A brave new world

11th April 2008 at 01:00
Laurie O'Donnell's work on Glow, Scotland's schools intranet, has won plaudits from the director of Star Wars - but he insists that science fiction must not become reality at the expense of traditional teaching. Henry Hepburn reports

A few years ago, Laurie O'Donnell was at his daughter's P2 parents' evening when the teacher sheepishly confessed that the classroom computer was sitting unused.

O'Donnell was Dundee City Council's man in charge of helping schools get more out of computers - so the teacher was steeling herself for a dressing-down.

She was surprised by his response: "I said my daughter can read well, is happy, has made lots of friends - she's really progressed. If teachers feel it's not the right time to use the computer, that's fine. They shouldn't use it just because it's there."

O'Donnell is at the forefront of Glow, Scotland's ground-breaking schools intranet. But, while his vision is to see it sitting alongside Bebo and MySpace, he remains more pragmatist than evangelist: "The vision is very much a community of 53,000 teachers not reinventing the wheel, but sharing and developing resources."

He stresses that a teacher telling a story is often the best lesson, and that handling a piece of volcanic rock may be the right introduction to the earth's subterranean power. The complexities of nuclear fusion, though, may be better demonstrated through a computer-based resource.

Glow is about giving teachers and pupils more freedom rather than forcing them into new ways of doing things, he says. He envisages that they may go weeks at a time without using it if there are better ways of getting ideas across.

O'Donnell became a member of the George Lucas Educational Foundation's "Global Six" - for people who are reshaping education in their country - thanks largely to his work on Glow. The foundation, started by the Star Wars director, knew of no other national schools intranet and was impressed with how Glow was driven not by one or two people, but by many figures in Learning and Teaching Scotland and local authorities.

O'Donnell recalls that chief executive Milton Chen was "blown away by the scope and the scale", but his own assessment is more modest: "We're adding on a piece to the repertoire of the teacher."

O'Donnell did his first computing course as a sixth year pupil in 1978. It involved mere "number-crunching", but still stoked his interest. After leaving Edinburgh University with a politics degree, he wanted to combine two passions by becoming a modern studies and computing teacher, only to be told by Moray House that such a combination was not possible; he had to drop modern studies and take maths instead.

He continues to make unorthodox connections and describes himself as a "magpie" for ideas. How blogs and YouTube have turned consumers of media into creators fascinates him. So prevalent are computers in young people's lives that he believes education has no choice but to embrace them. "It's increasingly difficult to justify not using a computer at school," he says.

A more sophisticated schools intranet, Glow 2, is in the planning, before the original version is fully established. O'Donnell envisages a cross between the online game SecondLife and interactive games for the Nintendo Wii. But where SecondLife is often portrayed as an addictive virtual world where players become detached from reality, O'Donnell hopes young people will move "seamlessly" between the physical and online worlds. "A teacher might read a poem and discuss it, then they might go into the virtual world to discuss it, maybe go to a virtual library, perhaps meet the author."

O'Donnell is acutely aware of the support teachers will need to guide pupils through this new world. He is as prone as any other adult to ritual humiliation from his children when it comes to computer games such as Guitar Hero 3, where players have to strum along to classic songs: "I can't get past the first one."

Born in Edinburgh in 1961, raised in Uphall, West Lothian, son of a joiner and hotel worker.

Educated at Our Lady's High in Broxburn and Edinburgh University, where he started studying physics but finished with a degree in politics in 1985.

Computing and maths teacher at Edinburgh's Wester Hailes Education Centre, 1986-90

Temporary secondment as assistant principal teacher of computing at Drummond Community High, Edinburgh, 1989

Principal teacher of computing at Alyth High, Perthshire, 1990-92, and at Craigie High, Dundee, 1992-96

Labour councillor on Dundee District Council, 1992-96

Assistant head at Glenwood High, Glenrothes, 1996-99

ICT development officer for Dundee City Council, running the National Grid for Learning in the city, 1999-2001

Joins Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2001.

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