High tech to hand

16th November 2012 at 00:00
But will Scotland's new-look intranet hold teachers back in the wider world of digital know-how?

The mood was upbeat, at times defiantly so. It was an event to talk up the latest re-imagining of Glow, the national intranet for schools. Behind the scenes people spoke about the unfair press they felt Glow had received. Onstage they were frank about past failings, but insistent that times had changed.

The organisers had an impressive-looking graph to show that Glow usage was rising fast, and were keen to show how the clunkiness of old Glow was being ditched for a shiny new app-driven incarnation - which a pilot in October had declared a hit.

"It's a very positive day," said Bruce Robertson of education directors' body ADES, which organised the learning and technology conference with help from the Virtual Staff College, RM Education, Education Scotland and Microsoft. "We're in a better place than we were a few months ago."

The mood had been similar at another computing conference 11 days earlier. Attendees at the volunteer-driven event described it as the best CPD they had had in years, and how their passion for the subject had been revived by the burgeoning opportunities now available.

Scotland, it appears, is getting its ICT act together, if the enthusiasm demonstrated at these two events is anything to go by. But scratch the surface and tensions become apparent.

The enclosed model of Glow, some at the ADES event suggested, inevitably renders it hamstrung, now that pupils can connect with the world by whipping a tiny computer out of their back pocket. And although delegates at the computing conference may be encouraged by developments, that excitement was tempered by the knowledge that the number of computing teachers has slipped by more than 100 in five years.

The big message at the ADES conference, held at the Glasgow Science Centre, was that Glow had picked up the gauntlet laid down by global phenomena - YouTube, Facebook, Twitter et al - that emerged after the schools' intranet had been introduced.

RM Unify is to be the "launchpad" for the new-look Glow, which includes an app library and activates with a single log-on. Also promised is "simple, seamless and secure provisioning of accounts". Meanwhile, the involvement of Microsoft alongside RM - it is providing its Office 365 for Education "application suite" within Glow - promises the "full mobile experience" including 25GB email storage per user.

Education Scotland strategic director Craig Munro told delegates that more than 99 per cent of teachers had used Glow; 50 per cent of teachers were "regular users" - regular being defined as more than twice a month. A graph showed impressive-looking surges in Glow group hits and blog posts since August 2011, although the number of blogs and wiki pages saw more modest increases. Responses to the pilot - which involved RM Unify but not Office 365 - were positive.

The new Glow "seems well-judged and realistic and looks to be very well led", said Laurie O'Donnell, an educational consultant who was a key figure in the development of Glow in his time with Learning and Teaching Scotland, having been head of future learning and teaching before leaving in 2009.

But if Glow is on the right road, Mr O'Donnell has deep concerns about other factors in Scotland's ability to embrace ICT innovation.

"Some schools in Scotland don't have connectivity," he said. This was an "absolute disgrace" and should be as big a concern as toilets or lighting that do not work. But he acknowledged that Swan - the Scottish Wide Area Network, which aims to reduce the costs associated with individually procured networks across all public sector organisations - "seems a great step forward".

Education Scotland's Craig Munro, similarly, bemoaned new schools that had access to bandwidth of up to 200MB, but whose wi-fi was "rubbish". There was a widely shared view that Glow's problems would melt away if connectivity was resolved. West Dunbartonshire head of education Laura Mason said: "People say Glow's rubbish and clunky - actually what they mean is the infrastructure."

The ADES conference broached another controversial issue: the idea that every child in a class should have a mobile, digital device.

Education Scotland's Derek Robertson, national adviser in emerging technologies and learning, is sceptical about this idea of "1:1". He has been visiting schools doing innovative work with such devices and will report back in 2013 on his findings. But he used the conference to reveal some early observations.

"Are we seduced by technology?" he asked. "Are we losing sight of the best opportunities to learn?" This was shortly after Laurie O'Donnell argued that educators should avoid corralling children into a single piece of technology. "Don't chase fads" and never lose sight of what actually improves learning, he advised.

Mr Robertson knows of schools that have bought iPads but "don't know what to do with them". He has seen a whole-school iPod initiative which had P1 children all doing a dot-to-dot puzzle. "I was thinking, `pound;140 for everyone to do the same dot-to-dot?'" - although he stressed the school was at an early stage in using the devices.

If mobile devices were used simply for word processing, browsing and time- filling games, it was like being "in first gear with a Ferrari", he said.

At Dalreoch Primary in Dumbarton he had seen a "fantastic technological device" that cost 25p - a budget canister of shaving foam. He had gone there to see iPods, but one of the best ideas was spreading foam on the table and getting the children to practise drawing numbers in it; the same task, using digital technology, was "very clinical" by comparison.

Mr Robertson said he was currently pondering the dangers of learners being sucked into an "app-fest", where they bounce haphazardly through a vast array of options. And he is exploring whether learning experiences become "very transitory" as a result.

He said he was wary of a commercial agenda driving 1:1, and of favouring specific products; educators should be in "a device-agnostic frame of mind". He also wonders if a 3:1 ratio might be preferable to 1:1; 3:1 might encourage collaborative learning since not every pupil would be working at a screen.

"I don't think it's a given that everyone should have a device - I'm still thinking about that," he said.

Others raised their own concerns during his workshop. A senior education official from one local authority feared that "bring your own device" - an idea that is gaining favour in Scotland - would cost "megabucks" for councils to create the infrastructure to support it.

"What does the increase in mobile devices being suggested mean for school infrastructure?" asked Mr Robertson. "These are huge questions we are not ready for yet."

If one danger facing schools is rushing headlong into new technology with little thought of faddishness or insidious marketing, another is the temptation to use it as a means of command-and-control.

The conference was given some examples of excellent practice of how Glow had been used in schools: Jane Brumpton, head of Woodacre Nursery in Glasgow, explained that Glow groups were smoothing the transition to primary school; Pauline Bradley, principal teacher of pastoral care at East Renfrewshire's Barrhead High, talked about the success of e- portfolios.

But Jim Thewliss, headteacher of Harris Academy in Dundee, was a champion of Glow who put himself at the controls. The initial experience, after the school became involved in 2005, had not been good: "Glow was like an empty treasure chest - not really much use until someone puts some treasure in it."

Staff lost interest, so to get them back on board "we decided to use Glow as our main method of communication in the school". All important information and school documents could only be reached through Glow.

"You start to force people to go there," said Mr Thewliss. The use of Glow as a storage device brought savings, with printing bills reduced and less time spent distributing information, but also made staff "renegotiate with Glow"; it had subsequently become a place for pedagogy as well as administration, through e-portfolios, for example.

The school's approach, Mr Thewliss has found, becomes "self-perpetuating". "Once you get the kids engaged in this, they start asking questions of the staff who are not using this."

Harris Academy's methods are echoed at national level. Bruce Robertson talked of creating a "Trojan horse" out of Glow: critical information about the new National 4 and 5 exams will be put on Glow so that teachers have no choice but to go in.

Such coercive approaches may appear at odds with the views of teachers who evangelise about the burgeoning digital world: the appeal for many is being able to explore new frontiers, free from diktat.

But they are being undertaken to counter continuing scepticism about Glow. South Ayrshire's IT service development manager John Porter, for example, suggested that Glow might work well in primary schools, but less so in secondaries, where pupils were immersed in social media such as Facebook.

There was even a proposal to take coercion a step further, from shepherding teachers into Glow to "charging" them. Con Morris, originally a member of the national CPD team that was subsumed into Education Scotland, suggested that teachers be charged for accessing the National 4- 5 documentation in Glow - not financially, but by requiring them, in return for this access, to pledge a commitment to do something that would make a difference to their practice.

This was a step too far for John McCarney, RM's head of education services: "I'm not sure hoops and fences is the right way to bring people to what we do," he said. "Every teacher should be professional enough to undertake their own learning."

And Glow will not be locked down, delegates were assured - work done in Office 365 could easily be transported, and there is even a view emerging among influential figures that Glow should be a "lifelong learning account" used long after people leave school.

Tension between the desire to liberate learning through digital technology and the apparent need for a continuing level of central control and compulsion was evident when TESS carried out a survey of local authorities' policies on filtering and other topical ICT issues (31 August). And behind the scenes at the ADES conference, some delegates told TESS that, however good the intentions, initiatives such as Glow or Swan would, by their very nature, always be predicated on a certain amount of control and institutional nervousness.

Glow is a different entity from what it was not so long ago; mobile devices have made a rapid incursion into classrooms. Both can undoubtedly enhance learning - but more and more teachers at grassroots level are adamant that it should be for them, not education bosses or IT giants' marketing departments, to decide when and how that happens.

Interest is there but teachers are not

Computing science in schools is ready to take centre stage - but there are fewer computing teachers around to make the most of that enhanced status.

That was the conundrum presented at the first Computing at School Scotland annual conference, where palpable enthusiasm for the oversubscribed event in Edinburgh was tempered by recognition that the subject's progress is being hindered by ignorance and a lack of qualified staff.

Kate Farrell, chair of CAS Scotland, ended the otherwise upbeat conference by describing the challenges facing computing teachers in Scotland at the moment: their number has fallen by more than 100 since 2006-07, and 8.9 per cent of Scottish secondary schools have no computing science teacher at all.

"The amount of time allocated to computing in the timetable of most schools is still pitifully low," she told TESS. "Many parents, and some headteachers, don't understand that computing science is a rigorous academic discipline and feel that it is an unimportant subject if pupils are skilled in using social networking tools."

But there were positive messages, too. CAS Scotland has already met with the Scottish government, Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority to discuss how to improve the representation of computing to schools and parents, and the quality of professional learning for computing teachers.

Muffy Calder, Scotland's chief scientific adviser, has a computing background and spoke frankly to TESS before her appearance at the conference.

There could be no excuse that computing was failing to catch up with other subjects because it was a new discipline: in fact, computing science has been around since Alan Turing began his groundbreaking work in the 1930s, she said.

It had, however, become mixed up with ICT, the teaching of which Professor Calder likened to a "Microsoft driving course". But how many people, she wondered, could "fix the engine"?

Professor Calder "loves" her iPhone and iPad, but such devices have made technology a "friend" rather than a device: users are detached from the mechanics of the devices and have no idea how to fix them if they break down.

"Computing science is everywhere," she said. "Everyone needs to understand what computing is and have some idea of programming." Indeed, it was "incumbent upon everyone" to have a basic grasp of programming, just as everyone has some basic physics and chemistry.

Programming was best started in secondaries, while computational thinking could be taught in primaries. Computational thinking was not entirely reliant on access to technology; concepts around grouping and sequences of numbers could be taught without any devices at all.

"You wouldn't go anywhere near a computer," she said. "It's about maths, thinking and solving problems." Computational thinking could even take place in pre-school, she stressed.

Scotland is in a fairly good place, said Professor Calder, as it has long had a subject of computing at Standard grade level, whereas England focused on ICT. She has been encouraged by the distinction Curriculum for Excellence draws between computing and ICT, and believes a grassroots drive is under way to make computing more prominent.

In 20 years' time, it is her ambition that computing should be represented by one coherent voice for industry, academia and teachers and she believes things are definitely heading in that direction.

Councils' computing science teachers
CouncilNumber of
Number of
teachers 2011-12
Number of
teachers 2006-07
Argyll and Bute102125
Dumfries and Galloway***
East Ayrshire9 1924
East Dunbartonshire8 2230
East Lothian611.0815
East Renfrewshire719.922.1
North Ayrshire921.725.8
North Lanarkshire2455.665
Perthand Kinross71221
Scottish Borders9912
South Ayrshire817.416.9
South Lanarkshire2034.640.7
West Dunbartonshire52421
West Lothian1133.8535
Western Isles255.7

Source: CAS Scotland Freedom of Information request. *Only Dumfries and Galloway did not reply.

Original headline: ICT is transformational, but not the be-all and end-all

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