Lukasz Zawilski: The dawn of digital at NZ Qualifications Authority

Lukasz Zawilski lives by this oft-repeated quote by management expert Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

“It is true,” says Zawilski, CIO of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA).

“You can have the best plans in the world. But if you can’t mobilise your team and have the right culture and the right attitude, you can’t be successful.”

Zawilski joined NZQA just over two years ago as CIO, having previously worked for two-and-a-half years as manager, strategy and architecture, at the Ministry for Primary Industries. Prior to that he spent time in senior roles in banking, utilities, healthcare and technology start-up in several countries before settling in Wellington.

NZQA is a government department that administers the National Certificates of Educational Achievement (NCEAs) for secondary school students and is responsible for the quality assurance of non-university tertiary training providers.

It is also in the midst of a multi-year programme to ensure NZQA is at the forefront in the area of digital assessment.

Zawilski lays out the four priorities of NZQA heading towards the year 2020: To have all 93 NCEA subjects being assessed online; to have New Zealand qualifications recognised by 50 or more countries; to have 1500 additional Maori and Pasifika students graduating in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects at level 5 and above; and a 50 per cent lift in Maori student achievement in NCEA Level 3 in one or more standards in STEM-related subject areas.

The second goal means New Zealanders or those holding qualifications from local academic institutions, can go to these countries and their qualifications will be recognised. “It makes travelling and using your skills around the world a lot more easy,” he says.

Lukasz Zawilski at a CIO roundtable discussion in Wellington.

For us to stay relevant to them as our customers, we have to effectively become digital natives too.

There is a focus on Maori and Pasifika students, as these two groups are traditionally underrepresented in science and technology.

Zawilski explains getting the culture right is critical, as NZQA ICT embarks on a massive transformational programme.

“We want to equip learners to qualify for the future world. A lot of that is all around digital skills, around STEM.

''And we are looking at how do we rebuild ourselves, to assess the skills employers are wanting in the future?''

NZQA delivers the NCEA to more than 160,000 learners (students) every year.

The current end of year examinations are paper based, he says, of the NCEA tests NZQA delivers to all of the students. “However, many schools teach using digital tools throughout the year – there’s an ever increasing gap.

“It’s often more about information retention, rather than how to apply knowledge and concepts,” he states.

He says there are major things NZQA needs to achieve, to ensure they are aligned with the digital transformation that is going on in the whole education sector itself.

He says there needs to be an information services plan that will guide NZQA through the years, to ensure it is meeting the objective of qualifying students for the future.

“We need a systems strategy to support digital transformation – both at NZQA and [through] all of government,” notes Zawilski.

He is cognisant, however, that NZQA can only embark on this massive transformation change with the support of the team.

Our culture is the cornerstone of enabling the change we need to make,” he says. “This relates to our people and teams, and how they work with the wider organisation. We need to internalise some shared values and behaviours.”

So at the start of his term, he met the 75 members of the team (now at 78) and asked them to write down their ideas on what they value on the job.

“We have a number of rooms and wall spaces set out as whiteboard space,” he says. “These white boards became the depository of these notes, ideas and opportunities.”

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A summary of the team's ideas are now ensconced in a 22-page pamphlet, ‘We make the impossible happen often’.

“This is the final product, we completed it in seven weeks, from start to finish,” he says.

The slim volume - or its soft copy - is given to all members of the department, or those wishing to join them. It is also referred to as the Little Book of Culture or the Culture Book.

"Everybody who is with us gets a hard copy of the Culture Book to keep us all aligned," says Lukasz Zawilski.

The Culture Book captures the culture transformation we have undergone over the past 12 to 18 months, he states.

Zawilski says the Culture Book also informs their staff what they are signing up for.

“It is incredibly frustrating and expensive to hire the wrong person, so we aim to cut that off at the pass,” explains Zawilski. ''We hire for attitude, aptitude and cultural fit – we can teach you specific skills. Everybody who is with us gets a hard copy of the Culture Book to keep us all aligned.”

“When you join us, if you want to join us, here is a book that describes us,” says Zawilski. “We haven’t had anyone come back and say 'No, this is not for me'.

“It is interesting other divisions are picking it up,” he says.

Recently, one of the heads of a division outside ICT asked him for a copy. “The manager said, can I get your Culture Book? I found someone who was not doing exactly what is right.”

An early section on judgement, for instance, contains these expectations of the team members:

·'You make wise decisions despite ambiguity.'

·'You identify root causes and get beyond treating symptoms.'

·'You think strategically and can articulate what you are trying to do.'

·'You can distinguish between what must be done now and what can be improved later.'

He says the transformation is happening as they run business as usual operations.

They run the existing examination protocol every year, he explains. “We print personalised barcodes for about two million exam books and send them around the country through couriers.”

These get marked, moderated and returned to the candidates. On Tuesday, the second week of January, NZQA publishes the NCEA results.

“That is our busiest morning,” he says. “We see 200,000 unique visitors to the website in three hours. In terms of scale, that is a huge operation.”

He says this is one of the reasons NZQA is interested in cloud technologies.

From running services almost exclusively in-house, it has moved to a hybrid delivery model, mixing in-house capability with partnerships and cloud-based services.

For instance NZQA has recently transitioned to Amazon Web Services to allow schools to submit online material for them to moderate in a collaborative manner.

“In the past, they would put it in post bags and sent it to us. The whole thing used to take 12 months.''

The new system will cut down this process to weeks, so that schools can use that to fine-tune their teaching using the feedback on the moderation material.

He explains the moderation material is used to ensure schools maintain a consistent level nationally.

“Digital turns it around faster,” he adds. “We are starting to use it as a teaching tool too. It is not just about the school, but it will also be about the learners [students].

“We can pinpoint where learners are doing well, or where they can improve. We can target the improvement and intervention opportunities.”

Digital is enabling a cutback on data latency he says.

“It is allowing us to get that data back to schools quicker, so they can actually use it for teaching.

“One of the reasons we went [to the] cloud was we did not want to build anymore legacy [systems].

“We know what the usage patterns are going to be like,” he says.

The current exams and structures are predictable, he says. “You know it is going to be busy at the end of the year. But the moderation [process] could be busy anytime, so we did not want to have to buy significant infrastructure capacity.

“We can buy elastic capacity from Amazon.''

NZQA looked at what their counterparts in Singapore, Australia and in the Scandinavian countries are doing.

“All of them are doing some form of digital assessment. But they are doing it for specific subjects, whereas we want to do it for the whole curriculum of 93 subjects.”

NZQA has also deployed Office 365. “That has really liberated a lot of our people. You know simple things, like it is so easy to provision your own mobile device. In the past, people would have to bring the mobile device and leave it with the service desk for a few hours.

He says NZQA worked closely with the Government CIO, Microsoft and Fujitsu during the transition to Office 365 and it took four months to implement it, together with the security and compliance requirements.

“We have been really happy to offer our learning experiences to any agency that wants it.”

Thus, he has spoken to about a dozen CIOs from other government agencies, who are looking to move down the Office 365 path.

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It is no longer about retaining information, it is going to be about application of knowledge.Lukasz Zawilski, NZQA

Qualifying for the future world

“Because we want to enable the digital agenda for schooling, one of the things we agreed early on ourselves is we need to be digitally enabled.”

The school sector has seen a huge uptake of cloud technologies, he says.

“We are starting to really get to where we can work with them using new tools. For us it was about getting our shop in order and being digital ourselves, to [then] lead digital change in schools for business collaboration and all those things.

“Digital will level the playing field. It will move away from kids being restricted to the subjects schools offer.

“For example, if they want to take robotics and are with a school that does not offer it, with digital assessment we will be able to offer it to them through digital delivery.''

Digital is also a huge equaliser, he says. He links this to an NZQA focus on helping students make more informed decisions about career choices.

“We have got a big push for data and analytics,” he says.

“We released an app last year, an NCEA app, that lets [students] track their own progress [and] look at scenarios, find what else you can study. Kids can go to tertiary education, but we also offer a vocational pathway.

“We want kids to be planning their study about a year or two before they leave school.”

Most kids leave it very late, they make a choice based on what their friends are doing or what seems okay at the time he says.

''What we want to do is offer them an outlook that says, 'when you leave university, in three years time what is your possible occupation? What is your earning potential?' They can plan ahead.”

“Our goal is anytime, anywhere assessment,” he says. The idea is when the kids learn something and they are ready to sit their assessment, they can do it whenever they want. At the moment it is the end of year thing.''

This, he says, is around personalised, self-paced learning.

“That is our big goal. That is why we want digital, to really allow the kids to drive their own future and be linked to what jobs they are going to have, and what employers want.

''Part of what we are trying to assess in [preparation for] 2020 is what they call 21st century skills, so it is around collaborative problem solving analytics.''

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, he says, has prepared a paper on 21st century skills.

“It is about working as a team, collaborating, using each other’s strengths. So what we are going to be assessing will change from just retaining facts, to actually [promoting] skills employers in the world want.

“Employers want attitude and aptitude,” he says.

“Specific facts and figures we can always teach you. It is no longer about retaining information, it is going to be about application of knowledge.”

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Our systems team is now moving to a DevOps cloud model. It is about painting the possibilities for them that you no longer manage hardware, but instead you get to manage vendors and service delivery

This perspective is also impacting the ICT team.

Over the decade, he says NZQA IT has been an internal shop.

“Our legacy applications are in paper exams,” he states.

“We are seeing more and more things being offered as a service or packages. We are shifting from software engineering to integration and from running servers to service delivery.

“We are shifting towards adopting a far more customer centric view in everything we do,” he says.

“Whereas in the past we used to build simple things like processes and screens based on internal demands and what the business wanted, now we are consulting far more with learners, parents and teachers on what works for them.
Zawilski says he is fortunate that the education sector “is filled with passionate people”.

“People are in education because they believe it is making a difference, so I think it is about painting a picture of the future and helping them find themselves in it.

“Our systems team is now moving to a DevOps cloud model. It is about painting the possibilities for them that you no longer manage hardware, but instead you get to manage vendors and service delivery.

“We look at it and see it as an opportunity to develop skills that are valuable in the market,” he adds.

Some of their technology is delivered through partners.

“But I am a big believer you cannot outsource accountability, risk or culture, so we worked hard on the culture stuff ourselves.”

One of the ways they do this is through their TGIF or Thank Goodness It’s Friday sessions.

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