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The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA)

NZQA moves to the cloud as a first step on its intelligence-led journey.

NZQA has brought together all of its data sources under one virtual roof. Using Snowflake, an innovative cloud-based digital warehouse, it provides a seamless NCEA experience from course enrolment to assessments, exams and marking.

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) administers the National Certificates of Educational Achievement (NCEA) for secondary school students across New Zealand, Niue and the Cook Islands. Each year, it diligently directs the annual assessments and exams for approximately 140,000 candidates across hundreds of schools.

As NCEA has evolved, NZQA has progressively embraced a variety of digital initiatives. The adoption of more online processes, however, introduced multiple new and different data streams that sat outside NZQA’s monolithic database. NZQA needed to replace the cumbersome technology with a new solution that could provide an end-to-end view of the process and a centralised reporting capability.

In collaboration with Qrious, NZQA now has a modern data platform in the cloud, providing a ‘single source of truth’ for reporting and analytics. The organisation has successfully taken its first steps towards becoming an ‘intelligence-led’ organisation.

With Qrious’ support, we are starting to dip our toes in machine learning, analytics and data science; we are taking our first steps on the journey to becoming intelligence-led.

– Paul Fernyhough, Data Architect, NZQA

The challenge

Tracking and managing the processes for many millions of NCEA assessments and exams is a complex undertaking. NZQA had long used its legacy eQA suite of applications to monitor the status of activities.

“It was relatively low tech,” says Paul Fernyhough, NZQA Data Architect. “We could run traditional operational reports but from a business intelligence and analytics perspective, it offered a very low level of maturity.”

That said, Fernyhough says it wasn’t a big issue operationally – until recently.

Over time, NZQA has introduced new functionality to enhance the NCEA process, including online marking, scanning of exam booklets and a digital exam platform.

“Instead of having everything neatly in one place, we suddenly had multiple different data sources that we needed in order to manage the NCEA process, from the time a student is entered for their first assessment standard until they receive qualifications and awards.”

As a result, NZQA could no longer rely on the eQA database as a central repository for operational reporting and analysis. It was struggling to track entries and ensure nothing had been missed.

“It was the catalyst for us to build a cloud-based data warehouse and develop a business intelligence capability,” says Fernyhough.

With the shift towards digital assessments and the looming 2022 end-of-year exams, NZQA needed to act fast. It partnered with Qrious to help make it happen.

The solution

In line with NZQA’s strategic goal to become an ‘intelligence-led organisation’, it wanted a data platform that could provide a ‘single source of truth’ for reporting and analytics. It aspired to have an entirely cloud-based solution that was proven and required little effort to administer. Snowflake ticked all the boxes.

Qrious’ role was to establish the Snowflake data warehouse platform and, crucially, guide NZQA through the robust certification and accreditation (C&A) audits.

“Myriad compliance activities, such as a privacy impact assessment and a security risk assessment, had to be completed before we could stand the platform up and integrate it with our backend systems,” says Fernyhough.

Work was set against the backdrop of a tight three-month timeframe to ensure tens of thousands of students could sit their end of year exams. C&A was pivotal; any slippage in the process would impact delivery.

Student on a laptop

“The high quality of Qrious’ design documentation, and the speed with which it was produced, aided a smooth C&A process,” says Fernyhough.

NZQA knew it needed an assessment reconciliation tool (ART) to service the data; it was the first product to be built on the warehouse platform. Qrious designed it, but first, it helped NZQA to visualise the output.

Qrious began by understanding what was important to the organisation and developing the concept for the finished product – what it could look like and what it could do. Working backwards, it determined how to build it and what impact it would have on the underlying warehouse design.

“I loved their methodology,” says Andrew Smith, NZQA’s Data Warehouse Project Manager. “Qrious started with the customer experience before designing the solution. I hadn’t seen this approach before and it was really effective.”

Qrious completed the solution using Fivetran to extract and load the data into Snowflake, the dbt tool to transform the data, and data visualisation software Power BI to produce the outputs.

The collaborative element of this project was outstanding. Qrious was simply part of our team; there was no ‘us and them’.

— Paul Fernyhough, Data Architect, NZQA

Qrious spoke the same language, so once all the ‘techies’ began talking, it all just happened.

— Andrew Smith, Data Warehouse Project Manager, NZQA

The results

In three short but intense months, NZQA and Qrious established a resilient data warehouse and built the first product, ART – below budget and ahead of time.

The solution has driven a critical operational shift from reactive to proactive by offering NZQA a clear ‘view’ of each activity’s status. This enhanced visibility has put the team in the driver’s seat, allowing it to move at pace to avert issues.

The ART provides a comprehensive process overview for all student subject entries – from enrolment through to the end-of-year exam. NZQA can drill down into each individual step to understand the status of activities, like scanning, marking and digital submissions, and identify problems.

“The new technology doesn't solve our problems, nor did we expect it to,” says Smith, “but it does make us aware of problems so much earlier and eases the pressure of dealing with them.”

Better still, it’s futureproof. The entirely cloud-based solution can be expanded into other parts of the organisation to measure their processes.

We have produced two things: a durable data warehouse infrastructure and its first product. So, we have built the sausage machine and we have made the first sausage.

– Andrew Smith, Data Warehouse Project Manager, NZQA

The Snowflake data warehouse is a core capability, allowing us to bring all of our data together and shape it in such a way that it gives us insights that we wouldn’t otherwise enjoy.

- Paul Fernyhough, Data Architect, NZQA

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