The Network is nigh

November 2013

 

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JUDE BARBACK looks at why schools are in a rush to register their interest for the Network 4 Learning and what’s happening behind the scenes.

The buzz surrounding Network 4 Learning is getting increasingly loud as schools get closer to getting their hands on the new managed network.

The Ministry of Education is working with Crown-owned company The Network for Learning Limited (N4L) to develop and operate a managed network for New Zealand schools. It will run over the best mix of ultra-fast, rural, and remote broadband available to connect schools to secure, uncapped, reliable, and fast internet. Connection to the network is also fully funded and completely voluntary for schools.

What do schools think so far?

The first 21 schools transitioning to N4L were recently announced by Associate Education Minister Nikki Kaye. It is not hard to understand why these schools and around 1350 others have already registered their interest in connecting to the network on N4L’s new website.

Carolyn Stuart (pictured), N4L’s education sector lead, has been busy liaising with principal representative groups about N4L and says she has received a “very enthusiastic response” so far. She says after every group she meets with to discuss N4L, there is another flurry of registrations. “Principals, as a group, understand how important technology is to the future of education,” she says.

The fact that the network will be fully funded for schools is also a big drawcard.

Indeed, Trevor Storr, director of e-learning at Waimate High School, describes his school’s decision to join the N4L as a “no-brainer” as it will provide “no-cost, unlimited internet, plus a portal for accessing resources”.

Storr believes N4L will provide students and teachers with the best opportunities to do their job to the best of their ability by connecting with other schools and learners.

Similarly, Brendon Henderson, principal of Tawa Intermediate, agrees that staff and students alike will benefit from better access to information and greater opportunities for collaboration and communication, “giving the opportunity to bring the world to our school gate as well as our school gate to the world!”

As a principal, Henderson is hopeful that the network will enable him to communicate more effectively with his wider school community.

“I would also hope that it will stretch me professionally as I see the innovation and creativity of my colleagues.”

Stuart says N4L will make principals’ lives a lot easier. With many different tasks to juggle on a daily basis, it will come as a relief to know the network is not another thing to worry about.

This is certainly true for Regan Orr, principal of Koputaroa School in Levin, who hopes subscribing to a managed network will mean any problems can be resolved externally, freeing his time to better run his school.

“It is my hope that N4L will provide us with a robust and reliable service, where any potential issues that could arise are managed by one company/source,” he says. 

Storr agrees. “As a network manager, maintaining our network will be less time consuming and more resilient as downloads will take less time and backups will be able to be replicated off-site.”

Orr says his school registered for N4L as it seemed like an excellent opportunity to further support the growth and development of e-learning within our school.

“The proposed capability of N4L to support us with connecting to fibre to ensure we have robust broadband and bandwidth means we will be able to further enhance the quality of integrating digital learning in our school.”

Orr says the greatest advantage N4L could offer the school community is the reliability of high- speed broadband, where there is instant access to online content to support teaching and learning.

“With N4L’s capability of providing an online collaborative environment, this will support and grow staff and student networks through a wider and global community. A networked community will allow students to make connections with others to add greater meaning and authenticity to their learning.” 

Stuart says the introduction of N4L couldn’t come at a better time for teachers who are using digital technology more and more in the classroom.

Storr concurs. “As a teacher, I will be able to use tools that need high bandwidth such as Google hangouts to communicate with colleagues and share ideas. In general terms, the N4L will act as a great leveller of opportunity and access where physical location becomes less relevant.”

He says using applications such as Google apps for education and other online services allow teachers and students to access school work at home.

“We are also now able to begin exploring formal BYOD options as our connectivity will support a far greater number of devices.”

Perhaps one of the more exciting aspects of N4L is that it presents a path into unknown opportunities.

“I’m certain that there are many yet-to-be-thought-of opportunities waiting to be discovered,” says Storr.

Alongside Darren Sudlow and Ken Pullar, Storr is currently in the process of forming a co-operative company, NetNZ, with 40 Canterbury and Otago schools, from the former CantaNet and OtagNet clusters. NetNZ will enable sustained innovation and development of quality online learning experiences to anyone, anywhere across New Zealand and beyond.

Indeed, there appears to have been largely unbridled enthusiasm for the project, and Stuart says there have been very few concerns expressed by the sector.

“The only reservation I have is the transition across to N4L and any potential issues that could arise from this,” says Orr.

What stage are things at?

While schools are playing the waiting game for now, the N4L team is flat out getting everything ready.

Work to build the managed network began in August.

“Our engineers are now busy working to ensure it is built to a high standard. This includes making sure everything that will make it safe, secure, fast, and predictable to use is built into the network. It’s about providing the extra quality assurance. It’s also about ensuring schools have the right level of support they need to get connected and have an excellent experience when using it,” says Stuart.

“In tandem to this, our team is now contacting registered schools to discuss their connection needs. We will use this information to help plan the network rollout and we will be open and transparent with schools about how we will do this.”

Stuart says she perceives the biggest challenge to be connecting schools as rapidly as possible.

“While we’d like to get every school connected right away, we need to get it right. We need to make sure schools have a good experience.”

The first schools are expected to be connected by the end of 2013, with more than 700 schools connecting by the end of 2014. All schools will be able to connect to the managed network by the end of 2016 when all schools will have access to fibre and upgraded internal IT networks.

Telecom has been selected as the network services provider tasked with helping N4L build the managed network.

Stuart says that if schools want to get connected earlier they can consider contracting their own provider to do so, although she urges schools to negotiate contracts that are for no longer than 12 months – or with an affordable break fee. She confirms that most schools connected to ultra-fast broadband are considering this option.

The N4L Portal

Also under development is the N4L portal, which will essentially provide a collaborative, online community for teachers, students, and education professionals. The portal is designed to be an open, fair, and non-prescriptive environment. This means that any provider can sign up to be in the portal and any user can add any service they like.

“All users will need to log in to the portal and we’re looking at the best way to streamline this process to make it easier for everyone. All portal users will be authenticated, which means that all online comments will be attributed to an identifiable person, resulting in a more positive and encouraging community environment,” says Stuart.

Services will be rated by portal users and these ratings will be reflected in search results and catalogue ordering. All providers and their services will be listed on the N4L portal.

The portal will be available for all schools in early 2014. Schools will not need to be connected to the N4L’s managed network to be able to access the portal.

The N4L portal and the managed network look set to take learning and collaboration to a new level for New Zealand schools and many can’t get connected fast enough.

However, as Trevor Storr of Waimate High says, getting connected to the network is really just the beginning. He believes it is important people understand that the N4L is a starting point, not an objective.

“The N4L, teachers, and schools need to understand that the pace of change will increase as connectivity increases. We need keep at the front of our minds that the opportunities the N4L provides are not just about receiving but about connecting and producing with others. The major benefits of the N4L will require a shift in mindset of how we view the nature of schooling, before they can be realised.”