Saturday 9 June 2012

Glow's Next Phase—a response

Here is my response to today’s announcement[1] from Mike Russell, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning. All the indented quotes below come from that statement:

Glow was first conceived in 2001 as The Scottish Schools Digital Network. Its concept was simple, to use online tools to support teachers and pupils to enhance Scottish education. That core mission remains, but the online world has changed radically in the last 11 years and to remain relevant to its users Glow must change with it.

Since 2001 myriad new services have begun or grown. It’s worth reflecting that conceptually Glow predates SmartPhones, Twitter, Skype, Facebook, Flickr and Youtube.

The uncomfortable message here is that Glow hasn’t really changed in 11 years. The problem is only partly to do with what Glow was technically. The problem is that Glow: it’s procurement, development and ongoing support did not fit a model of continuous change. Whatever Glow2 is, it should be designed around the one certainty: change. But creating a service for education in Scotland that is constantly changing and adapting is something that the Scottish Government doesn’t appear to know how to do.

I articulated in September last year my vision for the future of Glow, and in October the ICT in Education conference took place and the user community generated invaluable insights on how Glow could develop in future. Debate and suggestions examined how we could deliver on my 5 key principles for Glow:

  • Change the culture of use of ICT
  • Improve confidence in the use of ICT for learners, teachers, school leaders and parents
  • Promote new behaviours for teaching
  • Deepen parental engagement
  • Strengthen position on hardware and associated infrastructure

The first four of these five ‘principles’ are about managing change. They are outcomes that would help to illicit the effective use of Glow2: they are not the outcomes of thrusting Glow2 on people and leaving them to sink or swim. If you want to: change the culture of the use of ICT, improve confidence, promote new ways of teaching, and deepen parental engagement, then you need to have a plan. Glow2 isn’t the plan: it should just be a tool to facilitate education.

And Glow2 should be the easy bit because managing change is hard!

The informed engagement through the ICT conference, and other mediums such as Twitter, has crystallised for me the need for the long-term future of Glow to be user-led, and potentially user delivered. In the meantime it is vital that we secure continuity of service for Glow’s users and for its current application suite to be overhauled.

“continuity of service” and “current application suite to be overhauled” is a blatant contradiction.

To ensure continuity we have taken the step of extending the current RM provision through to December 2013. Microsoft have agreed to provide the tools and services of their integrated application suite ‘Microsoft Office 365 for Education’ for free through to December 2014; this was the first offer of its kind in the world for a national schools project.

And here is the contradiction. Extending the current RM provision through to December 2013 is continuity and provides some breathing space to make the right decisions. Moving to ‘Microsoft Office 365’ isn’t continuity at all—it’s a move to something different. I understand[2] that Google also offered their services for free and didn’t threaten to start charging some unknown sum from December 2014 onwards!

Microsoft have also agreed to go further and deliver a package over and above the integrated application suite to deliver on the 5 key principles for Glow. For example, the improvements to the functionality and ease of use of the Glow application suite will be aided by a full-time dedicated staff member funded by Microsoft to help support and promote the service.

And wouldn’t any company offer their services for free for the opportunity of tying users into their free products only to then charge for them later when the cost and disruption of changing makes any other options out of the question. This is what ‘lock in’ is all about. This is precisely what the Scottish Government should be avoiding because it ultimately costs a fortune.

As a Government we will also work to integrate the ICT choices made by local authorities for their own education communities within our co-ordinated national effort.

This could be a positive acknowledgement and acceptance that some authorities do things differently or a veiled message that the plan is to subsume everyone into the same system.

As I set out in September 2011 Glow must continue to evolve and become more dynamic. At the heart of this is seeking a secure way through Glow for pupils, parents and teachers to utilise the free tools and the open source services that already exist on the web or that will emerge in the future.


One criticism of how Glow has developed over the years is that users were not sufficiently involved in directing its future. I agree.

But spoken agreement is not enough. Where is the transparency? Users have been involved in directing the future but their opinions have been ignored and the progress sidestepped[2].

We must build on the successful user engagements of the ICT conference and the debates on the future of Glow that take place online. As the First Minister has said, we do not have a monopoly on wisdom.

No, but there needs to be leadership and that leadership needs to have the skills necessary to understand what has to be done, what can be done and how to go about it. This is the largely the same message that came out in September last year[3], reiterated as if nothing should have happened in that time.

With the roll-out of the new and improved integrated application suite and the agreement to extend the services of RM, the work of the current iteration of the ICT in Education programme board will draw to a close. To oversee the next phase in development I have asked the Scottish Government’s new Chief Scientific Adviser, Prof Muffy Calder, to convene an ICT Education Excellence group. The excellence group will call on the expertise of education technology specialists and end users.

“Draw to a close”! The decisions that took place between September of last year and now seem to have gone completely against or despite of any publicly known discussions or interactions. This is about starting over yet again!

Another new group destined to revive the same discussions and arguments costing huge amounts of valuable time for people many of whom already know what we should be doing and have known for years. A group destined to spend its time trying to educate Government sufficiently that it can be hand-held through the process it should understand itself.

We talk about the need to improve ICT education for children but in reality the biggest bottleneck is the lack of understanding of grown up government in how to manage ICT and change itself.

The excellence group will have the immediate task of scoping the long-term user-centred future of Glow. Their challenge will be to imagine a future for the service that provides a seamless user experience and connectivity on the one hand and an open pluralist range of tools and applications on the other.

The group will draw on the contributions made to date and further explore community generated contributions like Glew.

In other words, let’s put all the vocal people in a room, feed them tea and biscuits and hope they don’t notice that the Scottish Government has signed it’s life away to yet another Microsoft contract that will be so costly to cancel that it can’t be done.

Meanwhile let’s just leave the teachers to fend for themselves.

11 years ago when Glow was first conceived it would have been hard to imagine the range of free online tools and services that could be used to enhance education today.

Today it is hard to imagine that we are no further forward!

The exciting opportunity is to develop Glow to be a service that evolves with the demands of teachers and pupils, and utilising new tools as they emerge. Only by creating a user-centred Glow will we ensure that in 2023 the service remains relevant and vital to Scottish Education.

11 years ago it was an exciting opportunity: now it is horrendously out of date and a necessity! Only inside a closeted world that accepts that the Scottish Government is slow and somehow understandably years behind the times can anyone accept the current situation we find ourselves in. And this is not an excuse.

The future of this country is going nowhere if we can’t get beyond throwing parties every time we manage to tie our own shoelaces. On the one hand we have some of the world’s most advanced research and skills[4] on the other hand we have the Scottish Government which seems to outsource anything which requires a brain.

Do I sound critical… yes! Because the more I understand what goes on in Government in Scotland, the more I am shocked and embarrassed by it’s complete self-obsessed incompetence and disconnection from what really matters. I know people who still believe in what they do, but most seem to have given up caring. They have lost all hope. Apparently, I am told, the Scottish civil service is a lost cause.

“There was once a dream that was [Scottish Education]. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish… it was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter.”[5]

  1. “Glow’s Next Phase”, Michael Russell, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, 8 June 2012.’s-next-phase/.  ↩

  2. “Glow plight - pride of Scotland or ‘zombie’ network?”, Jaye Richards-Hill, 5 June 2012.  ↩

  3. “The Future of Glow”, Michael Russell, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, 8 September 2011.  ↩

  4. University of Edinburgh, Informatics, “Research excellence”. And this is only one example of Scotland’s Universities.  ↩

  5. Misquote from the film “Gladiator”, 2000:  ↩

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