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Disrupting tertiary education from the inside.

iqIn a leafy corner of Lower Hutt along the quiet Waiwhetū stream, something remarkable is happening. This is the home of the Open Polytechnic, one of New Zealand’s largest tertiary educational institutions as measured by the number of students enrolled at any given time.  Open Polytechnic specialise in Open, Distance, and Flexible Learning, and have been doing so since they were established after the Second World War to provide distance vocational education to returned servicepeople.

Open Polytechnic have just launched their iQualify platform, which enables courseware designers to author compelling online interactive educational content with author-centric tools designed with usability in mind, and deliver personalised learning experiences that are tailored to specific user needs. They’re using iQualify to replace a large inventory of ageing Moodle content with modern, interactive, personalised courses.

Open Polytechnic needed a much better courseware authoring and delivery system for themselves, but they’re pitching iQualify as a cloud-based solution for the whole indstry, in New Zealand and around the world. The problem of uncompelling, difficult to maintain content is acute at a time when many traditional tertiary educational institutions are looking to take their courses online. Open Polytechnic wants to build iQualify into a platform that any organisation can use to develop and deliver their own courseware, or tailor courseware developed by others for their own purposes.


Shanan Holm

iQualify was the brainchild of CTO Shanan Holm, who did the initial coding after hours as a skunkworks project, after reviewing the market for courseware platforms and coming up with nothing that met their needs. The system is firmly built on Javascript – most of the heavy lifting is done in the browser, with a Node.js backend in the Azure cloud. Responsive design is used throughout, as students in particular tend to access just about everything through mobiles and tablets. The end result is a user experience that looks a lot more like Xero than your average LMS.

One big difference between iQualify and other solutions is their basic educational philosophy. Open Polytechnic are strong believers in the “blended model”, where students do all of their learning through a screen, but have real-time help and interaction with live people who coach them and support their learning journeys. This is an efficient and effective happy medium between face-to-face learning and MOOCs. Face-to-face learning doesn’t scale well, and doesn’t suit many learners’ life situations. MOOCs on the other hand suffer from very low completion rates due to learner disengagement and  lack of personal touch – they’re great for very self-motivated learners and information snackers, but don’t suit the vast majority of distance learners. One of iQualify’s key features is a Facilitator Dashboard which makes it easy for a course instructor to keep tabs on their individual students, and intervene where it will increase the learner’s chances of success.

Tony Grantham

Tony Grantham

Tony Grantham is Open Polytechnic’s Executive Director – Commercial, and is charged with selling the platform worldwide. And less than six months since launch, they’re already achieving good traction in New Zealand with early customers signing up, and several large educational institutions in Australia currently evaluating the platform.  It’s early days, but with inquiries are being fielded from Asia as well. iQualify is attracting significant interest, and revenues are on track to reach seven figures in calendar 2016.

Caroline Seelig

Caroline Seelig

Open Polytechnic’s CEO Dr Caroline Seelig is effectively running a platform pivot on a large chunk of her organisation. That’s a bold move, but the reward will be improving Open Polytechnic’s competitiveness locally in New Zealand against the tide of global education providers, and will also provide a boost to the NZ tertiary sector, enabling other NZ tertiaries to avoid investing huge amounts of capital in multiple solutions that provide similar functionality, and focus on their core business where they provide the most value – quality personalised educational experiences backed by excellent content.

If you doubted the public sector’s ability to innovate, or a large (by NZ standards) organisation’s appetite to overcome the innovator’s dilemma and act like a startup, think again. The Open Polytechnic is raising the bar for how public organisations can become part of the networked economy, leveraging their existing core skill base with new technology, and enable the delivery of far more public good by becoming platforms.

Disclaimer: I am a member of the Open Polytechnic Council, but the views in this post are entirely my own.