Intranet is not that glowing

14th November 2008 at 00:00

Technology isn't all wonderful, and information technology in education illustrates this well. Research has documented positive innovations, but it is clear that few of these make it to the classroom. The weak overall impact of computers on schools reflects teachers' daily frustrations as they struggle to make difficult systems work.

Yet the battles at the keyboard are just the obvious signs of trouble. Behind the scenes, schools wrestle with more strategic issues posed by technology's problems and risks.

In a forthcoming paper on Glow*, Scotland's new digital intranet for schools, I have argued that the debate around problems and risks at an early stage became submerged by a discourse of "irrational exuberance" that considers only benefits.

The obvious risks concern quality assurance. Large-scale IT systems are notoriously prone to running late, exceeding budgets, and failing to deliver secure, reliable, usable and useful services.

Glow's Pounds 40 million budget is small compared to these systems, but more modest projects have hit the rocks - for instance, the Pounds 8 million online selection system for trainee doctors which led to IT chaos in 2007. Such risks must be acknowledged, if only because Pounds 40 million could have afforded many policy options other than Glow: examples might be a free laptop for every teacher, tuition fees for around 10,000 chartered teachers and increased adoption of "open-source" software.

Glow's internet-wide access to quantities of sensitive data will expose schools to unprecedented security threats. It is not realistic to expect all registered users to behave in sophisticated, safe online ways. Glow will be a hacker's magnet and a soft target compared with the websites of banks, military organisations and technology companies.

At least, however, these categories of risk are familiar. Much deeper and more imponderable questions surround the interactions between new technology and the culture of the school. Learning and Teaching Scotland has promised that Glow will "simplify and speed up almost every task related to running a school", ensuring "the same standards across schools and local authorities are applied".

Such rhetoric offers the appeal of easier, more convenient communication, but there is an unmistakable whiff of surveillance here. Will the speeded-up school be a nicer place to be? Or will Glow's daily electronic audits promote bureaucracy and conformity?

Besides that, Glow will bring to the fore issues around social justice and cultural trivialisation. The "digital divide" runs deeper than access to technology: more importantly, it concerns how well computers are used. Wealthy, wired-up families can be expected to exploit these new channels into education.

"Always on" access to sites and teachers via email may be a boon. But families lacking broadband competence could become literally disconnected. As for cultural trivialisation, that gets scaled-up by "web 2.0" systems like Glow because amateur chatter can drown the voices of experts and educators.

But in one sense, too much alarm is unjustified. The achieved outcomes of technology in education are commonly the (unintended) ones of minimal change. Overworked and undersupported teachers who are asked to learn more demanding, unnecessary technology bypass the "opportunities" and carry on as before. The mistake is to think that technology is neutral: in reality, it is designed to fulfil somebody's intentions. The gap between reality and the "irrational exuberance" of technologists is probably unbridgeable, but some critical thinking can restore a more balanced discourse.

*"The Dark Side of Glow" appears in this month's Scottish Educational Review

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

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