N4L is the biggest tech project ever for the Ministry of Education, and has involved everything from travelling 200,000km around the country, to rushing fibre cables across mudflats between high tides.
Idealog editor Nikki Mandow visited N4L’s Parnell, Auckland office to talk to three members of the leadership team: CEO John Hanna, marketing boss Andy Schick and portal creator Chris South.
It was quite a brief: Connect up 2500 schools, no matter how remote. Oh, and while you are at it, design a totally new system for them to access digital educational resources.
We started in 2013 with a blank sheet of paper. We knew what we needed to do, but not how to do it and make it successful. One of the hard things was that there were so many different end users (2500 schools, 65,000 teachers, 750,000 students), at such different stages in terms of their use of all-things-digital. At one end you might have a small school with no internet access, or even cellphone coverage. At the other end, some teachers were doing very innovative digital things already.
And you needed a system able to support learning for five year olds, up to 18 year olds.
As of the end of March, we have half a million users connected (60% of the total); that means we are several months ahead of schedule and we are within the original budget.
Sandy Brown (L) and Chris South
You chose a hands-off model, which is different to what’s happened in some places overseas. Why?
The more we talked to schools, the more we realised the system had to be incredibly adaptable – and “do no harm”. There was some really innovative stuff going on and the last thing we wanted was to stop any of that.
We decided the walled garden approach used in some countries (where you decide what sort of content or applications are going to be available and what are not) wasn’t going to work here.
Our job was to help schools do what they wanted to do in a safe and managed way – and that varies hugely depending on the school.
For example, some schools have chosen to have no filtering, putting great store on teaching digital citizenship. Others are locked down very tightly; a pedagogically strict school, for example, might decide to block Wikipedia.
In the middle we have designed easy-to-use defaults for teachers who don’t want to think about this stuff.
You talked to lots of schools. What did they want?
Teachers need a system that works – all the time. Like electricity – it just works. With 30 children in front of them they just don’t have time to fiddle with things.
And when things go wrong, they want them fixed, without having to get involved. They don’t have time to ring their ISP and be told that everything looks fine their end, and could they restart their router, or computer, or both, then if that doesn’t work, they could wait in another support queue… We had to develop a system where we could see what’s happening from a school’s end, without having to involve a teacher.
Part of that system is developing partnerships with local IT support companies, often people who already have good relationships with their local school.
How did the education content portal Pond come about?
Our brief was really broad: solve the problem around access to content and services for schools. When we talked to teachers we found there were widely differing levels of awareness of the educational and teaching resources that were available, how to find them, and how to use them. There was a lack of equity.
Even with the people who were doing great things already, there was no easy, safe mechanism to share with others; some teachers were sharing in an ad hoc way, in some cases in an unsuitable environment. For example some teachers were using You Tube to share material, and get comments from other teachers – but that was opening them up to trolls.
We wanted to create an environment to enable sharing. Pond is unique. It’s a collaborative online environment bringing together teachers, school administrators (and eventually students) and linking them with each other and with other providers of content and services.
So you knew what the problem was; how did you go about finding a solution?
Philosophically, our position is not to tell people what they have to do – we aren’t qualified to do that and things are changing so fast, you need a system that’s adaptable. We saw our role to enable and challenge – to set up a framework and see what New Zealand does with it.
We knew we would have to iterate towards it; we have changed design and functionality in Pond because we have seen people use it in a way we never expected.
But at the same time we had a duty of care to provide an environment tailored for individual schools and what the board and principal want.
Were there models available overseas?
To our knowledge, Pond has not been done before, though there are bits of Pond available overseas. What we are provided, when we launched in May last year, is a place where teachers can be vulnerable, where they can have conversations around what they don’t know, where they can share what they have done, what works and doesn’t work.
You have 53 staff now, the majority techies with backgrounds in the private sector. What do you look for in your workforce?
We employ people who have a high level of technical competence and a cyclical, iterative way of looking at a project. Interestingly we have found this has nothing to do with age. It’s totally wrong that good tech people all have to be 20.
It's not just about development skills, it's about experience, about constant optimism; wanting to fail, but to fail quickly and do the next thing quickly. It’s about people who are humble. It’s an amazingly complex project and some of our people really do know pretty much everything. But they don’t need to tell everyone how great they are.
That brash, high-energy IT start-up culture doesn’t work when you are trying to gain the trust of a bunch of teachers. You need people with a calm, humble delivery
The other crucial thing is that you need to have people that care about the project. It’s not just a job, it's more than that. We aren't just creating technology, we are making a huge difference to the equity of opportunity for the next generation of New Zealanders in classrooms.
When you go out to a remote school on the edge of the Hokianga Harbour, with a single copper wire phone line and no cellphone coverage, and then one day, while the tide is out, you lay a cable through the mud flats and suddenly these kids have the same digital learning experience as a decile 10 school in Auckland.
That’s when we get excited.