Connected 20 – Glow Interview

Connected 20

I was interviewed recently on Glow by Whitelight Media for Connected 20.

The questions came from our readers see below for my best attempt at answers.
Viewpoint: Laurie O’Donnell

You have been quoted as saying that Glow is the most ambitious education ICT project in the world.

How are we doing so far?

We are putting in place the world’s first national schools intranet, and that’s a very ambitious programme. Glow is an attempt to provide a level playing field, so that whether you are living on a remote island or in a big city, you will have the same access to high-quality ICT resources. It’s about equality of access, creating a national service that’s available to big, small, rural, urban – that’s really important.

I think every country in the world will connect schools like this – we’re just the first. Scotland has a long and proud record of building a high-achieving and high-equity education system. Part of that national tradition is to innovate and change. We were one of the first to have a curriculum that was not based on the Classics, and among the first to base education around universal literacy. Glow sits within that. It’s not about having a backward education system that needs to be updated; it’s about innovating part of a system that’s already built on very strong foundations. It’s not a solution technology – it’s an enabling technology.

We are still in the foothills of realising the benefits of ICT in schools and this is supported by the findings of the 2006 HMIE ICT report. Our curriculum, assessment, CPD and infrastructure will continue to change as we seek to engage our children and young people in learning and give them the means to make a good life for themselves in an increasingly globalised economy.

Glow is just another step along the road of continuous improvement for Scottish education – a journey that has always tried to make use of the best available technology, from the slate to the pencil and from the blackboard to the overhead projector, and of course in terms of ICT, from the stand-alone computer of the 1980s to the web-enabled device of today connecting to Glow any time and anywhere.

One indicator of how we are doing is the level of international interest in Glow from across the world. Recent visits to schools in Singapore, USA, England, Wales and Northern Ireland suggest to me that education systems are all facing the same challenges. One of these challenges relates to how we make sophisticated ICT services available to schools. We expect cost-effective, sustainable and scalable services on the one hand (ie providing best value to the public purse) and on the other hand they need to be able to support personalised learning as well as collaborative learning, and to enable and facilitate the sharing of resources and the development of communities of practice, and much more (ie systems that are fit for purpose in the context of 21st-century education).

I expect other countries to follow in Scotland’s steps as they attempt to connect their teachers and learners to bring their schools into the 21st century – or should that be to bring the 21st century into their schools!

The best part of £40m of taxpayers’ money has already been committed to this project. What do you think the return on investment will be for the country as a whole?

The return on investment has three dimensions. First of all it’s about economies of scale, secondly it’s about releasing teacher time from routine tasks, and thirdly it’s about investment in the future of our young people.

The numbers are big with Glow not only in terms of cost but also coverage: all 32 local authorities; 3000 schools; 750,000 learners; 53,000 teachers; all trainee teachers and their lecturers; all local authority education staff; SQA; HMIE; LTS and others. Over time we also want to work with local authorities to provide access to parents, but that may be a few years down the line.

When you take that into account, £40m doesn’t seem as much. That’s not to say that I’m not conscious that it’s £40m of taxpayers’ money that could have been spent on health or other key areas, but you have to have a sense of scale.

We have gone through a rigorous European procurement process which generated fierce competition for the Glow contract and we have been able to secure excellent value to the public purse because we a talking about a country rather than a school, cluster of schools or local authority. The five-year £37.5m Glow intranet contract with RM divides into two parts – roughly half to develop and integrate the systems and the other half to provide Glow as a service.

So, firstly there’s a sense of scale. Secondly, there are the savings. In the short-term, if every teacher saves even an hour a week by being able to access support, advice and high-quality resources through Glow, then it very quickly starts to pay for itself. If you assume a teacher is paid roughly £20 an hour and only half of Scottish teachers save an hour a week, you generate £500k of ‘savings’ every week through Glow. If every teacher saves an hour a week then it’s £1m a week – or the total investment in Glow every year. These ‘savings’ are not cashable, ie the Government does not make savings on teachers’ salaries, but rather teachers are released from routine tasks to spend more time on teaching and supporting learning.

Thirdly, and in the longer-term, it is about the overall quality of Scottish education as it continues to innovate and develop. Scotland has many natural resources but our most important resource is our people and Glow is an investment in the future of our young people. What do our schools look like in the 21st century? I think it’s unimaginable to have a school now without technology, just as it would be for a bank, hospital or workplace.

Glow provides a trusted and safe resource to bring the benefits of social networking. It uses the power of technology in a learning context, making it much safer. That’s why the investment was agreed and that’s why it remained even after the change of administration.

In the same way that other countries are interested in the Glow model for education, there is considerable interest from elsewhere in the public sector in Scotland and it may be that another aspect of the return on investment for the country is in the development of Glow as a prototype for a wider public sector shared online service.

Local authorities need to put a lot of work into preparing for Glow. What would you say is its strongest selling point from their point of view?

The strongest selling point of Glow is that it’s a national system that will be able to connect teachers and learners across 3000 schools and beyond. If you’re a maths teacher in Argyll and Bute you can communicate with other teachers in your school but now also extend that to other areas. It creates an opportunity for national collaboration. Every single resource created in the classroom should be able to be saved and communicated through Glow. The best lessons can be saved and reused. You will of course adapt that resource, but it’s wonderful to have. It extends sharing between departments and schools to the whole country. The days of teachers, departments, schools and even local authorities reinventing the wheel should be numbered. Glow provides the structures to support collaboration and sharing across Scotland.

Teachers have been hearing a lot about Glow over the last 18 months, but many are asking ‘Why is Glow not in my classroom yet?’ How would you respond to this question?

The job of making Glow available to local authorities has been completed on time, to budget and as specified. However, implementing Glow at a local authority level is not a trivial task. Each local authority has to have detailed plans that cover everything from local technical support to staff training and development. It is important that local authorities are given the time to implement Glow when they are ready and to be able to do the job well. Our hope is that Glow will be available to every teacher and every learner in local authority primary and secondary schools by early in 2009 and we will do everything we can to support the local authorities to get Glow into their classrooms.

One of the challenges is in how we promote Glow. The people who really need to sell it are the teachers and learners; they’re the advocates. But at the same time we have £40m investment and we need to justify it. I believe it’s my duty to make sure people are aware of the opportunities that that money brings. However, at the end of the day Glow is a voluntary programme, so it’s important to strike a balance.

If teachers want to see ‘Glow in action’, where would they go to see examples of how it’s being used in and across schools and local authorities right now?

The first schools to use Glow are in East Dunbartonshire, with schools in Dundee, Renfrewshire and South Lanarkshire following quickly behind. We hope to capture the best of Glow online on the Glow website. LTS also manages an email bulletin – Glowing – which you can sign up to online. Of course, Connected will continue to cover Glow, as it has since Glow was just an idea back in 2001.

Schools from outside Scotland can also use Glow – how does this work?

Glow can accommodate international guests. The route to accessing Glow is through the Glow customer agreement with local authorities, the SQA, HMIE and other bodies. All of these users can invite guests – be they one-off visitors or partner schools abroad – and limit what they can access. For example, a teacher doing a project with a school overseas can sign in the guest school, chat over the web, hold a videoconference and much more. At the end, the visitor account is closed. It’s very flexible but someone has to ‘own’ the guest, and make sure that that person behaves properly, without destroying the innovative use of technology. There are of course other social network tools available but they are not designed for education, and Glow offers a safe forum.

We know there are already plans in place for Glow 2. How do you see Glow and Glow 2 driving forward transformational change in Scottish education over the next five to ten years?

We have started to call what happens after the current Glow contract comes to an end Glow 2 and our work in preparing the ground for this is also progressing well. We started thinking about Glow 2 in 2001, when we first started to develop Glow 1! We knew that Glow 1 would take years, but we would only do that once. By the time Glow 2 comes out the schools will have a common infrastructure, so the hard part is over. The question is what to do once that’s established.

The biggest change is the personalised curriculum. You see it in health and other sectors too – your services meet your profile, you’re not just a number in a big queue. I have started to call this development of a more personalised curriculum ‘My Curriculum for Excellence’. Glow 2 will have the aspiration of personalised learning in the context of Curriculum for Excellence at its heart.

When I was a teacher I had a pupil who loved buses, and I look back and think that we could have personalised his curriculum more. Key to learning is motivation. A big review by the OECD showed that there are two groups of pupils. One group wants to go to university and so the pupils are motivated to pass their exams, even in the subjects they don’t like, whilst the other half wants to leave school and get a job, so perhaps they won’t stick in as much. Motivation is about tapping in to what most interests each pupil, finding that enthusiasm and building the structure around them.

However, any meaningful level of personalisation is simply not practical without sophisticated technologies, extensive libraries of digital resources and online access to teachers and learners that extend beyond the classroom or the school or for that matter the country. It allows us to open many of the doors.

I am often asked what Glow 2 will look like. My short answer is probably more like a computer game than the current version of Glow – something like a cross between the online game SecondLife (let’s call it SecondSchool) and an interactive game for the Nintendo Wii. You move between the physical world of the classroom and the digital world full of people and resources there to support your learning. It’s a move to a more active, interactive and engaging use of technology.

There has been a big change in the past decade from young people being passive consumers of new media to the producers, actors and designers. That change will move technology to another level. The world outside of education has changed and that will ripple through learning and teaching.

One thing for sure is that technologies change much quicker than education and having a job in the space where the two meet continues to be both a challenge and a delight.

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1 Comment

  1. Nice one, Laurie!

    £40m over 5 years, by the way, works out at around £1.20 per pupil per week. Not bad for what they will get from Glow, I reckon.