Digital network must be a glowing success

14th September 2007 at 01:00
Seasoned IT watchers will not have been surprised to learn that Glow, the third and latest name for the new digital network for Scottish schools, is behind schedule. Large-scale IT projects are almost never delivered on time, on budget, or to specification.

But more is at stake with Glow than the reputations of its project managers. It has so far consumed almost pound;40 million of public cash, along with the unpaid time and energy of many teacher volunteers. Learning and Teaching Scotland says: "Glow will transform the way education is delivered, with educational ambition and technology working together".

Whatever such promises mean, schools and councils have been encouraged to put alternative plans on hold while Glow gears up to enrol some 750,000 pupils, 50,000 teachers and 3,000 schools. Some local councils, however, seem unconvinced: only 11 of the 32 are signed up for the release.

Given this level of hesitation, it is striking that hardly any serious discussion about Glow is publicly documented. An internet search reveals little more than a few comments from Scottish education bloggers. The bloggers' biggest concern seems to be that Glow may not be technically advanced enough to support the types of Web 2.0 interaction that can be had from websites such as MySpace, YouTube and Facebook. They also worry that schools' IT networks are too rigidly controlled by local councils and corporate providers to allow the best use of what Glow will offer.

But it is a mistake to take the bloggers too seriously. Some are dedicated technophiles who uncritically reflect the perspectives of digital culture. In their distorted world, an operating system upgrade justifies dumping millions of PCs into landfill sites and "friends" are people who share lists with one another on a website. Of course, most technology proponents are not charlatans. But enough is known to justify scepticism. For instance, one reason why today's school networks are fastened down is teachers' discovery that, far from being the promised panacea for learning, children's access to millions of dubious web pages is a liability.

More information does not always make for better learning. That demands the learner's effortful engagement, not surfing or cutting-and-pasting. Teachers crucially support the process by modelling skills, coaching for success, and fostering independence. Technophiles have sometimes caricatured the teacher as a "sage on the stage", arguing instead for a role more akin to a "guide on the side", but this shows a misunderstanding of what good teachers do.

The quality of education is not much to do with an abundance of information. But is what the "new web" offers specifically an abundance of interaction any more useful as an indicator? The danger is that quantity might be mistaken for quality. Schools have a responsibility to develop strong relationships, based on presence and proximity. It is hard to predict whether more use of Glow's technology will undermine this role, but some risks are obvious. An increased reliance on online interaction may indicate a school that is becoming more depersonalised, more bureaucratic and less socially cohesive.

New technology has delivered to education less than has been promised. A legacy of poor policy has left schools with a muddle, while poorly-supported teachers have been made to look bad in the face of children's apparent familiarity with new technology. These issues and others need to be brought to the surface in open debate. This discussion does not need technology gurus, self-styled or otherwise. Scotland needs Glow to be a success, not another false dawn for technology in education.

Tom Conlon

is a senior lecturer in Moray House School of Education, Edinburgh University

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