on various things. It's very useful to have that visibility to understand that if I could halve the amount of time I spend emailing, I could save myself two hours a day. Having the visibility to understand how you use the internet is great feedback for improving on how you use it. And what we find in classrooms is that teachers primarily use this as way to reward engaged behaviour, to understand students who are doing some really deep inquiry, and exemplify that behaviour by giving in-class rewards. These students are really engaged and really on task. This is the behaviour we like to see, and model that behaviour so that other students can follow.

I don't think I'm alone in seeing many of my hours drift away looking at Facebook, and scrolling mindlessly. Is it a case of maybe not knowing what you're doing online, and having that data to be able to give you some feedback, and actually say that this isn't the best use of time?

There's an opportunity for better tools to manage this. One of the things we could do with our product is allow people in the work place to focus use. So if you're clearing your email, that's all you can do. You can't click on a link through to Facebook or something else. Providing that assistance around managing how you spend your time on the internet, identifying which applications you spend time on. Also, as far as inappropriate behaviour things goes, to delegate those decisions down to the team, so the team in that organisation can decide what appropriate internet access looks like and then agree on a policy. And then if anyone is spending all day on YouTube, you've got some factual data in your team to call them out saying, "Hey, we agreed to do this. You were doing that. Can you explain why, and can we stop it?" Again, visibility and transparency is something we're quite passionate about making a difference for how people manage their time on the internet.

You've already had success starting, and then selling a business. It's called Ad Scale. Can you tell us a little bit about that. Did you need the help with this accelerator program?

Yeah, I was certainly part of Ad Scale I had no equity in it. We did grow it from a green fields startup as an employee, through to commercial sale in Germany. I had no other interest in it apart from an employee, but it was a great opportunity to learn about cloud-based technology, to learn about building great teams, and agile software development. As far as starting Linewize goes, it's very much been very bootstrapped and cash poor for the time. But we've done pretty well on the resources we had.

I think they call it investor storytime, isn't it? The potential is immense, I imagine.

Yes it is. We've been fortunate to receive our first round of funding from Punakaiki. That means that we can start looking abroad and getting our product overseas. We just returned from two edtech conferences, one in Brisbane, and one in Denver and there are certainly a mass of overseas potential for our products.

Maybe to finish, Scott, technology is changing the way kids learn, and adults are learning. What are your predictions for the future? Do you see kids immersed in virtual reality headsets? Do you a see a complete re-organisation of the education system?

My prediction is that it's very hard to predict anything. I would say certainly the very base role of what school is, and why it is, is being challenged, and re-imagined, and I think is great opportunity to have far more engaged learners actually pursuing their interests, and talents, rather than what our system currently produces, for a long time has been a cookie cutter approach to produce the same kind of people out the other end of it. With all these changes, I think there's a massive need for kids to learn how to collaborate, to express themselves, and I think there's going to be some very interesting changes in education around that.

We look forward to seeing what happens. Scott, thank you very much for your time.

Cheers Ben. Appreciate the opportunity to have a chat.

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With me now is Nicole Buisson, head of the Vodafone Xone programme. Nicole, so what's the secret sauce that Linewize is heating up?

Linewize helps us think about kids being online, in the same way that we think about them maybe riding a bike, or crossing the road, or taking the bus to school. It's something that we can teach them to do safely. So it normalises kids being online. As parents, not having visibility into what our kids are doing,can be a bit scary at times.

Vodafone has already dabbled in the realm of digi-parenting, and how technology is changing the way you interact with your kids, some of the restrictions you might need to put on, some of the learning they need to do. In your experience, what works best? Carrot, or stick?

I think it's actually a mixture of both. In terms of a stick there's certain things we don't want kids to be seeing at all. Also we need to educate our kids to be able to make the decisions themselves. So when they see something maybe that they don't like online they need to say, "Hey, I don't need to look at that. I can stop looking at that."

Just as the kids may not know how their time is being spent, do you feel as though the parents may not know how to approach this change in society?

I think that's absolutely what we find. Parents often don't know. When I was growing up, the internet didn't exist, so it's new for parents. We have a whole lot of resources on a digi-parenting website that are freely available that help parents get educated. We've got things like some questions that can help you together with your kids, like designing a contract with how they use the internet, defining how much screen time they get, who they should share their passwords with, who they should and shouldn't be chatting with, that kind of thing.

Do you see this as a pretty good fit for some of the products that you might be rolling out in this market or other markets?

Absolutely. Linewize, at the moment, has a focus on teachers. At Vodafone, at the moment, we're focusing on parents. You can imagine combining those and having a focus on both.

The founders are pretty experienced. They already have some success under their belt. What do you think you can add to that?

There's a couple of things. Firstly, they're very experienced but Vodafone as a business, has a pretty big global network. Expanding internationally is something they're looking to do. Perhaps through connections we can help them out. Again, it's integrating what we've been doing at Vodafone, in terms of digi-parenting, perhaps in to their product that they can then take out to their customers.

What do you say is the biggest challenges for Linewize?

I think one of the biggest challenges is probably selling in to schools is a pretty fragmented business, so schools have their own IT systems. One of the challenges I think is how they go about doing that. They've used a really unique partnering approach, where they partner with the school's IT providers to actually sell to schools.

Is that one of the big lessons, you think that other innovators can take out of this that many hands, make light work?

Yes. I think that would definitely be one of the key lessons, as well as focusing your business model around solving a real problem. The issue of keeping kids safe online is something that's really topical at the moment, and something that's really important to parents.