Teaching tools for the 21st century

14th September 2007 at 01:00
The waiting is over. The pilots have come and gone. Glow, the schools digital network, will go live at next week's Scottish Learning Festival.

Douglas Blane reports.

Illustration: James Fryer

The hands-on workshops have been fully booked for weeks and the computers at the Learning Village that will host Glow throughout the festival are likely to prove every bit as popular. Teachers can get their first feel there of the futuristic system that is set to transform Scottish education.

"Glow is a complex set of technologies woven together," says Laurie O' Donnell, director of learning and technology at Learning and Teaching Scotland. "But the purpose is not technology for its own sake. It's technology in the service of learning and teaching. Every group of professionals plumbers, joiners, nurses, engineers demand the best tools to do the job. Glow gives teachers 21st century tools; the best available in the world."

Renfrewshire, Dundee and South Lanarkshire are set to go with Glow, and eight other authorities are ready to follow not long afterwards. Almost every authority in the country is working on its implementation plans. "Our schools have been piloting parts of the system over the past year," says Gordon McKinlay, Renfrewshire senior adviser. "We are very keen to get on with it. Staff and pupils in all our schools will be using Glow by early October."

Glow suppliers RM have been working with these three authorities to make sure their schools are connected. "So, just after the Learning Festival, the SEEMIS data that will allow individual user accounts to be created will be transferred, and we'll be ready to go," he says.

"Getting here hasn't meant a huge amount of technical stuff basically just making sure a few ports are open on the authority firewall. One thing that took time to think through was that our primary schools use a lot of Macs, while there are more PCs in our secondaries. That meant making sure everything would work on both platforms."

So what will Glow actually do for teachers and pupils? At one level the answer is clear. LTS has been able to demonstrate the complete system for weeks. The technical heavy-lifting, the user-friendly look and feel of the portal, the huge variety of features that can be easily accessed by drag and drop and hyperlink all this is fixed, ready and working well.

But beyond the in-groups of ICT enthusiasts and Glow mentors, teachers around the country have little understanding of what Glow is set to do for them. Many, in-deed, have no idea what it is about.

Lesley Stokes, education officer at Scran the learning image service recently gave a talk to 20 art teachers, saying at one point: "A lot of these issues will be addressed when Glow is up and running."

The response was blank, she says. "Not one of the teachers in the room had even heard of Glow or the Scottish Schools Digital Network its former name. Not one."

Given the difficulty of reaching classroom teachers with information sent to schools a problem Glow itself will go a long way to solving the fact that many teachers don't yet know what Glow will do for them is no surprise.

More interesting is the fact that "I don't know" is also part of the answer that Glow experts even those who have been with the project since the start offer to the question.

John Connell was head of Glow for five years and, although now departed, takes a keen and continuing interest in the imminent birth of his baby. In reply to a comment that one measure of Glow's success will be that anarchy breaks out, he agrees. "It will be up to teachers and pupils across Scotland to take the tools available to them within Glow and use them in ways that I can't even imagine."

For Gordon McKinlay, this is one of the most exciting aspects of Glow. "We do not know where it's going to go. We can't foresee the different forms of expression our teachers and pupils will find for this combination of tools. It will be fascinating to see what they do pick up on. I expect to be surprised in the coming months by what teachers and pupils get up to."

But before creativity sprouts Glowing wings and takes off, teachers will have to find out what the system offers, and learn to use its varied and often unfamiliar features themselves. Training is being provided by LTS to Glow mentors in the first instance, then by mentors in each authority to the rest of the teachers. Glow contains comprehensive online tutorials, examples and illustrations, which can be worked through by teachers and pupils.

A good way to get a handle on what can be done with Glow is to take a look at current everyday practice, says Jan Pollock, LTS learning and teaching adviser. School pigeon-holes, report-filled cupboards and bulging bags of jotters are set to join the abacus and the slate in the yellowing pages of the history of education. "Teachers just won't need them any more."

Pigeon-holes will be replaced by topical, comprehensive and personalised news items on the Glow homepage, with sections for national, local authority and school news, and a separate section for hot topics from Learning and Teaching Scotland. Teachers currently have time to peruse just a small fraction of the printed material their schools receive every day, but a click on a hyperlink and a quick scan can be done in seconds.

Then again, there will be far more material available through Glow than can be stored in the largest cupboard ever built, with instant access to all the existing LTS resources, as well as materials provided by every authority in Scotland and new content specifically commissioned for Glow.

"It's like buy one, get 32," says Paul Campbell, programme manager. "Teachers will be able to search for whatever they're interested in, because the people who upload the resources will tag them with keywords."

Since pupils can access the system securely from anywhere, homework can be done and marked in the virtual learning environment, Glow learn. In time, classwork too will be completed there, and may even be assessed automatically by e-assessment tools under development at the Scottish Qualifications Authority and elsewhere.

The initial toe-in-the-water for most teachers, however, is likely to come through easily used improvements on existing practice, such as news, resources, diaries, time- tables and communications, says Jan Pollock.

"If teachers want to go straight into Glow learn the virtual learning environment that's fine. But it is huge. So in our training we're encouraging them to start with the other features, and in particular with Glow groups. I see these as the heart of Glow."

Glow groups allow teachers or pupils or both to come together and work with like-minded individuals, who might be located in the same class or school, but could be at the other end of the town, region or country.

Glow groups proved popular during the pilots, and the reason is not hard to find. Creative collaboration and a real audience for children's work have a startling effect on motivation and education and not just among high-flyers.

Until now these educational benefits could be glimpsed but not fully gained, says Renfrewshire's Gordon McKinlay. "It is a very big deal that Glow is safe and secure.

"We can have children working together in Glow with complete confidence that none of them is exposed to the problematic aspects of being 'out there'. The web is no longer a place where you publish stuff. It's a place where people collaborate."

For two years the Glow team has been working with local authorities around Scotland, says Marie Dougan, programme director, to develop the best models for getting the system to work and for training the teachers. "We have looked closely at how we encourage early adopter authorities and how we train their mentors.

"We have a really effective model that works at a local level with authority mentors, then takes that forward to encourage further collaboration, as we begin the roll-out of Glow across different authorities. Glow is a really exciting initiative. For the first time we are going to have a national intranet, in which all education professionals and all students will get together and communicate in an effective and collaborative way."


Scene: Two teachers, Karen-Ann MacAlpine and Paul Smyth, are sitting at a table, looking at a laptop.

Paul: Can you tell me how groups in Glow work?

Karen-Ann: I'll show you. If I click on this news item on my homepage, it takes me to the Victorian Tardis group. This was a new approach we thought up (on an in-service day) to getting our pupils working together on a well-known topic. We made everyone who was there a member, but more people have heard about it since, and we've brought them on board too.

P: How did Glow fit in what did it allow you to do with the project?

K: It provided, through one login, lots of opportunities to collaborate and communicate and connect up schools together. We also wanted to use web conferencing.

I had used some of the tools available in Glow before, but this let us easily use several together. Pupils can be highly motivated when they're using these tools. It also gave teachers and pupils the chance to work at home, if we wanted to.

P: Tell me about sub-groups.

K: If I click on a tab from the group page, you can see it links to separate sub-groups for each school in the project.

P: Why would they want that?

K: The link takes you to a learning space for each school, where teachers can assign work from Glow learn to their pupils.

P: Glow learn?

K: That's Glow's virtual learning environment. It's an area where teachers can find resources, pull them together and make courses out of them. I can use it to deliver parts of the course, or assign parts to groups or individuals and then track the assignments.

P: These resources where do they come from?

K: Some were my own, some came from colleagues, some...

See and hear more from Paul and Karen-Ann on the Glow demonstration computers in the Education Village at the Scottish Learning Festival.

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