We’re not talking about the statistics on how many local authorities are signed up to the project (all 32) or how many people are logging into the Glow system (4.6 million log-ins to date) – although such numbers have been bandied about as evidence of the project’s success.
Instead, Glow’s national site has a new look, and a rash of changes are planned. There is also a new mood of collaboration under the leadership of Andrew Brown, who was appointed head of Glow at the Scottish Government-funded body Learning And Teaching Scotland (LTS) last November.
The schools intranet has attracted praise for its ambition – but also criticism for its usability and lack of flexibility. Now critics are being urged to contribute ideas for more changes. Improvements to blogging and managing membership of groups are top of the list.
Earlier this week, on his personal blog, Mr Brown posted a video of a new concept called “Glow light”, which would provide a fresher, cleaner, stripped-down interface. Some are already suggesting that, rather than offering a new way into the network, this more accessible version should replace what is currently on offer.
Mr Brown admits that the level of criticism Glow receives can be hard to take. A teacher himself, he was seconded to work on Glow from Argyll and Bute Council, before deciding that rather than roll out the system in his own local authority, he would take up the challenge of helping steer its development at a national level with LTS.
“You do feel frustrated,” he says. “If you invest a lot in something, it annoys me a bit when stories focus on negatives which you know about and are addressing.”
Glow, he says, is not perfect, but it’s a good start. “The environment has been unchanged since 2007.
This is the first year we have had any changes.”
Glow is a suite of online tools which provide an environment where teachers, pupils and ultimately others involved in education such as parents can work together and take advantage of learning opportunities. It was devised as a partnership between LTS, the Scottish Government and the company which won the technology contract, RM, formerly known as Research Machines.
The concept behind Glow is widely admired, and – notably – was praised last year by film-maker George Lucas and his educational foundation. However, damaging critiques from former insiders have been accompanied by letters and blogs from teachers who find it difficult to understand what Glow has to offer them, or simply find it impossible to use. Teacher Jaye Richards, a pioneer of Glow whose research found it could improve pupils’ learning, has now suggested a moratorium be called until partners in the project can get the basics right. Many local authorities are using the system only partially, she claims, because of its usability issues.
Meanwhile, Ewan McIntosh, a Scottish expert in digital media for education, has described a “vicious circle of de-skilling” caused by teachers being forced to teach pupils to use software within Glow, when he argues there are better and more effective tools available online.
When Mr Brown at first appeared to respond to the criticisms by citing the numbers logging on, and the councils who had signed up, he was accused of failing to listen – and of misleading people about levels of usage. “Logging on is not the best measure. All that tells you is that someone accessed it,” he concedes now. Instead, LTS and RM are now carrying out research to find out who is using Glow, when, and for how long. “Local authorities are saying they want to know,” he explains. “We are very interested to see what applications are being used, when people are logging on, and what their ‘dwell time’ is.
“That is an example of the way in which we are having a conversation with people about this.”
LTS has been keen to talk about Glow’s successes, such as the Aberdeenshire schools which used Glow to give pupils weather-related tasks during the recent snowfall when they were unable to get in to classes, or the Renfrewshire teacher who put up the next day’s work in a shared group and came in the following day to find half of her class had already completed it.
However, such anecdotes don’t convince those who are simply frustrated by their inability to log on. Mr Brown is now equally frank about Glow’s failings. “If I was designing it now, it would be a different kind of thing. Glow was built between 2005 and 2007 with the technologies available then. Things have changed since and Glow needs to adapt and change as well.”
Critics such as Mr McIntosh have been dismayed that so-called “web 2.0” collaborative approaches are hard to use within Glow, which is effectively a walled garden permitting teachers and pupils only limited contact with the wider internet.
But Mr Brown defends the way Glow was developed – and says there should be no criticism of RM or others involved. “It was designed in 2007, which is important in understanding why we have the environment we have at the moment. It was developed in full partnership with local authorities, and no-one then was shouting about web 2.0. People weren’t asking for things like collaborative documents, wikis or Twitter.”
He also rejects the claim that better tools are available outwith Glow. “People online at the moment have got access to lots of web 2.0 tools, but they are having to log on repeatedly. You might get your browsers to remember passwords, but that is not good if you have 30 people in a classroom, rotating every 50 minutes,” Mr Brown says.
Safety is obviously a key issue, too. Until Glow came along, most local authorities blocked pupils and teachers from accessing sites such as chatrooms, YouTube and collaborative technologies such as wikis. While an open-source blogging tool, WordPress, is being incorporated within Glow, third-party online tools can be unreliable and potentially insecure, Mr Brown says.
“There are a couple of problems with those services. First, how are they funded? Glow is funded by government, whereas most web 2.0 solutions rely on advertising. Plenty of them disappear, or six months into using a brilliant service, you find there is advertising all over it. They have no longevity.”
Nevertheless, he adds, when the current contract with RM ends in 2012, there will be the opportunity for a new version of Glow, which could look very different.
The challenges remain huge, and include balancing the needs of those who have limited technology skills with the demands of the very vocal group of teachers who are already making widespread use of the web.
Some wish to see Glow rebuilt from the ground up, or made usable on phones, iPods and even the Nintendo DS. Others would just like to be able to find the information they are looking for more easily.
It’s a daunting task, but Mr Brown insists Glow can rise to the demand – if others do too.
“I’m a great believer in crowd-sourcing,” he says. “I’m head of Glow, but this is not about me. It isn’t about what Andrew Brown does with Glow. It is about what Scottish education does with Glow.”