Ian, Nicola and Matt Kenny, Digital Circus. Photo: Florence Charvin

[As published in March/April BayBuzz magazine.]

Thousands of teachers across New Zealand have Digital Circus, a Hawke’s Bay business to thank for their proficiency and understanding of digital technology. Now, that same business has branched out into providing easily searchable classroom resources teachers can access at the click of the mouse.

Nicola and Ian Kenny were flummoxed. The year was 2017 and the Ministry of Education had signalled that digital technology would become a key component of each school’s lesson planning by, at the latest, 2020. 

This was more than just a recommendation that students BYOD (bring your own device). The curriculum changes meant schools and kura were required to develop programmes that would introduce children as young as five to a range of digital technologies, allowing students to hone their digital fluency during their years at school. It was hoped that the changes would prepare learners to use digital thinking in a range of roles across sectors as diverse as agriculture, healthcare, transport, construction, media, fashion and food production. 

But that’s not why Nicola and Ian were perplexed. 

“We were seeing a lot of schools go out and buy robots,” recalls Nicola. “Robots are expensive, and while learning to programme them is fun, it would probably only provide a fraction of the digital proficiency students would need under the updated curriculum.”

Nicola and Ian had just founded Digital Circus, balancing their jobs as digital technology teachers at Lindisfarne and Central Hawke’s Bay College respectively, with their fledgling business providing fellows and colleagues with exceptional professional learning and development (PLD) opportunities.

“At the time, we’d had to travel out of the region to attend PLD,” explains Ian of the bold move from teaching students to teaching teachers. “There just wasn’t anything local that upskilled teachers in digital technology. So it became a case of doing it ourselves!”

The pair – with over three decades of digital tech teaching experience between them, combined with an inexhaustible passion for the topic – launched out of a renovated bungalow on Hastings’ Queen Street. But it was a long, slow and hard road to make their idea viable. 

“The lesson we learned very very quickly was that school budgets were going to be our biggest barrier,” says Nicola. “While both teachers and schools were enthusiastic about getting to grips with digital technology, for many, the cost of doing so fell into their too-hard basket. So we had to change tack.”

Digital Circus launched a series of immersive holiday programmes and after school clubs which, in those early days, helped pay the bills. ‘With keeping it in the family’ already a proven model for the Kennys, Nicola and Ian brought their IT expert son Matt into the fold to help them facilitate their offering and lead short courses for kids in things like robotics, gaming and coding. He’s been with them ever since says proud dad Ian, who remembers the many weeks the family would check out the office whiteboard and celebrate the fact they were “almost breaking even”.

Things changed rapidly when the Ministry of Education introduced a new accreditation model for organisations such as Digital Circus, who could apply to become funded support to New Zealand schools. The business no longer relied on schools having their own budget to afford their services, and Digital Circus was immediately viable. 

Nicola left her teaching role to concentrate on the family start-up full-time, she and Ian employing teachers Toni Westcott and Juliet Revell to help manage the workload. 

Toni says joining the team has been a career highlight, not only because of the supportive atmosphere nurtured by Nicola and Ian, but due to the constant contact with teachers, who are excited about learning fresh ways of integrating technology into daily classroom activities. “Teachers know that simply putting a stack of Chromebooks in a classroom doesn’t change anything. We typically find that the schools applying to have us come and share our kaupapa, already strongly resonate with what we’re doing. They’re the teachers and schools willing to learn alongside their students, make mistakes in front of them, and have a go,” says Toni.

As word of Digital Circus’s approach to PLD spread, the requests from schools came flooding in, with the small team travelling to some of our most remote locations, including Great Barrier Island, and the tiny East Cape community of Ruatōria. Toni estimates they’ve been into 300 schools New Zealand wide so far, with many schools requesting repeat visits. 

And the response each time is incredible. “I think our point of difference is that our support is meaningful, we’re fun, and we’re flexible. With hands-on classroom experience ourselves, we don’t just train teachers – we sit alongside them, and even model how a lesson could look for them. Digital tech is very hands-on and for some teachers, the fear is so real – it’s really rewarding to go in and be their fairy techmother and wave our magic wands!”

What teachers wanted to know in 2017 was worlds apart from what they need to learn now. “Back then, it was ‘How do I use Google and Microsoft effectively? How do I introduce an iMovie?’ It was a matter of supporting teachers over their own personal learning hurdles so they could have the confidence to then bring some of that tech into the classroom,” says Ian. 

In 2023, it’s about using technology to allow students to demonstrate what they’re learning, says Toni. “Teachers want to know how to engage their kids and integrate as many subjects as possible into one lesson. And these days, it’s also about encouraging students to be creators of technology, rather than solely consumers of it,” she notes. 

“At one school we visited, the kids had just come back from camp so rather than write a recount of what they did, we got them to pick their favourite thing about it and make a diorama, using playdough and copper tape and circuit boards. Then they had to write and record a voiceover script, the whole thing was hooked up to computers, and a fully interactive experience was created! We held an exhibition night where whānau could come along and have their child present their diorama. It was amazing for the kids and so empowering for the teachers to understand that digital technology isn’t just about apps and playing with gadgets.”

And, it can – and should – be used to bring a fresh dimension to the teacher’s lesson plan. “As I always tell teachers,” says Ian, “if digital technology is not going to enhance or improve what you’re already doing, don’t use it.”

It was amid the challenges of Covid-19 that the Digital Circus team saw another way they could support busy, overwhelmed teachers. “That period exposed a series of gaps in how well schools were set up digitally, and many teachers really struggled with ideas on how to teach classes remotely,” says Toni.

So, the team began releasing free teaching resources over Facebook, with their Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori resource, published during our second nationwide lockdown, being downloaded 25,000 times (equating to one in six New Zealand teachers). The volume of views, likes and shares had the unintended consequence of raising Digital Circus’s brand equity at a time where teachers were captive, at their laptops, and desperately needing help.

“Around the same time, we recognised the importance of diversifying our business for greater stability. We wanted to explore new opportunities,” says Nicola. “Toni had the great idea of establishing Digital Kete, which would be a platform where teachers could find resources and inspiration for all sorts of teaching topics.”

So, she and Ian supported Toni and web developer Matt to get the platform off the ground. “I don’t think we would have done it if we didn’t have Matt on the team,” admits Nicola. “But having the skills to do all the development, all the coding and content in-house meant the risk and the cost were minimised.”

Just over a year later, in late 2022, the subscription-based platform launched, quickly garnering a solid following of individuals and schools looking for a leg-up in the classroom. “At the moment, we have a database of both free and paid resources on the site and we’re producing at least 10 new resources each week,” says Toni, who adds that she is keen for teachers to tell her what they want so she can make it. “We’re aiming to cover off all the calendar events like ANZAC Day, Matariki and so on but we love it when teachers message us with their needs.”

Digital Circus and Digital Kete now support seven full time employees and a number of contractors, and their diversification plans continue – Nicola is publishing a series of educational books, and Ian is scoping out ways the team can best support the new Aotearoa histories curriculum as it’s rolled out across New Zealand this year. They run community initiatives through Hastings Library, the Hastings Schools Digi Awards and held their very own education conference here in Hawke’s Bay called Inspire. 

Within the private sector too, Digital Circus works with both local and national organisations to help redesign their educational packages to include the latest, cutting edge teaching tools. And they’re part way through a rebranding process, introducing a new logo and set of values that are important to them as they move forward.

As busy as it sounds, at the business’s heart are a group of people who are – quite simply – passionate about teaching. “We didn’t come into this to become entrepreneurs,” says Ian. “We came into it because we wanted to make a difference in the education space. Everything else is a bonus.” 




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