Schooling New Zealand on the future of calling and collaboration

 |   Ashlea Lynch

Nelson College Students

More than 100 years ago, legendary New Zealander Sir Ernest Rutherford pioneered with radio waves. At his former school, Nelson College, the pioneering spirit is still going strong. Its latest technical innovation enables teachers, students and the school community to communicate seamlessly without wires – or even phones. During the COVID-19 lockdown, the College’s cloud-based Microsoft Teams platform kept calls getting through no matter where their recipients were working, enabled students to learn and collaborate, and even allowed teachers to continue their professional development.  

As the oldest state secondary school in New Zealand, Nelson College has an impressive heritage. However, it was also dealing with a heritage phone system based on outdated on-site infrastructure with complex technical support requirements.

With a student body approaching 1,100, as well as a preparatory school for Years 7-8, the College phone systems were under a lot of pressure from parents calling in to report absences, and enquiries from prospective families. While the College had switched from the old copper phone wires to an internet-based phone system (Skype for Business) in 2016, changing security requirements meant its existing on-site systems would soon become out of date. IT Systems Engineer Bob Casey was also spending a significant amount of time managing the school’s on-premise servers, which requires specialist knowledge.

An upgrade was urgently needed. But simply installing new phones and servers at the school would only create the same problems down the track. After reaching out to telephony specialists Telesmart, the College quickly realised a more pioneering approach was needed, as befits its history. It decided to do away with phones completely, switching the entire communication system to the cloud: Cloud Calling for Microsoft Teams.

“With wires, you’re very much tied to your building, whereas Teams provides much more mobility. It’s more than just the next step in the communication evolution,” Casey says. “It’s your teaching environment, it’s your meeting environment. Many people still think of a phone as a handset on a desk, but this pulls everything together in one place.”

When a global pandemic closed the school for more than a month, the genius of this solution became clear.

Instant communication via the cloud

Although Nelson College had begun its Teams journey earlier in 2020, like many other schools around New Zealand, it saw that transition accelerated a thousand-fold with the arrival of the COVID-19 lockdown. Thanks to the groundwork laid by technology partner Telesmart, which had already migrated the school’s phone systems to a Cloud Calling for Microsoft Teams framework, the school quickly rolled out access to Teams for all staff members in just 48 hours.

“That meant that parents calling in to find out what was happening could reach staff who were working off-site, being redirected to their laptops or mobiles, and leave messages that instantly popped up in the staff member’s email inbox,” says Assistant Principal Jarrod Aberhart.

Telesmart Chief Technology Officer, Geof Robinson, explains the solution:

“We see our service as an integrated part of the Microsoft Teams eco-system, creating a modern workplace. Cloud Calling for Microsoft Teams extends communications to the wider community the same way voice calling does, but in a way that’s device and platform agnostic, so you can reach people anywhere no matter which device they use – laptop, phone or PC.”

Not only did the solution provide greater visibility of all communications costs, from equipment maintenance to line charges, the cloud calling platform integrated easily with the school’s student management system so communications with parents were dramatically simplified. As lockdown approached, senior leaders could immediately notify parents of what was happening, placing calls via their laptops. The functionality of Teams meant communication with students was also made easy, something crucial during lockdown.

Aberhart says, “We wanted students to self-regulate and manage their own learning, and Teams allowed them to do that. Teachers could message students, so they weren’t having to reach out to parents, and the ability to see body language via a video call made communication so much easier. Email is so cold, and you can spend so much time writing emails to get the tone just right – video calling removes that uncertainty.”

Maintaining collaboration during lockdown

But it wasn’t just communication that became so much easier with a cloud-based platform. Ultimately, schoolwork and learning for teachers and students alike continued with minimal disruption thanks to the additional collaboration benefits and integration with Teams.

Nelson College published a remote learning plan online, via OneDrive, so families could easily follow along. The ability to share documents in OneNote and videos created in Microsoft apps Flipgrid and Stream meant students could work in their own time, at their own pace, referring back to resources whenever they needed. They could also work together on collaborative documents. Aberhart says some students actually preferred online learning, being able to work without distractions.

To ensure students kept up with course requirements during lockdown, a careers advisor set up individual channels on Teams. This enabled students to do mock job interviews with external interviewers and reflect on their interviews using the chat function to complete their Unit Standards. An external maths expert from Massey University engaged with students and observed lessons using Teams.

Thanks to Teams video calling, teachers held regular, twice-weekly staff meetings throughout lockdown, and the file sharing capabilities meant they could see what their colleagues were doing in their lessons and benefit from their innovations. Professional development videos created in Stream could be easily accessed in Teams.

“In lockdown, we got to see so much more of what was going on around the school. We could easily share what was being tried and tested, as well as train staff in new platforms,” Aberhart says.

It wasn’t just learning and development that benefited. During situations like lockdown, mental wellbeing can often suffer, so enterprising leaders at Nelson College set up a staff quiz on Teams. It was a huge hit.

“We needed something to support each other and create some fun, and this was a fantastic tool for helping maintain wellbeing.”

The future of communication unveiled

Senior Solution Specialist at Microsoft, Sam McNeill, says what Nelson College has achieved in just a few short weeks is revolutionising how schools in New Zealand engage and communicate with their communities.

“When it comes to using Teams for both telephony and digital education, Nelson College is ahead of the curve by adopting a truly unified communications platform. Their team has always been willing to explore the potential of new technologies ever since their adoption of OneNote in 2013, but their work with Microsoft and Telesmart is an example of how all schools – not to mention organisations – are going to connect and collaborate in future.”

Bob Casey says he used to encounter teachers who were hesitant about using Teams, but they are now openly enthusiastic advocates.

“One said to me they’re still using Teams and loving it, even now lockdown is over. The staff chat functions are always busy and we’re moving away from emails towards messaging each other on Teams. In a school environment, messaging is very important because you can’t call teachers when they’re teaching in the classroom. Now you can send a Teams message and they can see it instantly,” he says.

“Extension numbers are a thing of the past too. You can call people by their name, which is so much easier than remembering a number or looking it up in a directory. Landlines in the community are fast disappearing. Soon we’ll all be communicating through an app – and Nelson College is already making it easier for parents and teachers to do that.”

After more than 150 years, Nelson College is still clearly a school with the future in its sights.


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