Education: Confusion reigns over the future of what was a world-leading IT system
The story of Glow, Scotland’s pioneering, yet currently troubled national educational intranet, is an object lesson in the speed with which technology has moved in the past decade, and the struggle that government and the public sector has faced to keep up.
In 2007, when the system was launched, it was the first national network of its kind anywhere in the world. Its inception was much anticipated in Scotland and it was lauded internationally.
Today its future is uncertain, following the collapse last year of a tendering process for Glow Futures, intended as the next generation software, and the withdrawal of Google from a second procurement process for a more informal suite of educational applications that Education Secretary Michael Russell suggested was the new vision for Glow. Russell set out that vision in September 2011 when the Glow Futures process was brought to an abrupt end.
“Glow is a phenomenal resource and has given thousands of teachers access to tools and shared learning resources for a number of years. But in more challenging times, we need to do things differently with a more exciting and imaginative approach,” Russell said, with government spokespeople fleshing out a vision where the core of Glow would be made up of “the variety of free tools and open source services that already exist on the web”.
The cornerstone of Glow’s vision was to link up all of Scotland’s schools, teachers and pupils, sharing the same services and resources with all and eliminating nascent inequalities in the provision of IT in Scottish education.
“You’ve got to go back, really, to 2003,” says Laurie O’Donnell, one of the early leaders of Glow as director of learning and technology at Learning & Teaching Scotland during the programme’s inception. “You’ve got 32 local authorities who are all doing their own thing, some of them doing really well.
“But some local authorities are really struggling to fi nd the level of investment required to really bring modern technology into their schools – struggling with connectivity, struggling with getting devices into their schools, struggling to secure a decent suite of software. So the ambition of Glow was, it didn’t matter where you lived in Scotland, you should have a basic level of service.”
With Education Scotland now looking at pilot programmes giving pupils iPads in the classroom, the values of connectivity and sharing of resources embraced by Glow’s designers are now irrevocably at work across Scottish education.
“If you’re a teacher of English, you’re connected to every teacher of English in Scotland: if you want to share a resource, you can share it with every teacher in the country; teaching a new class you’ve never taught before, you can reach out to the other teachers of your subject, or your stage of primary school – you can ask, ‘What have you got to support this?’” says O’Donnell. “That’s a side of Glow that its critics never seem to recognise.”
Those critics have increased in number over Glow’s lifetime, but Jaye Richards-Hill, a retired head of learning and teaching at Cathkin High in South Lanarkshire, was one of the first. An early adopter of Glow through her local authority, Richards-Hill was initially a supporter of it. She carried out some of the first impact studies for the General Teaching Council Scotland, finding that students receiving Glow lessons did up to 20 per cent better assessed against peers who didn’t use the system.
Her experience of using it as a teacher, however, was less positive. “It became a very clunky piece of kit that was not user-friendly at all, and difficult to actually get to grips with,” says Richards-Hill. “The vast majority of teachers just didn’t have the time to invest in this; the majority of the country did not engage with it.” She called for a moratorium on its development at the end of 2009.
Her calls were rejected, but Glow is nonetheless now on borrowed time. On 21 May, the existing contract with RM Education, the company that originally delivered Glow, was extended for a second time ahead of a September deadline for finding a new contractor. The Scottish Government denies that it would have had to pull the plug on Glow if its deal with RM Education hadn’t been extended for another 15 months; what is clear is that a contract that was originally intended to last three years will now run over six.
The cost of the extension is £5.5m, and those close to the Glow project say that the end product will be a service that has benefited from scant development since its launch. “The pace that technology was moving very quickly overtook Glow,” says Richards-Hill.
John McCarney, Glow project director at RM Education, denies that is the case, citing the software improvements in certain elements of the system, such as video conferencing. O’Donnell also defends key elements of Glow’s functionality that he says have retained their value since its launch.
When asked if Glow has been overtaken by events: “It was and it wasn’t,” he responds. “Things like the authentication system with Glow – absolutely core. Fit for purpose, six years on. I’ve done a fair amount of travelling and there are few countries who have got the equivalent of a Glow, with the same capability. Yes, there are free internet tools out there, but I’ve visited lots of schools in the US, for instance, and they’re miles behind where Scotland is with Glow.”
O’Donnell does concede, however, that “one of the problems with Glow was that it didn’t evolve. It got fixed in time.” Whether the Scottish Government can move it forward with only one participant – Microsoft – remaining in a procurement process that was originally supposed to deliver a free service but has now resulted in a £5.5m hiatus – remains to be seen.
Richards-Hill, who says she supports Russell’s vision of a more diverse and relevant Glow, is nonetheless worried that the vision for it is no longer “safe”. The same could be said of the legacy of Scotland’s pioneering vision for delivering IT into schools.