Ysgol Y Moelwyn finds that smart networking can put students in the driving seat of their learning
Elfyn Anwyl set his Year 9s at Ysgol Y Moelwyn, Blaenau Ffestiniog, the brief for their fresh 100 Word Challenge and watched as they created new pages in Hwb+ for themselves and settled into the work. The only talk came as they answered each other's questions.
Their ICT teacher was free to move to a nearby PC and review their creations in the blog facility of Hwb+, sometimes raising general points with them verbally, sparked by what he had seen, and reminding them to review and comment on at least three pieces of work once their own were complete and had been posted.
The students were enjoying this new and engaging way of learning, and Elfyn reflected on how Hwb+, Wales' national education network, allowed him to put his students in the driving seat of their learning while he could use it to better steer, support and understand them. It allowed him to change his own practice and get nearer his learners for insights into how they learned.
Integration of digital tools already starting to happen
Of course he had been given glimpses of this kind of work by earlier, dabbling with internet tools, But with Hwb+, the private and secure part of Hwb, Wales' national network for learning and teaching, the integration of such digital tools was starting to happen.
The 100 Word Challenge (110wc.net), an innovative and very popular service created by former Bristol headteacher Julia Skinner, had already proved its worth at Ysgol Y Moelwyn. And he was delighted that he could still use it from within Hwb+, courtesy of the blogging module. Another aspect that was a clear winner was the fact that all the children had something concrete to show from their lesson, a discrete piece of work that would also get attention from their peers.
The only outstanding aspect remained how to link the students' work to the 100-word Challenge website so they could get external feedback for their work, a proven source of satisfaction and motivation, particularly as earlier work had been commented on by readers as far away as the USA. Blaenau Ffestiniog is a remote community – "An hour and half drive from the nearest Starbucks," quipped teacher digital leader Gruff Humphreys – so responses from overseas hold important additional cachet.
Even at this early stage, and working with a limited broadband service that at the time of this visit was being addressed by a national booster initiative, the value of Hwb was being established at Ysgol Y Moelwyn. And the school had ambitious plans. The school leadership and all staff had been trained by national digital leaders Martin Austin and Alex Clewett who have given strong and much-valued support with the learning and teaching.
The result is that the four key Hwb+ software tools – wikis, blogs, surveys and discussions – quickly proved their worth with students in the classrooms. Home use was a little slower but the school went out and purchased its own internet domain name to make signing-in easier for its community which was almost all already online.
Deputy headteacher Eleri Moss felt that expectations of Hwb+ were exceeded by the simplicity of the system. It goes beyond the four easy-to-use software tools. There were plans to put up audio and video files to support the talking and listening required for modern foreign languages.
There was an expectation that the humanities would be the first to exploit the system but in fact departments were getting involved as soon as they saw the opportunities. The art department wasted no time in setting up its online art gallery of students' work and used the digital tools for commenting on, and discussing, work by students and any artwork of interest on the wider web.
Literacy is a national priority in Wales and this school addresses it in every department so Hwb+ is a natural tool for this work. While Ysgol Y Moelwyn is a Welsh medium school, literacy is also addressed for English which, for some youngsters, needs strengthening.
Anticipation for the the benefits offered by Office365
There was also great anticipation of the potential of Office365 which will bring online versions of Microsoft's professional-class applications to any device used by the learners. "This is a deprived area," said digital leader Martin Austin who, like all the other national digital leaders, is a former teacher. "All students can now use Word, Excel and PowerPoint, which we use in school, whereas before Hwb+ they might not have had access." His colleague Alex Clewett added, "People are not buying PCs any more. They are buying tablets. As long as they are using a browser they can use the Office apps."
There was also a strong focus on the well-being of the students. Plans were being made for students' own sections on Hwb+, whether they were for student council activities or a 'worry box' to feed back on issues to teachers. And the school was committed to continue to provide buses to take children home from the after-school computer clubs which help those who still have no access at home.
Meanwhile the school culture had starting to change as students were given more control of their learning and teachers opened up to new opportunities. On the evening of this visit teachers were attending a HwbMeet (a version of TeachMeet) in Bangor. And the heavy dependence on computer rooms for access to ICT was changing as mobile technology was being introduced along with wireless networking.
Most encouraging though was the immediate take-up by the learners. "The pupils have really taken to it," said Elfyn Anwyl (who has sinced moved on to teach in Harlech). "'Are we using Hwb today?' is one of the questions I regularly get asked at the beginning of lessons. I'm not sure whether it's just partly because it's new and different, but they are definitely engaged." "It's more a part of their world," added Eleri Moss
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This series of articles on Hwb, the Welsh national learning network, is reproduced with the kind permission of the Welsh Government for whom they were originally commissioned in 2013 by Learning Possibilities (LP). LP has been implementing the integration of Hwb+, the private element of the network (based on its commercial product LP+), with Microsoft’s Office365 online service for schools in Wales.