Bringing the digital revolution to teaching

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
Torfaen's cutting-edge classroom project is sharpening the skills of pupils and staff alike

Original paper headline: High-tech `learning plazas' turn teaching on to digital revolution

Big changes have been afoot in Torfaen schools over recent months, with rumours of strange new equipment being bundled in and classrooms cleared out over the weekend. Now the local authority has revealed an ambitious vision to put itself at the heart of a digital revolution in education.

Torfaen opened its first "learning plaza" at Abersychan Comprehensive last month to kick off a major project, supported by pound;750,000 worth of funding from the Heads of The Valleys, an Assembly government regeneration project.

Speaking at the launch of the new digital strategy, Mark Provis, Torfaen's chief education officer, said Abersychan had been transformed.

"The school used to be covered in dust as the students here were taught about mining," he said. "Now it is again leading in a different technological revolution - a digital one."

The school's new plaza is a network of large, open-plan rooms filled with cutting-edge technology such as wall-mounted flat screens, touch-screen tabletop computers and video-conferencing facilities.

Live news is constantly being streamed on one wall while broadcasts from the school's television studio are shown on another. The school has invested in a bank of laptops and the whole building is connected by Wi- Fi.

The space is being used to teach up to 60 pupils and train teachers, support staff and governors from across Torfaen in the technology.

Mike Conway, head of Abersychan, said pupils had fully embraced the changes even though they had happened very quickly.

"An old building full of conventional classrooms was gutted in a weekend," he said. "We have now been training all our staff who come from totally different starting points - most are ICT literate but this blew them away.

"The motivational factor in lessons is going to be great. A data centre is being built in (nearby) Blaenavon and some pupils will hopefully be working there. This technology will develop their ICT and key skills and make them more employable."

There are even plans for pupils to work on games consoles and mobile phones.

Farooq Dastgir, Torfaen's lead transformation officer, said teachers were still working out how to manage the technology in the classroom.

"We are teaching at the boundaries of education, and we are actively working with pupils and teachers to see how this works and how we can make it safer for them," he said.

"For example, kids interact with their Nintendo Wiis all the time, so why can't you put homework on a Game Boy? Children talk and text their friends on their phones - some see it as a good thing and some bad."

The school is also developing a system for producing teachers' resources as professional-looking documents so they can be distributed online for use further afield.

And while Abersychan will act as a training hub for teachers, every school in Torfaen has benefited from technological investment. One-fifth of schools now have Wi-Fi but the plan is to connect every school within the next few years.

Two other learning plazas have been built at Blenheim Road Primary and Penygarn Primary, while every pupil at Victoria Primary has been given a laptop to use in lessons.

Padre Pio in Pontypool, a brand new primary, was billed as a "state-of- the-art" school when it opened last year. The Roman Catholic diocese, Assembly government and Torfaen Council spent pound;3.5 million on the building, making it completely wireless, installing a video-conferencing suite and putting interactive whiteboards in every classroom.

Three schools, including Garnteg Primary and Pontnewynydd Primary, have even built fully functional TV studios for pupils to use.

Deb Woodward, head of Pontnewynydd Primary, said the studio would benefit children's language, literacy and thinking skills.

"Our pupils are producing work of a professional standard at a much earlier age, raising their aspirations," she said. "Our Year 5 and 6 pupils are even teaching younger ones."

All staff have been trained to use the equipment and the school plans to give parents an opportunity to try it out after school hours.

"We have been very lucky that our staff are fighting to use it," Ms Woodward said. "Hopefully, those who have more of a feel for it will be able to share it with others and it will become sustainable."

Mr Provis said that it was essential that teachers were confident with the new technology.

"When we first introduced this to Abersychan, some teachers were positively scared of it," he said. "They thought we were going to replace teachers with machines. But the aim is to work alongside traditional classrooms and teaching. Young people are fully digitally engaged and it's up to us to catch up with where they are. But it's got to be driven by teachers."

Two networking communities have been set up to harness teachers' enthusiasm for the changes, and one group is already developing a genealogy project to enable primary pupils to research their ancestors.

The authority is also working with the University of Wales, Newport, to study how teachers use the new technology and working to develop teacher training modules.

Professor David Hawker, director general of the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills, also speaking at the project launch, described the role of the plaza in continuing professional development as "inspirational".

"I don't think digital learning has been as well thought out anywhere as it is here," he said. "It is a strategy that I would like to see replicated across Wales and I think it's a model for us at the Assembly government."

Torfaen's written strategy looks at developing IT in schools over the next five years but accepts that technology changes at a rapid pace.

"Our strategy will need to be continually revised to accommodate this," the document says.

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