Stephen Heppell

Our chairman, professor Stephen Heppell shares best practices on helping you make your home working space the very best it can be to keep you bright, engaged, clever and productive. click here to read Stephens post on working from home and click here to read his post on online working.

Looking back, we were delighted with our participation numbers, the quantity of resources and of children’s work, the sheer scale, our confirmed hunches about the future, and of the way that our decisions about tight protection at all times of our users’ privacy, have proved to be absolutely correct.

But looking back there are some useful lessons from the project – which Microsoft confirmed as “a global showcase and an example of how technology can support change in educational practice” (Larry Nelson, Worldwide Managing Director). These aren’t a criticism of the past, just a useful set of key learnings from this vast project to inform everyone’s future practice:

  1. Building a platform for all the children in a nation is complex. If you do it really well, no one will know just how complex it was! For the Hwb+ system has used 821 GB which includes 42 GB of public facing Web site files (Read More). But technology helps complexity to be managed. That technology will change and it is important to have eyes on the horizon whilst the practical feet on the ground stuff is happening. As an example the work we did to plug in data analytics is important in 2018, but will be enormously more important by 2020.


  1. Secondly, it is easy for policymakers to forget about the children from time to time. Our Welsh users created an enormous amount of work – from blogs and poems to coursework and exam material. This isn’t just a vast repository of their good work, it is a valuable historical archive that will be increasingly valuable as time passes. Thought needs to be given to that resource before it gets to be too big to cherish.


  1. Of course, teachers are without a doubt the most hardworking group of professionals on the planet. They are smart, qualified, passionate about their children and often exhausted! Enabling their professional development needs to be about reducing their burden as teachers whilst making their teaching even more effective. That rarely happens from a top-down approach to CPD. We have very much wanted to support CPD using the wisdoms that were emerging from our most passionate users – by teachers for teachers. It is hard for top-down national policy to directly support bottom-up developments. That needs careful and enlightened planning.


  1. Analysing raw server data is difficult. The easy numbers are rarely actually simple. For example users might share computers, might amass work off-line connecting less regularly, might contribute multiple media as well as text, might be the indispensable “heart and soul of the community” but without contributing much formally, and so on. We really believe that good research can reveal far better insights than simple KPIs. That good research needs to be built in and funded, and part of the dialogue with users.


  1. But finally, as we had confirmed by so many tweets and blogs and conversations and enthusiastic children: this was worth doing. With almost 200 countries in the world, the baton is being passed on from Wales. What those countries do next will be even more interesting…

Our six year contract with the Welsh government has now reached its conclusion; following the three year extension after an independent review confirming its “value for money”. Time to look back, and forwards!

Our conversations with the government began in 2012 and rightly there was a complex and competitive procurement route to follow from there. Nevertheless, everyone wanted to get started as quickly as possible; a year would seem a very long wait for a five year old! Hwb+ began quickly, and grew even quicker. We launched the project with Leighton Andrews, the then Education Minister in 3 months, Andrews referred to the project as a “world-class system for those aged 3 to 19” (Source: BBC, 2012). At Learning Possibilities we are proud of the scale and impact of our work in Wales with 540,0000 active accounts and 87% of schools logging in in 2017 (Read More) and being referred to by Microsoft as “one of the largest deployments of its type” (Larry Nelson, Worldwide Managing Director).

The last decade has seen so many new technology developments: satnav on your phone, Snapchat, Instagram, üBer, 4G networking, properly smart watches, the Hadron Collider, Siri with Alexa and friends, and so much more. Our project began on a very fast moving conveyor belt of global innovation and we felt that all our design work had to be “future aware”. Even our six years with the Welsh government have proved to be a long time in technology-years. As the contract’s years passed, we added everything from Skype conferencing to big data analytics, but also pragmatic things like off-line working and many more terabytes of storage. Not everything needed to evolve; our initial certainty about the importance of user privacy might have seemed a bit obsessive at the outset, but has proved to be prescient as recent scandals about data privacy have shown. Welsh students’ data safely housed in the UK now looks very clearly the right call. What evolved in this case was others’ understanding of online danger.

Perhaps most interestingly, where Hwb+ had begun perhaps as a shared learning platform, it became the cement in a community of learners and one with a designed future-proofing, because we knew, and know, the emerging and changing needs of learners.

One key lesson from Finland’s much lauded education system is of the importance of collaboration and exchange between schools going forwards. As the OECD put it: “Children entering school in 2018…  Will need to be responsible and empowered, placing collaboration above division, and sustainability above short-term gain” (Read more here). That OECD vision of collegiality and collaboration needs more than a tool to support blogs, chats, homework and content. It needs accessible and visual data that allows the individual to model and compare their efforts, and for teams to see who has done what, for whom.

The Welsh government were prescient back in 2012 to commission the very tool that would allow their users to build national collaboration. What started as a platform finished looking very much like a conduit for community.

And now, as we move forward it is perhaps no surprise to the see the level of interest from other nations as they too seek to make their learning better and to build the sense of togetherness that is looking more and more important as a slightly unstable world moves forward.

We were hugely proud of what we did in wales, but even more excited to see what we can do for other nations as they realise the power of collaborative spaces for learners and professionals alike, on-line and face to face. One important dimension in that collaboration is the role of language and of course our Welsh project was properly bi-lingual with Welsh and English to the fore. Technology is only just starting to hint at its ability to allow collaboration across cultures, but surely nothing is more important socially? Technology might eventually bring us something akin to Douglas Adam’s Babelfish, but without evolving the habit of equitable cross cultural collaboration, such wonderful technologies will be wasted.

Six years of progress? Well yes, but for us it was also 6 years of clarity in our understanding of what learners and teachers need, worldwide. Can’t wait to see what the next 6 years bring…

Back in 2014, I was asked by the then ministers for schools – Michael Gove, for universities – David Willetts and for Industry – Matthew Hancock, to look forward at technology in learning by 2025 and to offer them some policy recommendations that would enable innovation, whilst deepening and accelerating learning. They also insisted that this should all be “fun”.

With a wonderful team in our Educational Technology Action Group, we were able to fairly clearly define that world of Future Learning. Today in 2018 it is apparent just how accurate were with our predictions and it is interesting to consider the implication of these future directions today.

Firstly, we suggested that even by 2020 we would know a lot more about the little details of better learning. Taking a cue perhaps from Olympic and elite sports, it is the aggregation of those little marginal gains that build remarkable progress. In Education, this means attention to every detail from behaviour protocols to the temperature, light, CO2 and sound levels in our learning environments. For example, small mobile devices have enabled children to monitor their own noise levels. In a London school, this means an old tablet running a decibel meter app on a stand with two children watching it and successfully nagging their peers to keep volumes down. In a Sydney school, it means BYOP (Bring Your Own Plant) as children bring their own plants in to boost oxygen and minimise CO2 levels. Just as with health, as we know more about how to improve things, it is the children who take action to make their learning better. In a world of cloud data and the internet of things, they are increasingly well armed to do precisely this.

Secondly, we could see that learning was going global. With great video linking tools like Skype and some powerful real-time translation technologies doing the hard world in global activity, the challenge is now helping children to understand the difference between doing project work with other students on the same line of longitude (and with school day times that are roughly aligned) or with other students on the same line on latitude (who can carry on working whilst our student sleep). The only way to do this is through online collaboration and the opportunities for that have never been better with online platforms and tools like our own LP+365.

Finally, it was already clear in 2014 that emerging technologies are becoming ever more personal, with phones and watches offering remarkable power already and folk watching bespoke TV channels or contributing their own.

These three trends put children themselves (and indeed all learners) very much at the heart of future learning’s progress. If learning going more personal is not to become a solitary lonely world, then schools and others need to work hard at collaboration and collegiality. Doing things together matters. As the PISA tests so beloved by politicians evolve it is no surprise today to see collaborative problem-solving at the heart of the new capabilities that PIS seeks to use to rank nations.

So, future learning is already very much with us. We know more about better learning and need to apply it, learning is going global and needs strategies, whilst our learners need voice and vote in making their own learning better. This all sounds like to most exciting future for us all as of course, the pace of change is remarkable. 2025 will be here, as we promised in ETAG, by 2020!


I remember that even in the very earliest days of “electronic text” and the clunky old computers of the last century it was already clear from a mass of research that the ability to edit and vary text – the “mutability of writing” as it was then rather quaintly called – was a key component of the dramatic improvement in children’s writing that had emerged. That iterative “editing, finessing and refining element” went on to engage young creators in everything from digital video to computing code.

Right away the sense of audience for that work and the collaborative partnerships which formed around shared creativity were quickly seen as being at the heart of what was unashamedly a constructivist approach to demonstrably better learning. For example, as digital video emerged – Apple was then at the forefront with their QuickTime technology – nobody was very clear about what might be done, about what was possible or desirable. I was part of a hugely enjoyable couple of days in London where some titans from the world of cinema and television (Ken Russell, Connie Booth, Jo Fiennes, John Hurt, Hugh Lawrie and many more were partnered with school students from around the UK to see just what we could create with a digital video camera and the ability to edit on a computer. After two exhausting and hugely enjoyable days – Anneka my 10-year-old partner from Ireland, was indefatigable – we had a memorable party (even some Spice Girls turned up!) and all sat down to watch each other’s efforts. Several things were immediately apparent: it confirmed the power of audience, the quality of work was unexpectedly very high, the “experts” had clearly enjoyed considerable input from their school student partners and, my goodness, and it was competitive.

Those components proved to be equally powerful as children embrace the breadth of opportunities for writing through blogs, wikis, forums, fan-fiction sites and more. Today, I seem to be constantly commenting on a suite of class blogs somewhere in the world. These young writers, of course, are motivated by an audience, but all the more so when it is a global audience – as a professor in Madrid I seem especially welcome. The students really do support each other’s authoring efforts. Recently, I was enjoying watching a group of students critiquing each other’s work online where the mantra was “tough on the content, easy on the author”. The warmth of their support for each other was palpable, but they didn’t hold back on the “you need to do this for excellence” advice; tough on the content indeed.

So, maybe 30 years after we first put these writing tools in front of young writers, we are seeing the class blogs and the locally grounded context-specific wikis finally widely embraced as writing tools. Beyond the well-documented improvements in writing, a little bit of imagination helps us further reveal their social impact. Discourse/text analysis lets us search bodies of writing to highlight changes over time. Simple Wordle images show, for example, how pronouns can reveal the growth of collaboration as “I, me and mine” give way to “we, us, and ours”. This emerging mutuality matters enormously in 2017 as the international yardstick for learning, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has moved to embrace and to value collaborative endeavour. PISA seems to have had a bit of an epiphany; OECD / PISA Director of Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, speaking in Beijing, commented that: “Our schools need to prepare students to live and work in a world in which most people now need to collaborate with people of diverse cultural origins, and appreciate different ideas, perspectives and values; a world in which people need to decide how to trust and collaborate across such differences, and more and more we will depend on technology to bridge space and time”. And PISA will be ranking countries by that ability for their students to work together, across cultures.

So, in some thirty years, Blogs and Wikis have gone from something which effectively enhanced the writing that we were already doing, to be a tool to deliver the new skills of collaboration and shared creativity that we need going forward. In a way, that mirrors the impact of technology on all our learning: we start with how technology might enhance what we are already doing and then move to seek the new things that we could never do before, but which we know will matter. Probably this would be a good time to remind everyone reading THIS blog of how simple it is to access the blog and wiki tools in LP+!


The 1980’s

I remember when we first connected schools together using online technologies in the 1980s, it seemed like the future was already here! (more…)