To boldly Glow into the future

18th November 2011 at 00:00
It was designed to meet all the ICT needs of teachers and pupils, but the intranet has struggled to keep up with new technology.

Last month, on a rainy day in Stirling, the Scottish ICT community gathered to discuss the future of Glow and ICT in Scottish classrooms. It was an eclectic mix of teachers, university lecturers, Government officials and representatives of Google and Microsoft.

The meeting was the first step in a consultation exercise led by the Government to help it decide its next move. The previous month, Education Secretary Michael Russell had made the surprise announcement that he was halting the tendering process for Glow Futures, the next stage of development in the schools' intranet system.

It came less than six months after the Government had issued a notice inviting companies to tender for the seven-year contract for Glow Futures, with the new phase due to start in 2012.

Under its new strategy, the Government now plans to use the pound;8 million earmarked for the next phase of Glow to invest in broadband access and equipment for schools. Glow's core will in future consist of "the variety of free tools and open source services that already exist on the web", a Government spokesman told TESS.

"We are reshaping how we use ICT in schools and we are reshaping the great resource that is Glow. Glow will continue. We are seeking to review its tools and services to keep pace with technological developments and to produce better value and outcomes for our learners," he added.

When Glow was launched in 2007, the international education community looked to Scotland because of its innovative use of ICT in schools, manifested in the first national educational intranet of its kind in the world.

Developed by software supplier RM Education, together with Learning and Teaching Scotland, it was designed to meet all the ICT needs of teachers and pupils in one system. Being web-based - a revolutionary concept back then - it was available at home and at school.

For many, its most important role was as a virtual learning and teaching environment, where thousands of resources in a variety of formats could be stored and managed.

As a single sign-on system with secure access for all users, it also acted as a directory and authentication system, and provided a variety of software applications, including email, net-conferencing and virtual whiteboards, as well as video-streaming.

But initial enthusiasm did not last. Criticism emerged of it being clunky, complex and difficult to use. Learning how to put up resources and set up sites for pupils to use was so hard and time-intensive that many teachers, even those with an interest in ICT, did not bother.

As technology progressed, and Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google - providers of similar, but improved aspects of the service - developed, the pressure grew on Glow to do things differently. Many teachers across Scotland increasingly turned to alternative, free systems online.

Many told TESS they had long been using open source software to create and publish resources, and used Wordpress to set up blogs and websites.

The Education Secretary acknowledged last year that Glow had to improve when he said: "Glow is a phenomenal resource and has given thousands of resources for a number of years. But in more challenging times we need to do things differently with a more exciting and imaginative approach."

"Technology has moved on. Glow is a product of its time," said Laurie O'Donnell, who was head of future learning and teaching and director of learning and technology at LTS between 2001 and 2009.

"We are talking about something which is a bit clunky and not flexible and adaptable. Technologies are now much more flexible. Glow has got a dated look about it. Pragmatically, (the Government) was probably right to stop it when it did, because it was hard-pressed."

When the announcement on changes to Glow finally came in September, the medium chosen by Mr Russell to address teachers was particularly telling: his statement was streamed via YouTube - a resource not available through Glow in many authorities.

The halt to the procurement process will not spell the end of Glow completely - a relief to some, as it has been a success in many ways.

The most recent statistics available for Glow - from September 2011 - show the number of pupils accessing it outside school hours has more than doubled year-on-year to 39,492, as did the total number of log-ons, to 24,948,905. There was also a 33 per cent rise in the number of teachers returning to Glow that month, compared with September 2010 - 22,127.

There were 130 continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities on Glow at the time of reporting, and 201 Glow Meets had taken place that month. A survey showed 59 per cent of practitioners believed communication had improved through Glow.

It also seems to be making some headway in its goal of supporting the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE): more than 7,000 local Glow Groups with general and specific information on CfE were created in that one month.

In halting Glow Futures, the Government clearly believed, however, that Glow could no longer live up to its original vision of meeting all the needs of teachers and pupils. Young people wanted to be able to use the platforms and systems they used at home and on their mobile devices, without restrictions and without the hassle of logging into slow school computers.

The national ICT strategy, therefore, had to go beyond just looking at Glow. An early subject for debate is whether pupils should be allowed to use their own personal devices in school. Other questions include whether local authorities should consider leasing laptops or tablets for pupils, instead of buying them, and whether high-speed broadband could be delivered wirelessly, through systems such as YMax, and thus solve the current postcode lottery of connectivity.

Andrew Brown, programme director of emerging technologies at Education Scotland, acknowledges that there are currently barriers to the use of Glow and other technologies in schools: bandwidth; the number of available devices; people's attitudes to the use of technology in the classroom; and communicating what technology is being used for.

The five objectives set out by Michael Russell for the new ICT strategy for Scotland address some of these issues. He aims to change the culture of ICT use in schools to attune it more closely with the use of technology in everyday life; to improve the confidence of those dealing with ICT in schools; promote new behaviour and best practice; and increase parental involvement. ICT hardware and the associated infrastructure will also become a focus.

Pupils, too, want the culture around technology use in schools to change.

"Letting pupils bring their own devices to school would be a really good step for schools to take because most pupils do have the internet right at their fingertips. The school also needs to invest so that everyone who doesn't have access to these devices can get access to them as well," said Rhys McKenna, one of five Stirling High pupils to address the ICT summit. Wireless access in school would also be a good idea, he suggested, "so that you didn't have to go on the old school computers to go on the internet".

Another Stirling High student, Sophie Loch, reported that pupils often used Facebook, Google Docs and Twitter outside school to share information for projects and group work.

"It would be really useful if we could use these things in school. But at the moment, that is just not an option. I think it is because of concern people might use them irresponsibly. That might be the case for some people, but definitely at our age, that would be the minority," she said.

Even doing a PowerPoint on Windows 7 was difficult to achieve on a school computer that has Windows 2003, she added.

Another challenge is how to get those teachers, who so far have not been part of the debate, involved in it.

Interest in the national consultation has been low. On the ICT summit's Wiki, just over 50 comments had been left at the time of going to press. The number of contributors was significantly smaller, as many individuals had written several comments.

Those attending the summit had been the "usual suspects", said John Johnston, staff development officer at North Lanarkshire Council. He is concerned about how to get staff involved more widely in the discussion, especially after meetings with about 100 ICT co-ordinators in his area revealed many were unaware the tendering process on Glow had been stopped.

"There are a lot of people doing a lot of good stuff on Glow in the council here, but the actual announcement that Glow was possibly changing hadn't registered."

When he suggested they should contribute to the discussion, he encountered little enthusiasm: "There is quite a strong online educational community, but it is still a minority, and it is that minority that seems to be engaging with the Minister."

Teachers who used Glow regularly were also concerned that changes to the system might increase their already heavy workload.

Another concern was the timescale: the current Glow contract ends next September, so the pressure is on the Government to implement changes quickly.

The aim, however, is to make ICT provision less structured and complicated and more open, flexible and inclusive.

Already, a number of outside resource banks are accessible through the Glow website, such as TES Resources, and about 91 per cent of S5 and S6 pupils at 400 secondary schools in Scotland use Scholar, the online database of learning materials managed by Heriot-Watt University, via a single sign-on through Glow.

"We are a small country and so making the best use of the existing resources without duplication or `protectionism' must be driven through: our young people deserve it," said Professor Phillip John, dean of science and engineering at the university and executive chair of the Scholar forum.

Eventually, many would like to see Glow function like the buttons for Facebook and Twitter log-ons found on many other websites.

"In a dream world, I would like a single sign-on that worked as well as when you've got a Twitter account and you go to some other service, or a Facebook account and you go to set up a blog," said Mr Johnston.

To avoid the current postcode lottery regarding filtering, a more national system could be considered, he said. Many local authorities would probably be glad to pass on that responsibility, he observed.

Glow could become a "ring-fenced, firewall-type thing, a safe area within which teachers and pupils can operate freely", said Nick Hood, a science teacher from Fife, who attended the Stirling summit. New systems could easily be added on as they developed.

But any new ICT strategy should look at the use of social networking sites which, if clearer guidelines existed, could be powerful tools for pupils to interact with in an accountable, structured way.

It was "actually safer to have a communication with a child over Facebook than in the corridor outside your classroom where there are no witnesses and there is no record of what was said," added Mr Hood.

For Laurie O'Donnell, "a new Glow really has to have that big investment in user-interface, user-experience. It should be as self-explanatory to use as a smartphone. If you design something that is really intuitive, then you don't spend a lot of time teaching people how to use it."


114,000 - The number of people who use Glow in a month

24,000 - The number of teacher users

26m - The number of times it has been used since 2007

20,000+ - The number of blogs created in Glow, the majority e- portfolios

108,000 - The number of Glow groups

540,000+ - The number of Microsoft Office resources available on Glow



Began life as SSDN (Scottish Schools Digital Network), rebranded Spark, and, following a legal dispute over that name, eventually came to life as Glow in 2005.


2001: launch of consultation on "Where are we going with ICT?"

2003: European procurement process started.

2005: RM Education awarded five-year contract worth pound;37.5 million to provide Glow in co-operation with local authorities and Learning and Teaching Scotland; start of two-year development phase.

2007: Glow launched at the Scottish Learning Festival.

2009: Glow wins the top platinum award at the IMS Global Learning Impact awards.

October 2009: Contract with RM Education extended by a further two years until autumn 2012.

May 2010: LTS holds first early years international summit conducted digitally via Glow.

Throughout 2010: Glow goes through a period of enhancement

January 2011: Glow Wikis goes live, giving classes and groups a way to work on one "canvas" together

September 2011: Education Secretary Michael Russell announces the tendering process for the next stage of development, Glow Futures, is to be halted.

October 2011: Government holds ICT in Education Summit in Stirling to discuss the next steps.


Intermediate 1 French at Tiree High is a lesson like no other. The S3 pupils' teacher, Helene Bernard, teaches them from 140 miles away, in a classroom at Hermitage Academy in Helensburgh.

When Tiree High was unable to fill the post for a French teacher last year, the school and its local authority had no choice but to use Glow Meet as a medium to connect its pupils with a French teacher elsewhere. A number of classes, including a P7S1 and an Intermediate 2 class, are now regularly taught remotely.

"It has been very much a challenge for us. It has taken us probably about a year to get some basic technology issues sorted out," said Maggie Irving, education support officer for ICT at Argyll and Bute Council.

There were problems with sound quality initially, and new laptops had to be bought to resolve these. Connecting a large number of laptops to the school's wireless network also proved difficult, with the result that the computers are now hardwired through the network.

In addition, the new learning environment proved a challenge for younger children. "They have to sit down and listen very carefully and respond on a keyboard - not the best learning medium for those learners," she explained.

Miss Bernard, a native French speaker, was one of two teachers last year to take on the challenge of teaching remotely.

Last week, she had the five girls in her Intermediate 2 class working on directions and maps, using Google Maps to work out and describe how they would get from one location in Lyon to another. They worked in teams to follow directions, and she marked the group's homework, which they had uploaded onto the Glow Meet site.

"It was quite a learning curve, but we have been able to do so many things because of Glow," she told TESS. "In a normal classroom, I can't have all my children going on the internet and checking out real life in France, but I can do that online via Glow."

In many ways, the teaching experience was not dissimilar to being there with the pupils, she said. "You have a whiteboard on the site, you have the children in front of you through the camera, and we have a jotter. Because it is a language, we have to speak a lot. The only thing that is different is that we have a chat box."

Teaching via Glow could even be more efficient: "Each of the kids is in front of one computer, so they are very focused; it makes for a very effective class."

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