CIO100 2017 #31-100: John Hanna, Network for Learning
“Our job is to reduce this complexity for schools, making sure teachers and students can release the throttle on fantastic learning, equipped as confident, connected learners prepared for 21st century success,” says John Hanna, CEO at Network for Learning (N4L).
“Through innovation behind the scene, we are able to offer a service that meets and exceeds the ever-increasing demand and expectation from our customers, the schools of New Zealand.
N4L is a Crown-owned company created and owned by New Zealand’s central government and created to improve educational outcomes through the effective use of technology. It connects schools to a fully-funded managed network, and provides a digital content and services platform for educators and students.
Last year marked the completion of the N4L Managed Network rollout to nearly 800,000 students and teachers from 2400-plus schools across New Zealand.
“Our objective was to build a managed network for all schools and to build it with them,” says Hanna. “We exist to provide schools equitable access to the digital world and to support them in that.
“Success can also be measured by the social impact within schools, as they can now explore new learning opportunities presented through safe, fast, reliable, uncapped access to the digital world,” says Hanna.
“Feedback provided by our partners has been overwhelmingly positive, with schools indicating their increased confidence in implementing digital learning strategies since connecting to N4L’s Managed Network.”
Seeing the impact personally in schools further fuels the passion and drive of N4L’s team, resulting in improved business performance. The company is actively ‘in the field’, engaging with schools to ensure each connection package is tailored to their individual needs in terms of both speed and support, he says.
The ongoing success of the managed network is dependent on a continuous programme of innovation in the delivery of services, along with investment in developing new products and features designed to enhance the quality of the services the company delivers.
“To achieve our milestones ahead of schedule and well within budget, and to support our collaborative school-centric approach, N4L developed innovative technology solutions that mashed together a combination of cost-effective open source applications.
“Some of these apps monitor the progress and performance of our own operations and our third-party contractors, allowing the company’s support team and IT partners to proactively support schools and facilitate a faster rollout in a cost-effective manner.”
They also provide greater visibility among key stakeholders via a series of secure, visually compelling dashboards. Schools can also view their relevant dashboards via Pond, so they are able to monitor the performance of their connection.
For example, a ‘school design’ application developed by N4L has expedited the rollout by generating the most suitable setup of every school's’ connection, in accordance with its individual needs and physical layout. An N4L-developed ‘statement of work cost calculator’, generates the costs of using local ICT providers for the 50-60 per cent of schools that did not already use one.
Another innovation was the deployment of Raspberry Pis to every school. They monitor the health of connections, enabling the company to identify issues before they impact a school. These devices feed information into N4L’s support team dashboards, so staff can better understand how schools use the internet.
“Developing innovative technology solutions to achieve our milestones ahead of schedule and well within budget, has been critical to ensure costs remain in check,” he states.
“As a publicly-funded organisation, we are very conscious of the need to be prudent in how we use public money.”
Meanwhile, a continuous programme of innovation is embedded into the workflow of every team. Further, the executive team ensures they dedicate a fixed number of hours every week innovating ‘on the business’ versus ‘in the business’ (an average of one day/month).
“This year we embarked on an intensive design-thinking programme, visiting schools across the country and listening to a wide range of educators. We will use these insights to inform the products and services to be developed and delivered in the coming year.
“Fundamentally, schools need seamless internet connectivity that ‘just works,’ when, how and where they need it, so their learning is not impeded by inadequate or unaffordable bandwidth,” he says.
The company’s primary ‘raison d’etre’ is centred around equity: working together with government and technology partners to ensure every young person has access to the digital world for learning, no matter where they go to school.
With almost every school connected and data consumption skyrocketing, and with new cyber security threats continuously emerging, the complexity around providing anytime, anywhere learning is increasing he says
Hanna says the N4L Board meets monthly, setting the strategic direction and reviewing dashboard images of where the company’s performance sits against its objectives. While the N4L Leadership Team meets weekly and includes eight C-level positions.
As well the company attends monthly meetings where the performance against agreed targets is reviewed by senior Ministry of Education personnel.
The N4L Advisory Group is filled with senior leaders from the education sector. The advisory group is tasked with ensuring the company aligns its activities with the pedagogical needs of schools. It then provides direct feedback to the N4L Board.
Spark is a key technology partner and it has changed the way it does business to accommodate our collaborative, school-centric approach he says.
As well, N4L established a panel of local IT support companies to leverage their pre-existing relationships with schools and enlist their help transitioning schools on to the Managed Network.
“We also partnered with the country’s largest peering exchange (New Zealand Internet Exchange/NZIX), which gives Managed Network users direct and shorter paths to internet content. This results in reduced latency and an even faster internet experience.”
Hanna says the company is deeply engaged with its key stakeholders, particularly the education sector.
“Some of our staff are former teachers or principals and are instrumental in guiding the company’s school-centric approach to operations and communications. They are involved with education sector groups, design and lead school training and encourage educator engagement in N4L programmes.
N4L’s dedicated support team provides expert advice and assistance to help schools get the best from their Managed Network connection. The company provides some proactive 'self-service' support solutions, offering online training materials (videos, webinars and guidelines) to help schools get the most from its Managed Network services.
He says the company invests in the professional development of its staff and team culture. In addition to career and skills development, the company invests in two 'reflective' days, twice a year, in refreshing the company’s vision at an offsite location.
The company regularly revisits ‘how it communicates’ internally, whether that be in internal meetings, or across teams, reviewing which tools are best to keep the company informed of rolling developments within teams or around issues.