National network gets glowing reception
At first sight, the classroom in Kirkintilloch looks like thousands of others around the country, with children clustered around a whiteboard, every square inch of wall displaying their work, and two dozen black cardboard gas-masks hanging decoratively from the ceiling.
But the signs of tension on some faces are unusual, and so is the suppressed excitement in the East Dunbartonshire room. The reason soon becomes clear. A young girl appears on the whiteboard screen and begins telling the Lairdsland P7 class about the most distinctive feature of the countryside not far from her school - Lake Malawi. This is a Glow video-conference, between the Scottish school and St Andrew's International High in Blantyre, the largest city in Malawi.
Following the presentation by Sharon, in Year 8 at St Andrew's, the pupils take turns to ask questions of their African colleagues, before delivering their own presentation about Scottish wildlife,.
Jess uses "Google Maps" to show the Malawi students the global positions of the schools, and confesses afterwards that it was daunting. "At first I thought it would be fine, then I thought it would be scary," she says. "That was when I realised I was going to be speaking to a class in Africa. But then, when I got started, it was fine. They were just children and I just talked to them."
Connor introduced the Blantyre students to the hairy attractions of the Highland cow, and explained afterwards what he had enjoyed about the link-up. "You got to see people you'd probably never see."
The reality of talking to people in a different country is what raised the pupils' tension levels, they say. Feelings of anxiety among staff generally have different origins, says Eileen Cocozza, headteacher, with worries about tackling technology being more prominent than fear of public performance. These concerns, she says, are misplaced. "I had my Glow training and people were bringing up issues about training and how much we all had to learn," she says.
"Teachers are being asked to populate school websites, and the difference between doing that and using Glow is like night and day. Glow is much easier."
The key difference, she explains, is that Glow is not about learning new skills. "It is things they can do already. You're just teaching them how to use a new interface."
The other aspect of Glow that makes it easier than it might appear, when first faced with the system's power, flexibility and features, is that nobody has to learn it all at once. "Our focus at first will be Glow groups for collaboration," says Ms Cocozza. "That won't be too much at once, but will let people see how useful it can be. It will give them skills and confidence for the next steps."
Glow groups were recently described by Learning and Teaching Scotland as the "heart of Glow". A group can be set up by any user - a teacher, a quality improvement officer, a senior pupil - who wants to form an online community. Each group gets its own virtual space to which only members of that group have access. But they can be seated at the next desk or in a classroom at the other end of the country. A group can be used as a meeting place, a virtual classroom, a discussion area, a document store, a shared area for learning and collaboration - or in any other way the community of learners imagine.
Glow groups are an easy and appealing starting point for new users, says Vicky MacKenzie, P7 teacher and ICT co-ordinator. "We did this video-conference today through a Glow group, and we've been talking about how to organise groups within the school. We're thinking we'll do it by class. I'll have my P7 Glow group and beneath that I can have groups on the Second World War, Japan - whatever we're doing - and that's the area my children will be accessing and in control of."
Other Glow groups would be set up just for staff. "So we can have Glow groups for working parties, the health committee, the garden committee. They will let us put all the electronic resources up there, share ideas, work on documents together - and get access to it all at home if we want."
Beyond the individual school, Glow groups offer unlimited possibilities for collaboration, teachers believe - with the local secondary, easing the transition or accessing subject specialists, with schools in other authorities, working on joint projects, or even - as today - with schools beyond the seas.
When it's over, Liam, who talked off-the-cuff about David Livingstone connections during the video-conference, explains what he learned from the Blantyre pupils - "how nice the lake is, how deep, how it's the second largest in Africa and has more species of fish than any other lake in the world.
"This is a good way to learn, better than the internet, because you're talking to people who know. It felt like you were really in Malawi."