Come on, let's get Glowing

15th September 2006 at 01:00
Forget any ideas of a dull, cold schools intranet. Douglas Blane catches the enthusiasm for the all-in-one web platform that users will be able to personalise

Names are important. John Wayne would never have made it in the movies if he had persisted with what his parents originally called the little mite - Marion Morrison. Likewise Scotland's schools intranet had no chance of winning the affections of teachers when it was SSDN.

As a name it was cold, unfriendly and uninformative. "Glow" is warm and welcoming, and the technology and education experts who have been developing the system at Learning and Teaching Scotland are very informative indeed.

Glow is being put together in three phases, says John Connell, the former SSDN director: a core portal, collaborative software, and a virtual learning environment. "We'll be demonstrating the portal at SETT."

This portal is essentially a website with a difference, so teachers and pupils with any experience of browsing the Web are likely to be comfortable with it from the start.

Where Glow differs fundamentally from traditional websites is that these are essentially fixed and static. No matter how many bouncy banners or lively animations adorn an ordinary webpage, the designer remains in control, while the user simply navigates around the features provided.

That is not how Glow will work. New users will start at similar pages, appropriate to their role as pupil, teacher, manager or director of education. Each will be able to rapidly customise layout and features to suit personal preference, individual interest or work. The system will remember the preferences but the user can alter them at any time.

"If you are a teacher you'll start at the Glow staffroom," says Mr Connell.

"The system will recognise you and send you there, and you will then see a number of separate areas on the page, for the school, the local authority and Learning and Teaching Scotland.

"The school area will give you news of the day's events, information about other staff, details of the classes you have to take. The LTS part will provide daily national news and so on."

Users can study any of these areas and the information provided can become more specific to individual users at each visit. But this is just the start. Areas belonging to school, authority and LTS are just a small subset of those that will be available.

Unlike a traditional website a Glow homepage is built from separate areas - or web parts - chosen by the user from a large palette provided. The preferred web parts and their locations can be altered by the user. "You have almost infinite flexibility," says Mr Connell.

"The core technology is Microsoft SharePoint, which provides web parts out of the box for discussion boards, announcements, calendars, document libraries. It also gives us the ability to create new web parts to do anything our users might want."

What makes web parts so powerful is that they embody a fundamental shift in the way the Web works, which Glow is the first national system to exploit.

"People elsewhere are doing bits of what we're doing, such as learning platforms, virtual learning environments, email systems, video-conferencing," says Mr Connell, "but they are usually individual applications. The essence of Glow is the integration of all those into one package across the web."

There is a name for this kind of system: a Web-delivered learning platform.

There is also a name for the concept of the Web as a platform that lets people with no particular computer skills build creative communities, using sophisticated but transparent technology. It is Web 2.0.

A key feature of Glow - and of Web 2.0 in general - is that users no longer need specific software on their own computers, other than a web browser.

"So pupils and teachers can get access from their homes, from the library, or anywhere they want, anytime," says Mr Connell.

Between the time of the Scottish Learning Festival, when the core portal will be demonstrated, and next April, when Glow will be rolled out to schools, the system will be beefed up in content and capability.

The software is being developed from packages that are already popular in schools that have used them for voice-conferencing and working on joint projects with other schools.

Anderson High in Lerwick, Shetland, for example, has been exploiting the technology, in its client-based form - a copy on every computer - to nurture global learning links.

"Our pupils work on laptops individually with other students and collectively in groups," says the depute headteacher, Stewart Hay. "They share applications, video clips and material they have created."

The advantage of this form of video-conferencing is that it is peer-to-peer and very easy to use, says a former pupil, Honza Semotam. "You just need a webcam, a microphone and a computer."

The third major component of Glow, the virtual learning environment, is "a big window on the curriculum", says Mr Connell. Teachers will manage and control material for their classes. They will assign, assess and return work to pupils, who will study the feedback through their own page.

Teachers and pupils will also have access to a rich collection of resources. Much of that educational content already exists but is not readily accessible, says Jim Henderson, the digital content procurement manager at Learning and Teaching Scotland.

"There is the LTS online service, which has a huge amount of content being adapted for Glow. Then there are all the resources developed by different authorities, which we're working on making available around the country."

A third source of content is Glow graphics offering more than a million available images including: cartoon characters, science equipment, radioactive symbols, sign language, rockets, stars, flowers and musical instruments.

Through Glow, teachers and pupils will also gain access to a large collection of photographs gathered by Learning and Teaching Scotland over the years: Scottish scenes of historical and educational interest feature strongly.

A sure way to keep children happy is novelty. One of the most novel of Glow's resources will be PhraseBox. It allows users to search a huge body of written text for examples of a word or phrase they're not sure how to use in context. Procurement officer Paddy Patterson said: "We have developed it in partnership with Professor John Sinclair, a leading expert in corpus linguistics.

PhraseBox for schools - there is an academic version for linguistics research - will give pupils access to hundreds of millions of words in use, including several years' copies of daily newspapers, so learners can examine how phrases are assembled and words work together.

Helping people learn how to learn is a vital function of a modern school, so Glow will provide a wealth of material on information literacy and study skills.

As soon as it is launched Glow will provide an array of resources, says Mr Connell, "but over the next year or two I expect to see an explosion of educational content."


All about Glow, Wednesday, 9.30am

National Content Partnerships, Wednesday, 12.15pm and 5pm

Digital Content for Glow (formerly SSDN), Thursday, 9.30am

Web 2.0 (or What was Web 1.0?), Thursday, 10.30am

Glow - What Future Does it Hold? Thursday, 10.30am

Glow Technical Update, Thursday, 12.45pm

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