Although many people won’t realise it today is a critical day for Scottish Education. It’s a time when more than ever before we need to be brave, really brave.
I believe the education
community, its teachers, its Local Authority employees and most importantly the
children that they support are relying on our Cabinet Secretary for Education
and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell, MSP (@feorlean), to make the right decision. A decision
based on advice from people who really understand the scale of the problem,
people who understand the needs of the user and people who have the skills and
expertise to deliver real and tangible results.
Today the Cabinet Secretary for Education will meet with the ICT Excellence Group to discuss the recommendations from their recently published report and presumably use these discussions to inform his decisions on the future of Glow.
For those of you not in the know, Glow is Scotland’s Schools National Intranet – a brilliant project that has unfortunately failed to deliver. Now, before I get a barrage of abuse from ‘Glow-Fans’, please remember that I am a Glow-Fan, and that there are lots of parts of Glow that have worked really well. But, Glow has not transformed our education culture or the learning and teaching of our children as it had the potential to do.
Also, before all the ‘Anti-Glow’ people chip in… Glow’s failure is not really a result of legacy software, clunkiness, the ‘walled garden’ or the inflexibility of the managed service that it was required to operate within. Indeed, quite the opposite – the failure of Glow (in my opinion) has been down to poor leadership (at Scottish Government level), poor decision-making, blocking at a project management and board level, risk aversion, and ultimately the greed of a handful of people - who, quite frankly should be ashamed of themselves and their hobby which seems to have become the burning of taxpayers’ money.
I think we also need to reflect on the profession at the time and its readiness and ability to accommodate the change in methodology that the use of Glow’s learning tools offered. Were we ready for them? were we really ready to change our practice? Also, could it be argued that a culture of dependency on the need to be ‘trained’ inadvertently became the norm with ICT initiatives with the result being that the relevance, purpose and opportunities to enhance learning with Glow were lost even as the Glow mentors left their training sessions? Make no mistake, there was some really effective practice with Glow beginning to emerge but as it did it found itself struggling to be heard against the growing criticism of the ‘clunky’ interface and the experience of those using tools that were newer and ‘easier to use’.
I think (and this is again all personal opinion and not that of my employer!) that out of just about anyone in Scottish Education I am one of the most qualified to say the above. After all, I worked on the latter stages of the original Glow project as part of the Glow Team and as part of the small team which was responsible for putting together a proposal for the Next Generation of Glow, after Glow Futures was quite rightly scrapped by the Education Minister in 2012.
I was part of the team who shaped the Scottish ICT in Education Objectives, contributed to speeches and blog posts at the highest level, evangelised about Glow internationally and throughout Scotland and also made recommendations to the Scottish Government and Education Scotland on what the next generation of Glow should be. Let me be clear, I believe in ICT in Education and I believe in Glow, I also have every faith in Scotland's young people, after all, they are a remarkable bunch as their input at the ICT Summit in October 2011 illustrates.
The ICT Excellence Group was formed by the Cabinet Secretary after a series of events led to Google pulling out of bidding for the Next Generation of Glow and RM’s contract being extended. I was in hospital at the time for some serious surgery on my shoulder ( information that was kept well out of the public domain). When I returned to work the small team that I had been working in had been disbanded – which to be honest fitted in well with the end of my secondment to Education Scotland.
In what seemed to me to be a very short space of time some people had made (in my opinion) some awful decisions and then the rumours started flying. Which of course played directly into the hands of the 'Anti-Glow mob' and exposed further incompetency of those who now seemed to be in charge of the project and thus reinforcing that they really didn’t seem to understand what the whole thing was actually about and how important it was for our economic future. There was also a rumor at the time (around July 2012) that I had been sent back to school – but this was complete nonsense as well!
My only gripe with Education Scotland is that after nearly four years working for them I left without a ‘thank you’ and no one even thought to ask me what I had been working on, or if there was any information I needed to pass over. It is no secret that I have always thought that the knowledge management within our education agency was shocking and I guess my transition back to Local Authority provided further evidence for this. I’ve contacted Education Scotland on at least five occasions since the end of my secondment offering to help if I can (particularly around Glow issues); sometimes I get a polite reply – but no one is yet to take me up on my offer. Which is why I feel even more frustrated that from a distance they seem to be making a number of predictable and avoidable mistakes (eg: not utilising past expertise, poor communication strategy, under resourced team, lack of proper testing and poor roll out model etc...).
Anyway, why am I talking about this now? Well, I mention it (and I have a lot more to say) because I feel that the Minister for Education needs the support of the education community and to be really brave with his future decision-making. Otherwise we are again going to fail to learn from our past experience. The Digital Scotland 2020: Achieving World-Class digital infrastructure report released on the 26th February talks about ‘leveraging digital solutions in education’. The right decision now about the future of Glow could indeed be part of the digital solution that we need and the wrong decision is unlikely to help us move forward at all. As the report states,
‘The world of education in 2020 will inherently be 'on-line-centric' engaging with those in education will be relatively easy but for those of school age the biggest challenge will be engaging with parents or carers. We must ensure that those in education have access to the technology to engage in education beyond the walls and time boundary of the school day; and that those who care for and support them have at least the basic skills to follow what their children are doing’
The Past: A Potted History…
Let me give you a (very abbreviated) potted history…
- On 15th October 2010 a group of people were invited to talk about ICT in Education at the International Futures Forum. These discussions helped inform the initial stages of Scotland’s Technologies for Learning Strategy and this post from Feargal Kelly is a good summary of the day as it links to all the other posts that were written. Many people left the event feeling very enthused and positive about the future. The Scottish Government’s Technologies for Learning Strategy Project went on until July 2011 when it was merged with the Next Generation Glow Project. A lot of recommendations were made as part of the Technologies for Learning Strategy Report which to my knowledge have never seen the light of day.
- Then Next Generation Glow came along and Mr Russell made all the right noises in his speeches and blog posts about the future. We had an ICT Summit on 17th October 2011 organised by the Scottish Government where recommendations were made and everyone (apart from the people who were at the event almost exactly a year before!) left the day feeling enthusiastic and positive about the future. Lots of recommendations and ideas were collected from the event which went on to inform the ICT in Education Project Team, led by the Scottish Government. One of the projects within this workstream was to develop and make recommendations on the Next Generation of Glow.
- This was scrapped in May / June 2012. The RM contract was extended; Google said they weren’t bidding and lots of people (and people, and people) chipped in with their take on events.
- The solution to what quickly became unessessy widespread panic was the formation of the ICT Excellence Group. Their job, amongst other things was to advise on the future direction of Glow. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed not to be asked to join this group not because I see myself as being an expert, but because I have so much locked up in my head and background information from the years before June 2012 that I think I could have saved the group a lot of time and money. But, maybe the purpose of the group was to reinvent the wheel.
The ICT Excellence Report
Now let me get onto the ICT Excellence Report Itself…
In a nutshell, it is awful and embarrassing. Don’t misread me here much of the content is good, actually it is very good, in fact it is not a million miles away from where the team I was working within got to over a year ago (back to that in a minute...).
So what is bad about it? Well, the formatting, the spelling, the grammar (I know I can talk!), the presentation, its inconsistency, the lack of authorship, the accessibility, how it was distributed to key stakeholders and the lack of formal consultation following its publication. All of these little things make a mockery of potentially a pretty good piece of work from Professor Calder and her team. A piece of work that has already been discredited by many in the IT profession (both corporate and education users).
Now let me be clear about this again - the content of the ICT Excellence Report is good (there are obviously some bits I don’t agree with but most parts are good and very worthwhile). BUT the poor presentation is an embarrassment and whoever within the Scottish Government let such an important report like this be published in the way that it has been should be very embarrassed and offer an apology to the education community. This might sound a little bit petty but it makes the Education Minister look bad as once again, it seems to me, he has been let down not by the people (the experts) whom he entrusted to the job but by the civil servants who had a duty to support them. This has been an annoying recurrence throughout the Glow saga.
The Report’s Contents
Again, let me emphasise that the findings and recommendations of the ICT Excellence Report are really not very different to the findings and recommendations of the team I was working in over a year ago.
We even code named our project Glow Plus! I suspect that most of the ICT Excellence Group didn’t know this and that it would have caused a great deal of amusement to the people who did! (And there were definitely a few!).
Take this diagram of the structure of Glow Plus from the report as an example...
...how different is that from the diagram that has been previously shown to ADES ICT Advisory Board, the people who attended the Google Apps / Office 365 User Testing (in November 2011) and Local Authority Key Contacts, Directors of Education (or their representatives) and Local Authority Corporate IT personnel in (in February 2012).
Then there is the recommendation on the training model…
… and how different is that exactly to the model I described at the Next Generation Glow Local Authority Meeting in March 2012?
At the same meeting Stuart Campbell (now the Acting Head of Glow) and part of the Next Generation Glow Team talked about the need for National Filtering....
...the ICT Excellence Report recommends the same thing…
I could go on and on, and please don’t get me wrong, all of these things are hard to do. But my point is many of the things have been recommended before and what we need now is action.
If I was the Cabinet Secretary for Education (and I’m not) I would accept all the recommendations in the ICT Excellence Report (apart from one – and I’ll come to that in a minute). But I would particularly endorse the recommendation to form a small agile team to develop the next generation of Glow and this team has to have credibility.
This team needs to obviously operate inside the laws of procurement where appropriate, but without the bureaucracy of the civil service and Education Scotland (at least until it is built and implemented). To be honest much of the vision for the future of Glow has already been encapsulated in Charlie Love’s Glew Project. What I think is great about this project is that Charlie openly says – ‘it’s not perfect’ and ‘there is a lot of work to do’ but what he does beautifully is show what is possible. Never before has there been a time in Scottish Education when we’ve so needed to show teachers and learners what is possible – they deserve the very best and no less.
Setting The Record Straight…
A few other things before I start on a much needed cup of coffee…
- This isn’t about Google Apps or Office 365 (and it never has been). Glew can work with both (Apps and 365) indeed a future user or LA could have both (I know this because I was there when the technical diagrams were drawn over a year ago).
- This isn’t about .gsx. You could easily have .gsx as part of the Next Generation of Glow or as part of Glew. We just have to host that part in a Scottish or UK Secure Data Centre. It is really not that expensive or, to be honest that complicated. Again, preliminary technical scoping of this was done well over a year ago – which is why it was embarrassing for Education Scotland to say they didn’t realise .gsx was a problem at the last Glow Key Contacts Meeting (February 2013).
- Ignore the user scenarios/stories in the ICT Excellence Report – they don’t capture what is possible and most importantly don’t capture the international research of what is already happening with some of our global competitors. In my opinion both Ewan McIntosh and Professor Stephen Heppell (both members of the Excellence Group) could have been more influential here? I just hope they were widely consulted? For example, South Korea, Lithuania and Sweden provide examples of success by embedding digital access in education: South Korea provided free PCs to low income students with good grades; Sweden set targets for digital literacy; and Lithuania provides access to school diaries and reports online supporting students and encouraging parents to engage.
- I don't believe the rumours about ADES and RM and I have every faith in ADES making the right decisions around Glow.
- This aside, I think there is also a lot of truth in what Jaye Richards Hill has researched and written over the last five years (and not just about Glow). She has always been a ‘critical friend and informal adviser’ to the Glow project right from the early days and I hope that she will continue to be in the future along with the other ‘teacher' members of the ICT Excellence Group such as Ian Stuart, Neil Winton, Charlie Love, Fraser Speirs and Hamish Budge.
Don’t Change The Name
Now I said there was one recommendation within the ICT Excellence Report that I didn’t agree with. I think the Scottish Government should keep the brand. There is nothing wrong with Glow.
Lots of people will disagree with me here. But to be frank, scrapping the brand is too easy an objective to achieve. My challenge to the ICT Excellence Implementation Group is to achieve all the other recommendations and then you won’t have to change the brand. Believe it or not – the brand is not that bad and has international credibility. It just needs to reinvent itself – if Skoda can do it, Glow can do it!
What Happens Next?
Mr Russell, it is time to form the agile group to start moving things forward. The technologists within Scottish Education are some of the most passionate practitioners you will ever meet with international reputations and growing global experience. We will continue to support and advise when we are asked – but you need to ask and we will always be honest.
Unfortunately it is our honesty that scares some of the bureaucrats who work within our system,
These are exciting times for Scottish Education and Technology for Learning, but I hope we can now start to move forward together and not in isolated silos of innovation.
Finally, Mr Russell, if you need any more reassurance - listen to your own words... they united a profession, and can do again...
27th February 2013
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