Hwb+ and Digital Wales – guest post from Gerald Haigh

Earlier this year Gerald Haigh visited South Wales, meeting with teachers and members of the Welsh Government to discuss Digital Wales and the Hwb+ platform.


Digital Wales’, in the words of Julie James, Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology, ‘….is the Welsh Government’s long term strategy for making Wales a truly digital nation….It sets out five key objectives -- to tackle the digital divide, to improve digital skills, to grow our digital economy, to provide better online public services and to deliver faster broadband across Wales.’

The expectation, says the Deputy Minister, is that Wales will become the first part of the UK to achieve a comprehensive national digital strategy:

‘This will make Wales one of the best and most innovative providers of online services in the world.’

Education, clearly, has to be in the vanguard of that advance, and in March 2012 the taskforce ‘Find it, make it, use it, share it: learning in digital Wales’, chaired by primary headteacher Janet Hayward of Cadoxton school, in Barry, made recommendations calling for a coherent approach across the country:

"…the use of digital technologies and resources needs to change from being sporadic and patchy to being ubiquitous and taken for granted in education throughout Wales."

Achieving this, the taskforce said, would mean providing schools with a learning system making use of the cloud and accessible by all devices including handheld. The expectation and aim is to promote collaboration at all levels – within schools, between school and home, and between schools across the nation and beyond, broadening horizons and sharing best practice, knowledge and experience.

Building on the work of the taskforce, and a review of the Welsh curriculum by Professor Graham Donaldson, the Welsh Government announced in June 2015 that as part of radical plans to reform the Welsh curriculum, putting digital competence on a par with literacy and numeracy, a new framework to introduce digital competence across the curriculum to help pupils of all ages widen and develop their digital skills will be available to schools by September 2016.

Adopting Hwb+ and Office 365

In line with the taskforce’s recommendations, in September 2012, ‘LP+4’ from Learning Possibilities, already familiar in many other parts of the UK, was chosen following a full competitive tender process, as the national learning management system for Wales, becoming ‘Hwb+’ in line with Welsh requirements, including being fully bilingual. In support of the adoption, the government announced funding of £39m to improve broadband connectivity to schools and in-school infrastructure such as Wi-Fi coverage.

This transformative national initiative has Microsoft technology at its heart. Hwb+, like LP+ is a hybrid solution built on Microsoft SharePoint, and Microsoft Office 365 is fully integrated in the complete solution installed in schools. Chris Owen, Head of the government’s Digital Learning Unit says:

"A key feature of Hwb+ is that it’s built on the Microsoft technology stack. We also wanted a productivity suite, and Office 365 fills that need and aligns tightly with the Hwb+ platform, with single sign-on."

Implementation strategy

The Welsh Government’s chosen strategy for introducing Hwb+ and Microsoft Office 365 to Welsh schools is what some would call the ‘big bang’. That’s to say every school has been given the technology. There have been no ‘waves’ of adoption, because the aim is to achieve equality of access for all, and to stimulate collaboration right from the start. As Chris Owen puts it, ‘the policy was to get the platform out there and drive the adoption.’ Some may raise eyebrows at this. After all, do we not believe, after observing some egregious device-led misjudgements, that the vision for teaching and learning has to come before the technology?

That, however, is exactly the point. Behind this ambitious strategy is the Welsh Government’s clear intention to transform teaching and learning, and encourage the child-centred, collaborative, enquiry-based approach that’s implicit in the Welsh ‘extended’ Foundation Phase, and the project based Welsh Baccalaureate. Case studies of early implementations of Hwb+ commissioned by the Government emphasise this by their focus on aspects such as peer collaboration, student digital leaders, and moving away from ‘chalk and talk’ whole class teaching, towards independent learning. It's a bold and risky venture, not so much because of challenges around the technology, but because it implies a change of classroom culture which, inevitably will be easier to sell to some schools and teachers than to others.

Some would say it is made possible by the relatively small number -- 1600 -- of schools involved, but it would be a mistake to overestimate their homogeneity, or to assume that implementation is trouble-free.

Implementation in practice

The person at the government’s sharp end, running the project, is Chris Owen, who is at pains to emphasise the care that’s been taken to keep everyone on board.

‘The implementation has been challenging – aligning the needs across schools, engaging with stakeholders and working closely with Microsoft.’

Chris’s task is interesting to say the least. On the one hand he carries ‘top down’ responsibility for the implementation, while on the other he knows transformation will only be successful if it grows from the bottom up, as students, teachers and school leaders realise the potential of Hwb+ and Office 365. The aim is to embed the platform into the working life of each school. To that end the project has been well ‘seeded’ with early adopter teachers and schools, as Chris explains:

‘We have 56 accredited Hwb+ trainers – mainly local authority advisers, 18 schools designated as Hwb+ centres of excellence and 8 seconded teachers as digital leaders.'

Schools, for their part, are picking up the need to grow from the roots, realising the value of engaging the open-minded enthusiasm of their students and also reaching out to parents. The case studies of early adopters written for the Welsh Government by Merlin John give striking examples of this. A description of how the pupil digital leaders at Barry Island Primary are working with staff and other children leads Merlin to conclude:

‘The child-focused culture at this Barry school has developed to such an extent that its digital leaders are teaching other pupils and their teachers too. And their videos, which others find so useful, are also clear evidence of the children's own learning.’

The same approach of starting with the pupils was apparent when I visited All Saints Church of Wales Primary, where I met Deputy Head Aled Williams, who described what was, for him, a proud moment:

‘As part of our school CPD programme we had arranged for 10 pupils to do run a whole school INSET session. The children came into school, despite it being the start of their holiday and gave a presentation to staff about their learning on the Hwb+ platform. They showcased how they use Hwb+ to collaborate on projects and ideas in school and at home.’

It was, says Aled, a revelation in the way it showed children’s awareness and knowledge of how to use Hwb+ and One Drive to improve their own learning.

Aled makes the key point that the children involved, from his Year Six class, were not chosen from among his digital leaders.

‘Hwb+ is not about digital expertise,’ says Aled. ‘It’s about learning.’

A group of All Saints Year Six students made a similar presentation to me – a comprehensive and confident tour of Hwb+ from their own point of view. The recurring theme was collaboration:

‘If there’s some homework I can’t do, I can log on to Office 365 and ask my friend for help.’

‘We work together on PowerPoint presentations for other schools.’

It was clear to me that these children viewed the notion of collaboration both with each other and with other schools as quite natural. If that mindset becomes well embedded nationally, it can make a huge difference to the way children learn.

Among a number of successful projects, Aled mentions work he did with his class on Propaganda Posters, in World War 2 which turned out to be, for him, a key moment in demonstrating how Hwb+ could cross the home-school learning boundary.

‘The children came back with lots of responses and questions, researching at home and accessing resources from both sides’ points of view. In the lesson afterwards we discussed what we’d found and I learned along with them.’

And in Year Two, teacher Kirsty Mackintosh described how much the children enjoyed being able to see the work of Year Six pupils. Seven year old Millie told me how she’d been inspired to tell the story of the Three Little Pigs with the aid of PowerPoint.

‘Teaching is so much easier. Everything – planning and resources – all in one place, and I’m constantly surprised by what the children are able to do – logging on to their pages, using email, sharing their work. It’s making them much more independent.’

Aled also plays a key role in spreading the word to other schools – ‘I want to show people real life examples.’ The aim, throughout the whole implementation process is to reach both school leaders and, crucially, classroom teachers, using students and practitioners not to say, ‘This is how you should do it’, but to ease the new adopters into a mindset which says, ‘Yes, this would work in our school.’

The good news is that adoption is progressing at a pleasing rate – at the time of writing 800 schools were engaging with Hwb+ in some way. It seems likely that a ‘tipping point’ will be reached so that resistance or indifference will become unsustainable.

This study, a blog for Microsoft Education, should be read in conjunction with the case studies written for the Welsh Government by independent journalist Merlin John, who spent a large part of 2014 visiting schools and talking to advisers and government officers. The studies are most easily accessed on Merlin John Online

How Hwb+ helps learners drive and teachers steer
Cadoxton flies flag for Welsh digital learning revolution
Barry, where children learn by teaching - online too
Follow my digital leader - how Hwb+ rolls in Newport
Can networks like Hwb+ help improve teachers? Yes
When student digital leaders become the consultants

There’s much useful information, too, on the Learning Possibilities website.


Implementation factors

From all that I’ve learned of the Hwb+ implementation, I’ve tried to identify both success factors and barriers to success.

As ever, not all teachers and leaders are ready to accept change. This can be a particular issue in highly successful classrooms and schools, where existing methods and systems are well embedded and there’s reluctance to tamper with a winning formula.

In addition, Wales, though relatively small in area, with what seems a manageable number of schools, is, in fact very diverse. There is the full mix of communities – big urban sprawls, compact towns, isolated villages, and the corresponding variety of needs and priorities. Travel – for CPD or meetings even at local level can be surprisingly difficult. And, of course, unique with the UK, the nation is bilingual, which brings both opportunities and challenges.

Success factors
The product is mature, proven and successful, with a track record as LP+4, from Learning Possibilities, in other parts of the UK. It was developed in conjunction with schools, with seconded school leaders playing key roles.

Hwb+ is built on Microsoft technology, and integrates seamlessly with any other Microsoft technologies. This means that it is instantly recognisable to the overwhelming majority of users, including school and local authority technical staff.

Hwb+ makes use of the cloud, which means that it is accessible anytime, anywhere on any internet-enabled device. The strategy employed by the Learning in Digital Wales programme combines government backing and leadership from the top with real awareness that adoption has to take place in the hearts and minds of teachers. At the time of writing the rate of adoption is considered to be well in line with expectations.

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