Schools don’t need to worry about the cost of getting fibre service, or the safety of the connection. It was almost like a weight taken off their shoulders.
Jeremy Nees of Network for Learning (N4L) is not surprised how he moved into the chief operating officer post, after three years as chief technology officer at the Crown company.
“I have always enjoyed the mix of technology and business,” says Nees, having moved to his current role just before the year end.
The N4L was formed by the government in 2013 to build a managed network for New Zealand schools. The participating schools get access to fast, reliable Internet with uncapped data, web filtering and network security
“To a large extent we are a technology company,” he explains. “Technology is our business. It fits quite naturally around a lot of what we do.”
Before N4L, his roles included sales and product manager for Vocus, and also enterprise architect and product manager at Maxnet.
“I have always been interested in not just the technology side of things, but how that works as part of the business,” says Nees.
A standout experience for him at N4L is hearing the reports from the company's teams that have connected the schools to the network.
“There was just the relief in the community, in the schools that this is one less thing they had to worry about,” he says.
“They don’t need to worry about the cost of getting fibre service, or the safety of the connection. It was almost like a weight taken off their shoulders.”
He recalls that before the network was rolled out, some schools had to schedule the time classes could use the internet.
Our support is very proactive. We use analytics to predict potential issues and problems before they may occur.
He explains that because the network is centrally managed, schools do not need to support their own internet connection and related services, reducing ICT complexity and costs.
“They can spend more time and resources on teaching and learning. N4L takes care of their technology infrastructure,” he explains.
Today, more than 2400 schools across the North and South Islands are connected to the network.
N4L also runs portal Pond, where schools and teachers are able to find excellent content, connect with their peers and share ideas they are using in the classroom. “They do not have to reinvent the wheel. They can grow from what the other teachers are doing,” he explains.
Nees says the schools are also able to access how much online services they are using.
“It is always good to provide transparency around what is happening and understand that they are getting a good level of services.
“We want people to be able to see that stuff, so they have got the confidence we are providing service equity.”
The Crown company had also won the technology-enabled community category at the inaugural CIO100 awards in New Zealand.
While they are a Crown company, he notes some of the issues they face are not too dissimilar with those in the private sector.
Be in the shoes of the customer
Nees explains how they view the imperative to become customer centric and get continuous feedback from users, so they can continuously improve the system and services.
You talk to schools and it is amazing to hear what they are doing around robotics, gamification in education. There is no shortage of ideas out there.
“Speaking to the customers a lot is really important,” he says. “We understood the school context and how it was different from delivering services to businesses or to homes.
“We need to get some appreciation for the environment in which we are going to be working. This is to make sure what we were doing was built for them and tailored to what the school’s needs were, as opposed to trying to just assume they were like any other user group.”
He says at the start of the project, the N4L staff talked to a lot of schools and communities, understanding what the challenges they foresaw and how they operate differently.
“What we ended up doing, was coming back and really ensuring what we provided was something that allowed schools to maintain high level of autonomy and choice,” he says.
He says there was an initial period upfront where they piloted the network with a number of schools before they went into full rollout mode.
“We continue to seek feedback from the schools,” he says.
“Some of that relates to the technology, some of that was around, how can we improve the sign-up process?
“A lot of it was around how we manage change and communications, as opposed to technology changes,” he says.
Nees says N4L also has a group of educators who talk to the teachers and users of the network, and bring that feedback into the business.
“They bring that knowledge back internally and make sure they influence what we do and how we do it,” he states.
“You can't just rely on a bunch of people who sit in a room to create a product.”
N4L conducts a number of surveys throughout the year. These are to gauge a school's level of satisfaction with their transition to the managed network, the performance of their support services, and how they find the first six months of using its services.
In November, the survey results showed 94 per cent of the schools felt more confident implementing their digital strategy as a result of being connected, while 71 per cent have increased their use of digital technology within the first six months of connecting.
“That is high for a provider in our space,” says Nees.
Data driven decisions and innovation
An area they share with the enterprise sector is the growing recognition of the need to be data-driven.
“We had to work with and partner with schools and organisations to pull that together, and have a picture of the schools and the environment.
They deployed Raspberry Pis to each school to monitor the health of connections, alerting them if anything appears to be impacting performance.
“The Rasperry Pis are effectively a sensor network,” he states. “It provides information about what a school may be experiencing.”
Schools can also monitor the health of their connections through Pond, N4L’s online learning hub.
“We also run some big data analytics internally that allows us to have this point of difference - our support is very proactive,” says Nees.
“We use that to predict potential issues and problems before they may occur,” he states.
“A lot of what we do is around enabling a lot of innovation to happen in the school, as opposed to being the source of ideas.
“You talk to schools and it is amazing to hear what they are doing around robotics, gamification in education. There is no shortage of ideas out there.
“It is good to be able to stimulate that and see what comes to the fore,” he states. “We learn from that and maybe help other schools who do not have the same level of capability, to also take advantage of some of those things.
“We don’t necessarily transform what happens in the classrooms, but we enable the teachers and the community to do that.”
Working with business units, partners and the community
Nees says the network also faces the challenge of scaling services that are at par with some of the country’s largest corporates.
“The other day we were trying to figure out how many businesses have a single office that have more people in it than one of the largest schools on the network.''
These will be big businesses whose offices are spread out all over the country, he says. With a school they are all in a single location.
How many businesses have a single office that have more people in it than one of the largest schools on the network?
For example, when the largest school connected to the network, it had over 3000 users on it, says Nees.
“We were thinking just the amount of devices that are connected would be something that you will see throughout lots of industries. And we can expect that [the number of devices] to grow considerably,” he says.
“It is not just people being connected, but machine to machine, the Internet of Things,” says Nees, on what they expect to work with in the future.
Other national organisations have expressed interest in the N4L model, he says. One of these is Glow, which is also a national environment for learning in Scotland.
“I would say the approach of the government around UFB (Ultra-Fast Broadband, RBI (Rural Broadband Initiative) and prioritisation of schools throughout the country, is typically far ahead from the rest of the world.
“We think what we have here is something that is quite special.”
It is not only the size of New Zealand that gives them an advantage, he says.
While the country is quite small, some of the challenges geographically and the density of population has made it really tricky to get connections in some areas, he says.
He estimates there are around 50 schools located in very remote locations. “There is an interesting effort to get into all those schools,” he says, with a smile.
They have had the team sign up schools that can only be reached at the end of a gravel road, with bush all around. In one such school, “somebody popped out of the bush and pointed to the school that is up the hill.”
Another school was located at the edge of the lake. “We had to wait for the low tide in order to roll out the cables and get the cabling across the estuary,” he says.
So what are some of the things that worked for them at N4L that he can impart to other ICT executives?
“Always challenge the status quo,” he says, “and think about how things can be done differently.
“Be risk aware but not risk averse,” he advises.
“That has been really important for how we manage to take advantage of an opportunity. It is understanding the risk and going, ‘Is it worth us taking that?’”
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