Winning users' hearts and minds

For Chris South, head of dynamic services for Network for Learning (N4L), it's all about good quality content that abounds and can be discovered by teachers. But the challenge was "the lack of parity of awareness of what was out there."

He illustrates: Two teachers that are teaching the same subject, in pretty much the same decile area, will find out that one of them will know about a fantastic resource which the other has not heard of.

When teachers are preparing a lesson plan, there will be a massive divergence of information, he says. "How do you search for it effectively, figure out which ones to use, how to use them in your classroom Should you be thinking of a different approach What do you do next"

These were among the factors the Network for Learning (N4L) team considered when they built the Pond, an online learning hub for the education community.

N4L is a Crown company formed to provide all New Zealand students and teachers equitable access to high quality Internet services and dynamic digital content for learning.

"This company was established to build a platform that provided an equal service to all students across New Zealand regardless of where they live," says N4L CEO John Hanna. "Someone in the far reaches of Hokianga Northland gets the same high speed broadband experience as someone in the middle of Parnell."

Since Pond was introduced to teachers in mid-2014, N4L says the community has grown to include more than 8600 users. Most are teachers, with the other 333 users being organisations offering content and services relevant to the education sector. More than 1000 new Pond users are signing up to the digital hub every month.

Crowd sourcing, grassroots approach

South says N4L took a 'grassroots' approach in reaching out to the users of Pond. . "We found lots of teachers starting these creative islands. They have brilliant stuff but they don't end up influencing beyond their classroom...Loads of students are not being impacted, not being lifted by all of these great works. We find a lack of ability to discover, to grow these resources, and also a lack of ability to share this stuff out to the wider sector.

"It is about winning hearts and minds, you need to solve these problems, or give them a toolset or framework to solve these problems."

He says their role is about putting in the framework and toolset for collaboration, and to leave what happens in front of the class up to the experts -- the teachers.

"It is a very open way of doing things," he says. "We call it collaborative construction, co-creation.

"In the commercial space, you work with your customers to develop the product. We are transposing that to the education sector.

"We are a very enabling company," adds South. "We are not a mandating entity, we don't tell people what to do. We provide a great list of options for schools to be self-determining. We give them toolset and guidance, 'here is the place to start from'."

He says the portal was also built to be accessed by 750,000 students.

But education, he says, also involves parents and the community around them. "That is an important part when you start to think about a cohesive ecosystem around the student."

He says the system has to be able to scale to hundreds of thousands and potentially millions of users. It also needs to be affordable and agile to make changes.

Mixing the cloud into the learning environment

South says N4L runs entirely on the Amazon Web Services' IaaS environment. This provides Pond with all the virtual machine instances and load balancing between tiers that are required, as well as automatic scaling based upon user load so that scaling up or down is a completely a hands-free operation.

"This gives us the capability to serve large numbers of users during the day but scale back during quiet hours to save money," he states.

South says N4L also uses SaaS elements of AWS as part of the Pond environment. "By leveraging these offerings, we've freed our most valuable resources, our people, to focus on adding features to Pond rather than managing underlying framework elements."

He says Pond makes the most of AWS' multiple availability zones to run a live-live environment across two geographically separate data centres which means it has fantastic resiliency to the loss of a physical location.

"We run Pond's entire Quality Assurance environment on AWS too -- we even automatically stop the QA environment overnight and then restart it each morning to save on costs," he states.

There should not be an IT and the business divide...There is a digital space we need to work out how we [can] work together.

- Chris South, Network for Learning

No avatars

As to managing a diverse and continuously growing user base, he says, "We took social themes and social behaviours and brought them together specifically for education, and added some educational uniqueness to it.

All of Pond's content is created by its user community, where it can be tagged, reviewed, bundled with other items and shared with registered users.

Read more:The challenger's cloud platform

"If you share something in Pond it is immediately visible, everybody is identified by their real name," says South. "There is no avatar usage."

Teachers can follow and connect with other teachers around the country who share a mutual interest or speciality teaching subject. They can share best practices and learn from their peers, growing their own knowledge and networks, and adding to the strength of the Pond community as a whole. "As you start following people you see all of their activity in your timeline. "It is all crowd sourced," he states. "People care about what they share, they care about their profile and reputation."

So what are some key lessons for other CIOs "Focus on the benefits," he says. "Everything we do we consider from the eyes directly of our users, bringing them into the room early on."

He says Pond started working with 20 adviser teachers, as "bleeding edge alpha testers". They then brought in another 500 pioneer educators to help with the project design.

"A vast [number] of less successful projects of IT end up that way, [because] no one went back to the actual user base and was open and inclusive in the design process.

"There should not be an IT and the business divide," he says. "There is a digital space we need to work out how we [can] work together."

Having a "very agile shop" is very helpful, says South. "For me, the big thing within the agile approach is it is a cooperative design process. We have infrastructure when we need it, you could approach it that if you want to try something, you learn fast and fail fast.

"It is a case of failing is just some form of learning," he states. 'Be open, talk to your users'. They will trust you as long as you are doing good things.

"If you are fearful, it will stop you from reiterating quickly."

"Choose your partners, choose development teams that work that in that way."

"One of the things you must do to make an agile process really work is feedback," he states. "Anyone can send feedback, we actively seek it and do not hide from it."

He says the team holds daily 10am stand-up meetings lasting for 15 minutes.

"We go through every piece of feedback, he says. Every developer sees everything, there is transparency, openness and making sure everyone knows what they are doing is to make it meet the mark.

"If you are really going to go agile, mean it, and make sure everybody knows if you are going to do it, [and] live it.

"Think big early," he says. "Design scale in from the start. Security and scale are staggeringly difficult to retrofit."

Read more:The CIO's bi-modal innovation agenda

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