Power of the blog put to the test

6th June 2008 at 01:00
A national schools' intranet should provide a wider audience for pupils' work, and a place where teachers can find inspiration too
A national schools' intranet should provide a wider audience for pupils' work, and a place where teachers can find inspiration too

Learning from other teachers is a major part of professional development, and the national schools intranet is helping to spread the word. East Lothian has developed eduBuzz, an active educational community of 1,500 people, designed as a forum for teachers and a platform for sharing resources.

Even if it is the only national schools intranet in the world, Glow is far from being a step in the dark. Its early phases drew heavily on lessons learnt in the implementation of large IT projects elsewhere, and there has been a clear focus from the start on taking the time to get things right.

Even at this late stage, as the system is rolled out across the country, there are parallels to be drawn and lessons learnt, believes information analyst and former teacher David Gilmour - and sometimes in unexpected places.

"In the industrial world, Glow would be called an 'enterprise application'. There is now a fair body of knowledge on how to put these into large organisations," he says.

The lesson is that IT initiatives can gather their own momentum and sometimes head off in undesirable directions. "Typically, the project gets so large that it becomes an IT project and people forget why they wanted it in the first place."

Mr Gilmour cites the example of an IT system designed to replace paper reports in one big company, and save it money. Delivered on time and within budget, the system did everything expected of it - except produce the savings. These only materialised when a lowly employee pointed out that paper reports were still being circulated. "It's very easy to get focused on IT in that way, and forget what benefits it was supposed to deliver."

Another body of experience, familiar to Mr Gilmour, points to where Glow might deliver these benefits. East Lothian's eduBuzz, which he manages, is an active educational community of 1,500 people, designed as a forum for teachers and a platform for sharing resources.

Conventional wisdom is that schools should dip tentative toes in the water with fairly simple features first, such as Glow groups, mail and chat. But the eduBuzz community has other ideas. "It would be entirely possible to create large numbers of Glow groups and produce little teaching and learning benefit," says Mr Gilmour. "Setting up a group, for instance, so that children can publish their work, doesn't give it much value if the only people who see it are the rest of the class."

EduBuzz experience is that a wider audience for pupils' work generates enormous enthusiasm. "When children publish to a blog, the fact that it's visible everywhere concentrates minds wonderfully.

"We put ClustrMaps on blogs that show hits from around the world. It reinforces the message that what they write, and how they write it, matters. It makes the audience real."

Despite such reservations, Mr Gilmour is not one of the critics of the whole concept of Glow. Rather, eduBuzz experience is pointing its members in different directions from those currently recommended.

In particular, the East Lothian enthusiasts are beginning to discern immediate educational gains from getting to grips with the virtual learning environment - Glow learn - which teachers are being advised to tackle later.

"We've started discussing this, but people can see real educational opportunities," says Mr Gilmour. "So we are starting to scramble up the learning curve. One teacher, for instance, can see great possibilities for supporting deaf pupils.

"We like that if you tag a lesson with biology, say, then other teachers around the country can search for such lessons and pick that one up."

EduBuzz itself owes its origins to that same drive to share resources. But the kind of sharing that has proved most popular in East Lothian is less structured and predictable than anticipated, he says. "We found that people weren't attracted by the formal noticeboard stuff. Instead, they went to the very diverse blog posts, in which people talked about things they were trying, what was working for them, what wasn't. They added comments about their own experiences. They liked that it was interactive. It created connections. It broke down barriers."

Unexpected things can sometimes happen. "One primary class was looking at forces by making little divers sink in a bucket. A parent who actually is a diver saw their blog and offered to take in her gear. So a couple of days later another blog post had the same children wearing snorkels and masks."

There needs to be awareness and freedom within Glow to support unpredictable teaching moments like this, Mr Gilmour believes. "Industrial IT projects clearly demonstrate the dangers. If we're not careful, we could end up using all these new tools to do the same things in an electronic way.

"We need to be doing different things. It's what A Curriculum for Excellence is about."

David Gilmour will deliver the seminar Making Glow Happen on September 25 at the Scottish Learning Festival, the largest CPD event of the year. SECC, Glasgow.


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