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Glow is Scotland's national education network. Among other things, it's an extremely bold attempt to provide an online entitlement for teachers and learners and even parents too. As with all centralised projects there are dangers along with the opportunities and challenges.

But at the Scottish Learning Festival in Glasgow, in a small presentation room, the first teachers to use the new network in and out of their classrooms were giving their presentations in the Glowing Lounge. There really was a glow, social as well as professional, as teacher after teacher revealed how the teaching and learning in their schools was changing as a result of the networking technologies they now had access to.

Next year the Glowing Lounge, or whatever it will then be called, will be bigger and more dynamic because there will be so much more to share, and it will be teachers like Jaye Richards (above), of South Lanarkshire's Cathkin High School, who will be bringing about the kinds of changes that will be possible through Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence. It was an exciting place to be in 2008 and it can only get better. Here is her story:

JAYE RICHARDS WAS an honest cynic about Glow, the national Scottish network. “Yes I thought it was clunky and I said it. I remember being here last year [at the Scottish Learning Festival] saying this is obsolete technology and moaning about what Glow wouldn’t do for me. I can’t do this, can’t get my podcasts on, can’t stream my video in, its limiting me on this, on that”.

But then her Glow “mentor” pointed out that it could be a good starting point for other teachers who hadn’t used any other system, and who wouldn’t feel the same way, and neither would their students. So why wouldn’t she give it a go? She did, and she and her students at Cathkin High School, just outside Glasgow, where she teaches biology and psychology, haven’t looked back.

Glow allowed Jaye to put into practice the kind of teaching that reflects her views on learning. Never a fan of tests, when the necessity arose she was able to get her learners to devise their own tests, using Glow to research and collaborate and develop tests that were just as rigorous as those designed by an examiner. Unlike an examiner’s tests, these were the learners’ own, which they were committed to and engaged with. These changes have been profound. And for teachers who feel they are expected to embrace 21st century practice while using 19th century assessment they are important.

The view Jaye shared with other teachers this year at the SLF was that, yes, Glow is a little clunky “but it’s usable, and while it might not satisfy the technophiles, it’s a great place for the majority of teachers to come on board in using technology in the classroom“.

'Creative subversion' a key to student engagement

Jaye Richards now takes pleasure in finding new ways of working with learners in her classroom - using what she calls “creative subversion” - by adapting Glow to how her pupils want to learn. And it is already improving student engagement and achievement (the basis of her report “Will the lights stay on?”, link below). Her pupils want to use it and love using the VLE (virtual learning environment), the whiteboard, which they share and comment on, and instant messaging. “And they want resources,” she says. “Not big, wordy documents, but short, sharp chunks of information that they can access easily, digest, absorb and retain.”

Of particular interest and effectiveness for Jaye Richards is the way Glow allows teachers to situate and contextualise the learning. It gives them the chance to take the theory learnt in the classroom, apply it to real-life situations and use the network to bring in the media (videos and films) that take them to those real life places.

Glow proved its worth when, as part of a biology lesson on oxygen content in water, her class was able to “virtually” travel to places in the world where water pollution was causing real environmental problems. By studying the effect of water pollution on dolphins living in the waters of the Yangtze River resulting from the building of the Three Gorges Dam, and on the fishes living in the sewage that had seeped into the River Don in Sheffield last summer, it “cemented the learning of the theory of bio chemical oxygen demand”. “I teach psychology [as well] and to me it’s a change in the way they learn,” she says. “It’s not shallow, superficial learning to enable them to pass tests. Its deep learning that stays with them.”

Using Glow allows the work to be more self-paced and learners can be more autonomous, helping each other and moving towards validating each other’s work. However, they don’t move on to another activity until they are either happy they have completed the one they are working on or they can’t do it and they ask the teacher for help. Nine times out of ten that help will be immediately forthcoming because this method of working means the teacher will be available.

This can take the teacher away from being the centre of attention in the classroom - a big problem for many teachers, says Jaye. “Glow can totally change the way they work - moving the emphasis away from what the teacher is doing to focus more on what the pupils are doing.”

Making tests more meaningful

An ardent critic of tests (she pulled her daughter out of school in England rather than let her be subjected to SATs), Jaye developed her own solution to the obligatory end-of-topic tests. By dividing pupils into groups of four and asking each group to set test questions which would be marked by a different group, she allowed pupils to show off their knowledge of the topic. They were allowed to use textbooks and computers to retrieve and analyse information, be critical about what they finding and then use the information to write the questions. At the end of the exercise they scored everybody else in their group on effort and contribution.

However, this was to be no easy option for the learners as she soon discovered. They were competing with each other by posing tough questions and didn’t take kindly to teacher interference. “I was walking around the room holding forth about something, and slipping into teacher mode, when one of the pupils said, ‘Hang on a bit miss but can you shut up please? You’re stopping us from learning.’ I thought that from a 15-year-old child that was profound, but a lot of teachers wouldn’t countenance that at all. Many of my colleagues, sad to say, still consider themselves the major resource in the classroom.”

From 'carping on the sidelines' to leadership

So where does Jaye go from here? She is fortunate to have a supportive headteacher who has created a school culture where teachers feel that they can be innovative. And now she recognises that she can make the most significant changes to how children learn when she is running her own school.

“I can carp on the sidelines all I want,” she says, “but it wouldn’t have any effect. However, if I were a headteacher of a school of 1,800 pupils I could have a real effect on their learning by trying to encourage the culture of learning that I personally believe in, and hoping that people would come along with me. Teachers are incredibly creative people and yet they can act like sheep.”

Now Jaye is taking steps to fulfill her ambition and is doing a postgraduate course in management leadership, hopefully followed by the Scottish Qualification for Headship. She is also mindful of the fact that current investments in technology for change (£37 million in Glow) have created an opportunity for systemic change which might not be open for ever.

Glow at a tipping point for learning - and time to junk 'clunky'

Glow represents a tipping point for Scottish education, she says. While there are obstacles to its acceptance, it’s important that it succeeds. And while there’s a professional and cultural challenge for teachers and learners there’s also one for Learning and Teaching Scotland and its ICT supplier RM. They need to ensure sure that the ICT adjective “clunky” exits the local parlance when it comes to Glow so that the there is a clearer incentive for its adoption.

While teachers like Jaye Richards might be adopting the technology, they are pragmatic and healthily cynical about the value of some programmes. Take interactive whiteboards. Jaye Richards is largely self-taught because she took ownership of an unused whiteboard that was languishing in a store-room. She may have found interactive ways to use it with her students but she considers interactive a “misnomer” for this equipment and thinks it should be subjected to careful evaluation. What she would really like to see is more evaluation of its formative assessment as she feels this has more potential to transform learning than possibly any other factor, including the current Scottish debate about class size.

“A good way of raising attainment would be to increase teacher subject knowledge but you can’t do that year on year in a cost effective way and you reach a ceiling on that,” she says. “The really cost-effective way to raise attainment is formative assessment. If you train your teachers to use formative assessment and assessment-for-learning approaches in their teaching you’ll see a year-on-year rise in attainment. And it’s cost effective because the training you give to your teachers doesn’t actually cost a lot of money. To drive attainment forward we need to get out of this mania we’ve got with class size reduction and start looking at what we actually do in classrooms.” Using Glow in this area improves effectiveness here, she adds.

Jaye Richards doesn’t often set homework but says it’s available if her pupils want it. However, she does suggest to them what they need to be doing to consolidate classroom learning and, if they wish, is happy to mark any work they do. “I point them in the direction of what I would be doing if I was them, and increasingly we are finding they are logging on to Glow at home to do things like play on the learning games that are in there, or watch the video material I put in there. Therefore I make sure whatever video or games I put in they are absolutely relevant in some way to what they need to know to succeed in the course. Ultimately they have to succeed in the exam because that’s the system we work in unfortunately. I am trying to make sure they are getting what they need but they are getting it in an unconventional or fun way”.

The learning that beats waiting for the bell

Scottish education is going through major changes with its Curriculum for Excellence and teachers tend to be supportive because they believe it’s about how they teach rather than what they teach. However, there is still a fear that Scottish local authorities might not learn from the English content-led and over-tested curriculum. And that’s one reason why Glow, for all its perceived clunkiness, holds such promise for teachers and learners – it’s becoming a powerful support for changing practice.

“What I am doing with Glow is all geared towards delivering the full four capacities of the Curriculum for Excellence,” says Jaye Richards, “and we are getting confident as we get really successful learners.”

As one of Jaye’s pupils told her: “When learning is fun you’re thinking about what you’re doing. When it’s not fun you’re thinking about when the bell is going to go.”

Web links

You can find Jaye Richards’ “Will the lights stay on” report on using Glow at her school at her blog:

Jaye’s presentation on teaching and learning with Glow can be found at:

Learning and Teaching Scotland will not be exhibiting at BETT 2009 but you can find out more at the RM stand C60