Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Information overload: an intranet linking schools in Scotland is set to provide a giant resource bank

Published By: The Independent - 28 Feb 2008

The children of St James’ primary school, in Paisley, have started to learn in whole new way. Their school is at the forefront of a groundbreaking programme to link all schools in Scotland into a common digital web and hundreds of possibilities are starting to open up for pupils, teachers, parents and school managers. Everyone within the system will eventually have their own password, and be able to access the relevant resources of this huge educational intranet.

And where Scotland is leading, UK schools will soon be following. The Government wants all schools to be on their way to this sort of technological future by this Spring, and to be part of a similar integrated ICT system, albeit on a more local scale, by March 2010.

Scotland’s system will allow schools to share data, make bulk purchases and manage things like attendance records more efficiently. It will enable teachers to talk together both within and across schools, and allow pupils to keep their work online, share lessons with pupils from other schools and send their homework directly to their teachers for marking. The list of benefits goes on and on. Video conferencing will be readily available, pupils will be easily tracked and assessed, all kinds of specialist groups and networks – a school chess club; a chatroom for geography teachers -- will spring up, classroom resources can be shared and enhanced, and parents will be able to see their children’s timetables, e-mail teachers and check up on letters home from school.

Called Glow, the £40m system is the world’s first national schools intranet, linking 800,000 users. It is funded by the Scottish Government and managed by Teaching and Learning Scotland in partnership with the educational computer company RM. The system is only just beginning to be rolled out in schools, but Renfrewshire is already working with it, and the children of St James’ have been putting their creative writing work online, developing it in teams, commenting on it, amending it and sharing it. Meanwhile a Renfrewshire secondary school, Johnstone High School, in Johnstone, is uploading homework assignments so students can access them at any time, send them back to their teachers for marking, and receive the returned work online.
“We’ve only been using it for the last couple of months, but everyone now has their own Glow account log-in, and we’re already beginning to see new practice developing,” says Gordon McKinlay, senior adviser for school improvement. “This is all about enhancing teaching and learning.”

Elsewhere in Scotland, one East Bartonshire primary class has already been helped to develop their work on the Michael Morpurgo novel, Kensuke’s Kingdom, by a class at another primary school which had been investigating Japan, demonstrating what Andrew Sharkey, education manager for Glow, calls the three Cs of the system – that it is collegiate, collaborative and connected. “The children in the one school taught the children in the other. This allows young people to work together and support each other.”

Other possibilities, says Sharkey, include remote lessons – if one school can’t teacher higher physics, another can do it by video – and sharing specialist resources. “There are a lot of Polish students in schools now, but not that many specialists who understand the culture.” It opens up new possibilities for continued professional development, motivates pupils and promotes personalised learning. “The old age and stage thing can be relaxed. It’s a tool for thinking and for personalised learning. It can go from being for all users, right down to one. This is about removing barriers and allowing everyone to be innovative and creative in what they do.”

Scotland was certainly innovative and creative when it started thinking about this 10 years ago, and is ahead of the rest of the world in developing a national system. Other countries, such as Finland, are showing a keen interest.

But learning platforms, which integrate e-mail, discussion forums and blogs with online tools to help school managers, pupils and teachers, are being used in a growing number of areas in the UK, and the Government expects all schools to have one in two years’ time. In Middlesborough, 40-odd primary schools are just beginning to explore the possibilities of their local intranet, and Richard Gartland, deputy head of Chandlers Ridge primary school, says they are already seeing great benefits. “Gone are the days when we would spend an hour and a half a week discussing the school diary. Now if anyone has something on they just put it in online and everyone can see at once. The beauty of it is we can now devote staff meeting time to professional development.”
The school has been using the system for three years and is in the forefront of the new technology. But even it is only gradually beginning to see the full scope for sharing resources, engaging with parents and motivating children. For instance, it is a great help if children are out of school. “We had one child go to Iraq for a time, and another to Australia, and they did their work and shared the blog and kept in touch with their friends, and when they came back it was as if they hadn’t been away. It was pretty mind-blowing having this little girl sending back her homework from Iraq!”

Another benefit has been to turn boys on to learning. “Often boys can hate writing, but here they are enthused to create hyperlinks and pictures. This is the PlayStation generation, We have to inspire them.”

Andrew Potter, senior software architect for RM, points out that learning platforms offer a safe and controlled environment for younger children to develop their online skills. They can share videos, contribute to blogs and sign in to chatrooms in a far safer way than by plunging into the stormy seas of MySpace and YouTube. “They have their user name and password, and schools determine what their pupils can do.” There are also relatively few problems of access, since research has shown that most children who don’t have computers at home can get onto the internet at a relative’s house or through their local library.

BECTA, the Government’s agency for ICT in education, says learning platforms offer huge possibilities, not least for linking home and school. “No longer will that letter home be lost in the bottomless pit of a Year Six bag!” says Andy Tyerman, head of personalised learning. “And there are so many ways it can save teachers’ time. With the shortened timescales for Ofsted inspections, for example, schools will be able to ask colleagues in other schools to send them the policy on so-and-so that they are missing.”
A lot of schools are still wary, “but it’s not about knowing the technology, it’s about knowing about school improvement and not getting wound up in the gobbledegook.” And, although a single system like Glow will not work in the UK, where there are 23,000 schools, there is a drive to develop common standards so that “not every school is reinventing the wretched wheel.”

Also, as schools increasingly take up the new technology, there is an urgent need for a development of new thinking. “We are working with a teaching population that is mainly over 40,” points out Tyerman, “but then, if you think about it, five or six years ago none of us were doing the internet banking and the things we are all doing now.”

Everyone feels sure that learning platforms will bring numerous benefits. What isn’t yet known is just what these will ultimately be. As one teacher in Scotland wrote, after being trained to use Glow. “A true revolution is happening in education -- and it’s not often you can say that.”