Portal a big learning curve

by Fiona Rotherham / 03 December, 2015
An innovative online education project for New Zealand teachers could ultimately go global.
Brain Network
Photo/Thinkstock


Think Government IT projects and chances are cost overruns and under­­delivery come to mind. In the education sector, the Novopay debacle remains fresh in teachers’ memories.

So it may come as a surprise to learn that the Ministry of Education’s biggest IT project is not only fulfilling its educational aims, but also emerging as a groundbreaking business model with global commercial potential.

Crown company Network for Learning (N4L) was set up two years ago, with a multi-year budget of more than $200 million, to offer teachers and students a fully funded internet service with fast connections and uncapped data, as a way to boost learning. N4L’s main aim is to provide public ­services rather than make a financial return, but the Government-led education asset is likely to become a global commercial offering, chiefly through ­providing access to its online learning hub, Pond, or its intellectual property. The eventual aim is financial sustainability.

When Pond won an innovation award at the Hi-Tech Awards in mid-2015, the judges said N4L had gained attention from other countries’ education systems for creating a collaborative edu­cational environment believed to be a world first. The panel said Pond’s solution could become a global commercial opportunity, and the platform and concept had potential in other sectors.

An innovation and commercialisation strategy for content and services is due to go to the Government early next year. The tricky part is keeping the current non-commercial users, teachers, happy while getting value from commercial users to ­balance the taxpayer spend.

Government funding of $211 million goes through to 2020/21 and pays for state, state-integrated and charter schools to be connected to the network and for N4L to provide network services paid for directly by the ministry on behalf of the schools.

The crown company’s 2015/16 statement of performance expectations requires it to produce a plan for “financial resilience to transition to a competitive customer-funded business model without additional equity investment by the Crown”.

POTENTIAL DOLLARS


Chief executive John Hanna is keeping quiet for “commercial-sensitivity” ­reasons on what the strategy contains and the potential earnings are.

“Right now, our primary focus is on delivering benefits to the New Zealand education system,” he says.

Similarly, chairwoman Helen Robinson says it’s a case of “watch this space” until after the report is completed and gets Government sign-off. But she says interest in both the managed network and Pond could lead to a host of commercial possibilities. Associate Education Minister Nikki Kaye, one of two ministers with responsibility for N4L, would only say, in an emailed statement, that she’s pleased with Pond’s progress and believes it has “potentially inno­vative opportunities” that she expects to discuss with its board early in 2016.

Commercialisation options include licensing Pond’s IP and part of the managed network to national or state ministries of education overseas, offering it more widely under a software as a service business model, or charging commercial providers for access, the company says. The portal is already multilingual, operating English and Maori.

“What would Pond look like if it’s in a different country? Should it be one big Pond or lots of different Ponds?” says portal creator Chris South.

Extra sources of revenue may include providing other services to schools on a fully commercial basis. Robinson says schools are increasingly using technology in the classroom, out of school and between schools, and N4L was looking at cheaper ways to give them what else they need as it had built up a “huge degree of expertise and trust with customers”.

There was also interest in N4L’s “systems approach” to rolling out a managed network across New Zealand and commercialisation options include evaluating “where that could be leveraged in other areas”, she says.

RUNNING TO BUDGET


When the managed network was first announced in 2013, there were concerns it could go the same way as the Novopay debacle, which required Government intervention and ran $45 million over budget.

N4L’s performance has largely allayed those fears. Hanna says the project is running to budget and is 18 months ahead of schedule. About 80% of the country’s 2500 public schools connected, and another 10% will be added by the end of the year. The rest are expected to be connected by the middle of next year.

Schools are linked through a secure data network and also get ongoing content filtering and support that helps reduce related IT costs. The high number of end users – 65,000 teachers – has created challenges as has finding ways to connect schools with different IT systems and protocols.

“It’s not just going and dropping a cable in. Training is the secret sauce that has seen that connection rate maintained without having to go back and fix problems,” says South.

N4L paused the rollout after three months to review what had worked and what hadn’t at 200 schools before restarting. It became clear that more time spent upfront discussing each school’s needs saved time and hassle further down the track.

About a fifth of teachers from 850 schools have so far dipped a toe in Pond and are using it for sharing information. The Government’s target is to have 26,000 teachers actively engaged by the end of the 2015/16 year. Three-quarters of a ­million students and their families will join later next year.

Pond has a sophisticated search function designed to make it easy for teachers to find and share learning materials that they can group together, rate and review. It also links to about 400 outside providers free of charge.

Marlborough Boys’ College teacher Giles Lancaster was a pioneer Pond user and is one of its most prolific contributors. The average teacher uploads one learning resource to Pond, whereas Lancaster has contri­buted more than 200.

Teacher collaboration on the material produces better learning outcomes and is preventing “time-wasting” duplication of effort to find new resources, he says.

Massey High School teacher Piata Allen says teachers already take part in a number of shared resource portals, including through social media, but none have Pond’s security. She’s concerned teachers may view Pond as “just another thing” they can use, rather than the one platform in which they should engage. “Time will tell if it is ‘the thing’,” she says.

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