Network for Learning, the free, uncapped, fast schools’ internet service, overdelivers. Nikki Mandow writes that the UFB project has 96 percent take up, is running under budget and kids are learning better - especially those who hate pencil-and-paper learning

Dorothy Burt is a teacher, an Auckland-based digital learning expert and an Apple Distinguished Educator. In decades working in schools, she’s seen it all – from the Novopay debacle, through to delays in school property projects. She knows ministry timeframes aren’t always met and teachers are often resigned to project overruns. 

Which is why the success of Network for Learning (N4L), a free, uncapped, fast, reliable internet connection for schools, run over New Zealand’s ultra-fast broadband infrastructure, is all the more astonishing. The concept was first mooted in late 2011, by then Education Minister Anne Tolley, and N4L connected its first school in November 2013. Nine months later, the project was 88 days ahead of target, with 700 schools connected. By mid-2015, N4L was 565 days ahead of target in terms of connections, with 70 percent of the country’s 2500 state and state-integrated schools hooked up. As of March this year, 2411 schools (just over 96 percent of the total) were using the network. 

Perhaps more miraculous, the project is running under budget. Initially costed at $211 million, through to 2020/21, just over $80 million has been spent so far. And Treasury figures show a quite impressive $3 million smaller-than-expected spend in the 2015-16 year. 

Meanwhile, the schools that The Download got feedback from seemed happy. With ‘what’s not to like about a system that is free, unlimited, and works when you switch it on?’ being the main reaction. 

“N4L has revolutionised schools,” says Burt, who heads up the Manaiakalani Education Programme, a group of a dozen, mostly low decile schools in east Auckland, plus another 40 further afield. She’s also on the N4L advisory board. “It’s a miracle for schools to have free, unlimited UFB.” 

At Pt England, a decile 1 primary school with a mainly Maori and Pasifika roll, N4L’s managed network means every child has their own device and their own blog. This wouldn’t have been possible without fast, uncapped internet, says principal Russell Burt. There simply wasn’t enough bandwidth. 

“Shifting from shared devices to your own device changes everything,” Russell Burt says, a little impatient at the next question: Why? “Just think about your own job. Imagine if you had to share your laptop or your smartphone.” 

There are so many ways in which learning with digital technologies in a “one child, one device, heaps of internet” setting is better than the old system, Burt says. 

For example, learning is rewindable – if students don’t get it first time, they can go back and do the lesson again. “On demand is so important in our lives now. Think of digital learning as school-on-demand.” 

Shared learning 

Another positive of this cloud-based learning is it makes it easy for whanau to get involved. 

“Pretty much every child in the world answers ‘nothing’ when you ask: ‘What did you do at school today?’” Burt says. “But if everyone has a device and everything is online, a parent can say ‘Show me what you did at school.’ And they’ll look at a blog entry or a video, or a maths problem and they can put their arm round their child and say ‘I’m proud of you’. Now you’ve engaged in your child’s learning and encouraged them.” 

Pt England school-children publish their work directly to the web. Anyone can check out their blogs. Russell Burt says the rare privacy issues that arise are more than offset by the enhanced learning outcomes when students share what they’ve been doing. 

Dorothy Burt says digital technology engages a whole group of children who were disengaged from learning using the pencil and paper method. 

“Recently I visited the maternity unit at Middlemore Hospital. Practically every mother had a baby in one hand and a smartphone in the other. Our children live in a world where everyone is connected and digital. You can’t run a school without it.” 

It’s not just Russell and Dorothy Burt who are N4L enthusiasts. Actually, it’s hard to find someone who’s critical about the managed network. Not journalists, not social media commentators, not the Labour Party’s education spokesperson, Chris Hipkins. Not even competitive educational IT providers. Not one of the signed-up schools has unsigned. And the amount of data students access via the network is increasing exponentially. 

Between June 2015 and June 2016, total monthly traffic increased from 500 terabytes to 1385TB. Web-page hits for the month were up from 3.6 to 13.4 million. Interestingly, kids aren’t just spending more time watching cat videos on YouTube – total video streaming has gone up quite modestly, from 550,000 minutes in June 2015 to 595,000 minutes in the same month in 2016. 

Of course, it’s not perfect. Chris Hipkins asked the Minister how many schools can’t currently be connected to Network for Learning because they don’t have the fibre infrastructure in place to be connected. 

This was the reply, from Associate Minister Nikki Kaye: 

 

Ten schools cannot be connected to the managed network because they don’t have the fibre infrastructure in place. Two are waiting for construction work to finish before connecting to fibre. Another is moving to a new site where there will be fibre. Three of the schools are in the Chatham Islands, where there is no fibre network. These are connected through the Remote Schools Broadband Initiative. The initiative connects schools via point-to-point wireless or satellite technology. N4L is working with the remaining four schools to identify options for connecting them to fibre, so they can be connected to the managed network. 

 

A few schools have reported issues with security (students accessing unsuitable material) or connectivity issues (the internet not working properly). 

N4L chief executive John Hanna says when schools experience problems it tends to be because their wi-fi and internal systems need upgrading, or devices arriving at school from home have questionable material on them already. 

“One thing the managed network does is move the internet bottleneck from outside the school to inside. Another thing it does is facilitate a device problem for schools – or at least accelerate a device problem they might otherwise have had later. Many of the niggles we hear about are associated with having lots of devices at school, or where a device a child brings to school that has stuff sitting on it (a gaming app, for example) which isn’t school-friendly.” 

Dorothy Burt puts it more bluntly. 

“Problems are to do with the way schools are using the network. It’s like me complaining something’s wrong with my car when I’ve scraped it in the car park.” 

The government’s $290 million SNUP (school network upgrade project) and newer Wireless SNUP programmes have helped get schools’ internal networks ready for Ultra-Fast Broadband. But schools that were upgraded early may find they need to upgrade again. And smaller schools without their own IT person often find they don’t have the time or the resources to work through issues around their broadband or Wi-Fi connection. 

Not just another IT project 

N4L’s mandate doesn’t include solving schools’ problems with their wireless network, the devices they have on-site or digital learning issues. But Hanna says the company realised early on that teachers didn’t distinguish between parts of the infrastructure that came under the N4L remit and parts that didn’t. They just wanted their internet to work so they could teach their students. And the N4L helpdesk was often the place they went first when something wasn’t working. 

That required a rethink, Hanna says. 

“I came from an ISP background [Hanna was CEO of ISP Maxnet – now part of Vocus – before joining N4L] and, initially, I saw N4L as a technology-focused project. An IT start-up which had to do a good job of building a tech network and connecting schools. How hard could it be – only 2500 clients [schools] in a single industry? 

“The reality couldn’t have been further from the truth.” 

As they started hooking schools up to the managed network, Hanna and his team realised their biggest task wasn’t delivering a technology solution, it was understanding the needs of teachers and delivering with these in mind. Empathy, not technology. 

“We had to understand the bigger picture of a school’s journey from the old teaching world to the new teaching world. We had to understand what went on in a classroom. And, far from all schools being the same, we realised we had 2500 principals running schools in 2500 different ways, none of which are wrong, just different. And each needs tech help in a different way.” 

Hanna remembers getting a call, in February 2014, very early into the N4L rollout, from the principal of an Auckland school that had been connected to UFB over the summer break. It was trialling BYOD (bring your own device) with a couple of year groups. The school expected 150 devices on the first day but got 300. All hell broke loose. 

“The wireless fell over. The teachers had everything planned for a digital introduction and had to revert to Plan B. But they didn’t have a Plan B. The principal was beside herself.” 

Hanna and his then right-hand techie Jeremy Nees went to see for themselves. They then spent two days sorting out the problem. It was totally outside their remit, but the experience was salutary. 

“We realised that something we as technologists see as relatively simple is incredibly complex for someone whose job is to run a school or teach a class. We had to understand that viewpoint in order to help them.” 

Step one was to rethink the helpdesk. “We realised teachers weren’t only going to be asking questions about their internet being down,” Hanna says. Working with the Ministry of Education, N4L started developing a capability that could deal with a wide range of educational tech problems – it’s now the Connected Learning Advisory Service, run and managed by technology-based learning and development specialist Core Education. 

“We have an ethos that we don’t say ‘This is not our job’. If a school reaches out and clearly has no way of getting support, we support them. That’s involved us doing a bit of off-piste work.” 

 

Beyond the managed network 

With the managed network going great guns, N4L turned its attention to other products and services it could offer schools. A throwaway sentence in an early briefing document led N4L to develop a digital content hub, named Pond. 

“When we talked to teachers we found there were widely differing levels of awareness about the educational and teaching resources available; how to find them and how to use them,” Hanna says. Pond is a collaborative online environment that brings together teachers and school administrators, and links them with each other and other content providers. Auckland Museum, Radio NZ and the Alexander Turnbull Library, are examples. 

Unlike the managed network, Pond has had mixed success. Teachers who use it regularly say they love it, but the number of users has been disappointing. Pond had only 13,700 registered users by mid-2016, as against a target of 26,000. Partly this is a function of N4L opening up some of the portal content to the wider community (meaning teachers don’t need to register to see it). But the total number of Pond contributions is also lower than expected – 21,200 in mid-2016, as against a target of 28,500. Meanwhile, active Pond users are only searching the database an average of seven to eight times a month and only access about 20 pages a month. Compare this to your own web-browsing habits

 

and it’s clear this is not high usage. 

Hanna says Pond is undergoing further development, including N4L considering a mobile-first approach to access. 

But some teachers told The Download that Pond is stymied by the ease with which educators (just like the rest of us) can access fantastic resources online – without going through a specific education intermediary. Although Pond has some advantages over normal search engines, such as teachers being able to access each other’s lesson plans, along with a feature which allows them to save favourite resources in their own Pond buckets, it’s hard to get past just how incredibly user-friendly Mr Google is. So, the jury is still out on Pond. 

Meanwhile, N4L is working on another product, Tahi. This is an app that allows schools to give students a single log-in and password for a whole range of different resources – right through their school career. Think of every student being able to access Mathletics and a range of other educational apps with a single log-in even when they change schools. Formal rollout for Tahi was originally planned for last year, but Hanna says it has been delayed while N4L focuses on honing the product, using feedback from its trial. It also wants to get website and app providers on board. 

Treading on toes 

Tahi is not universally popular, however. Rohan Meuli, business director of cloud education services’ IT provider Our School, has doubts. He says N4L’s managed network has been fantastic for schools, and has provided work for smaller private sector players helping schools with cloud services. However, he says his isn’t the only company to be hard hit by N4L’s move to launch Tahi. He’d like more clarity around its future plans. 

“What hasn’t been clear is what N4L’s mandate is beyond the core network. When it first started, there was talk of moving into VOIP and video conferencing but that didn’t happen. Instead they moved into single sign-on, something we weren’t aware they were planning – and that’s affected a big part of our business. 

“When we talk to schools, N4L is the elephant in the room, as we aren’t sure what N4L is planning. We don’t want schools to spend money on a service from an external provider and then find it’s on the roadmap for N4L, which is normally free. For example, it would be good for schools to know if N4L was going to move into video conferencing. Should they look at Google Hangouts or wait for something to come out with an N4L badge on it?” 

N4L’s Hanna says N4L tries to be transparent but also has a mandate to develop services that meet “a genuine need or a market failure”, particularly around providing equitable access for small, low decile or rural schools. And developing new products is part of N4L’s remit. Nikki Kaye, who is expected to be confirmed as the Minister of Education when Hekia Parata steps down in May, says the Government has plenty on its agenda and is open to N4L bidding for other work. (N4L is a government-owned or Crown company.)

IT-related education initiatives currently underway include developing Communities of Online Learning (COOLs) establishing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) partnership schools, working on ways to use technology to better capture student progress and achievement data, and supporting teachers’ digital literacy. 

Kaye says it’s an exciting time for N4L. “We are very happy with N4L and are absolutely open to them doing other work in our education system, or other education systems. It’s up to N4L to work out what is their core skill-set.” 

Commercial potential 

What Kaye means by “other education systems” is the prospect of N4L selling its expertise and services overseas. Under its mandate as a snappily named “Company listed on Schedule 4A of the Public Finance Act 1989” (see sidebar) N4L doesn’t have to make money. But the Government wouldn’t complain if it did. 

Hanna is just back from a trip to the Middle East, where he met officials in the United Arab Emirates and Oman to talk about how N4L’s experience with Pond and the managed network might translate to the Arab world. Carolyn Stuart and other N4L staffers will head back to the region later this month. 

“The platform we have developed over the last four years and some of the thinking that has gone into developing that platform seems to have potential in other geographies,” Hanna says. 

“On the trip I’ve just been on, I’ve seen a number of countries and educational jurisdictions going through a similar journey to the one New Zealand is already well advanced on. There is a lot of respect internationally for what New Zealand does in education and our approach to the curriculum.” 

He says the company did some high-level scoping work across 58 countries and looked in more detail at 14. As well as the Middle East, Hanna says, there has been interest from Australia and some parts of the US. 

“This is exciting and in line with what we’ve been asked to do. Although our primary focus is supporting New Zealand education, we are a company and part of our strategy is to move towards a dividend at some stage.” 

Privatisation? Both National’s Nikki Kaye and Labour’s Chris Hipkins say their parties are committed to owning N4L for the long haul, but Our School’s Rohan Meuli is concerned about what would happen if a future Government did decide to sell some or all of the Crown company. Spark is already N4L’s key technology partner, and Meuli worries the former monopoly player (Telecom NZ changed its name to Spark in August 2014) would take control of N4L and thereby gain dominance in the education market. 

“It’s a risk for us. That would give Spark a huge leg up – a wonderful opportunity to speak to every school in the country and offer them a wide range of IT, educational and professional development services.” 

 

 

N4L’s techie top team 

What’s notable about the board and senior management of N4L is how many don’t come from the Ministry of Education. Instead, the team is heavy with former bosses from private sector businesses – in particular, tech companies. Here are a few of them – don’t miss the former weapons engineer. 

Chair

Helen Robinson 

Deputy chair

Mark Yeoman 

Board member

Jack Matthews 

CEO

John Hanna 

COO

Will Graham  

Acting chief product officer

Greg Woolley 

 

N4L: what it was set up to do 

In October 2011, the then Education Minister Anne Tolley announced Cabinet approval for a business case for “a Network for Learning, a dedicated online network for schools, which will run over the ultra-fast broadband infrastructure currently being rolled out across New Zealand. The Network for Learning, available progressively from 2013, will provide schools with affordable, safe, ultra-fast internet access, as well as a range of online content and centrally procured services,” she said.  

Over a five-year period, Anne Tolley said, 97 percent of schools would be UFB-connected, enabling speeds of 100 Mbps plus. The remaining three percent of schools, in the most remote locations, would receive a high-speed wireless or satellite connection. The budget was set at $211 million, by 2020-2021. 

One rationale behind N4L was to fill a gap the commercial sector would find challenging. The Government argued commercial providers would not be able to offer a tailored platform and services to small or remote schools, or to more complex schools, at a price they could afford.  

 

Has it achieved its goals? 

N4L’s performance results and Treasury budget figures suggest that unlike other educational IT projects (Novopay being the classic example) the N4L Managed Network project has delivered ahead of time and below budget. As of March 13, 2017, 2411 state and state-integrated schools are connected to the N4L Managed Network – just over 96 percent of the total. The target was 70 percent of schools connected by the end of 2016. 

Nearly 800,000 people use the network each day. The N4L package also includes network security, web filtering, proactive monitoring (using a Raspberry Pi device that automatically carries out speed tests on a school’s network and reports back to N4L), support services and uncontended connectivity (this ensures fast data access at all times).  

The 2015-2016 budget for N4L – $31.75 million – was underspent by $3 million, according to Treasury figures. Meanwhile, 98 percent of connected schools can get speeds of 100Mbps or more. The remaining two percent are rural schools that use wireless services and get speeds of 10 to 20Mbps. 

N4L’s digital hub for teachers, Pond, launched in March 2014, is so far the main product that fits Anne Tolley’s original objective of N4L providing “a range of online content”. 

By March this year, Pond had almost 15,000 educators using the site and 522 organisations supplying education-related content or services. There were more than half a million page views in the year to June 2016 and almost 170,000 searches. Still, users and usage patterns are lower than predicted (see main story) with some teachers saying they tend to use general search engines such as Google. However, N4L is optimistic it may be able to commercialise the platform underpinning Pond and is exploring the possibility with education officials in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

 

Not for sale – or not yet 

Until 2013, N4L was a snappily named Crown entity called a CrOC, or Crown-Owned Company.  

These days, it’s a far less sexy beast known as a “Company listed on Schedule 4A of the Public Finance Act 1989”. Which isn’t particularly relevant except to say that N4L is not an SOE (State-Owned Enterprise). And this matters, both in terms of N4L’s remit, and the ease with which the Government can sell it – if it ever wants to. 

The biggest difference between a Schedule 4A company and an SOE is that SOEs have unambiguous commercial objectives, whereas other Crown entity companies tend to mix commercial and non-commercial (eg policy) objectives. Or, in some cases (like N4L, to date) they can be purely non-commercial.  

The Schedule 4A company structure also provides more flexibility around ownership and sale than government gets with an SOE. Legally, only the Crown can be a full shareholder in an SOE. But that’s not so with other Crown companies, where government can share ownership. (That’s the model used with listed electricity companies like Genesis, Mercury or Meridian, for example.) And, while legislation is needed for government to sell an SOE, that’s mostly not the case with other companies, which can be easily established and dis-established by order in council, according to the State Services Commission’s website. 

Examples of SOEs: Kordia; NZ Post; Airways Corp; MetService 

Examples of other Crown entities: AgResearch; Crown Fibre Holdings; Lotteries Commission; TVNZ 

 

Making a difference in the rural Deep South 

Waikoikoi School is a 23-student, two-classroom rural primary school 20 minutes from Gore and 10 minutes from Tapanui.  

Back in 2014, principal Lynne Hall could barely download her emails on the school’s slow, unreliable internet connection. These days, the students have iPads and Chromebooks, and are making increasing use of Google’s G Suite for Education and other learning apps. The only time they have trouble with their internet connection is when the power goes out, Lynne says. 

“With N4L, we are now able to offer the students lots more opportunities for their learning that we couldn't offer before. For example, popular online learning programmes like Reading Eggs. And our five to seven-year-olds are able to record their news using Adobe Voice, play it back and have instant feedback. 

“Last year, most of our seniors went to Wellington for a school camp, but a few couldn’t go. As part of the trip, we went to Capital E [a not-for-profit focusing on young people and creativity] and the students made their own television programme. We were able to ‘Skype link’ back to the students left at school, so they could be involved. It felt like we were all in the same room. We never could have done that if we didn't have N4L’s high-speed managed network service. 

“I just wish N4L could extend into students’ homes. A lot of parents can’t get UFB at home, not because they can’t afford it, but because the connectivity is not available down our gravel backroads.”