Will Scottish schools be back on Glow by Christmas? If not, Michael Russell will need answers
It's looks like crunch time for Scotland's national education network Glow, now being relaunched with Office365 integration. Education minister Michael Russell has brushed aside criticism of the programme and told the Scottish Parliament that the new service is already being rolled out to schools across Scotland and pledged that all local authorities will be connected by December 2013. It's a pledge his political opponents are certain to hold him to.
He wasn't given an easy ride by Labour MSP for Lothian Kezia Dugdale who had raised the issue at 'education questions' in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday (October 2).
She asked whether the replacement for the Glow network, incorporating Microsoft's Office365, would be rolled out by December 2013. She described the situation as "chaos" and revealed that Dumfries and Galloway authority had been told the service would not be available until October 2014.
The reply from cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning Michael Russell MSP, read from a briefing script (see video – about 22 minutes in), was: "A positive no, because we are not waiting until December. New Glow services are being rolled out now and will continue to be introduced and come on stream in the coming months including services to support the migration of information into Office365. As well as the introduction of agile, open, best-of-breed systems to enhance learning for children, young people and practitioners in Scotland."
He admitted that there had been technical challenges, but said that he had been assured that work was progressing when he met with contractor RM at the Scottish Learning Festival last week. (RM has already been paid more than £50 million for its work on Glow,) The chief executive of Education Scotland would, he said, be "writing to all directors of education this week about the next level of support for local authorities to help them manage change as they move from the decade-old Sharepoint 2003 to the new Sharepoint 2013 environment".
'What have they got for the £80 million spent on Glow?'
Kezia Dugdale said she felt Michael Russell's answer was "very surprising" because she had been told that Glow was "in chaos". £5 million had been made available to extend the RM contract with "£80 million spent already on the Glow network which isn't working". She added: "Thousands of hours of teachers' work has been lost and thousands more are required to rebuild it. Can the cabinet secretary tell teachers what they have got for the £80 million he spent on Glow?"
The cabinet minister advised her to be careful about "some of the rhetoric surrounding this from one or two individuals" which was not borne out by the people he had been speaking to.He said that the Glow migration had started in April 2013 with the email service which was now complete. He claimed that two thirds of the content had already been "migrated" and 20 local authorities had access to the Office 365 services. The "remaining 12 will have their portal content migrated by December 2013 which will include access to Office 365 environment".
However, he conceded that "unpacking of data" was proving difficult for some authorities to manage. How exactly authorities will be able to use the system if they can't "unpack" their data was not explained in his script, presumably prepared by Education Scotland.. His reply. which did not touch on what the £80 million had actually produced, also mentioned selective statistics, including "1.3 million logons in May and June this year", a period which included the migration of all email accounts.
Putting a positive gloss on his reply, Michael Russell said that both systems, old and new, would run in parallel for six months, which would give LAs more time to consult on what users want from their service. "Glow has been a remarkable success," he said, "and it continues to be, but of course it will change."
Glow has attracted its share of controversy over implementation and costs, rather than the vision for a national education network, and in 2011 Michael Russell halted the procurement process for the next phase, known as Glow Plus following general disquiet. The latest alarms have been sounded in blogs by Charlie Love and Jaye Richards-Hill (see links below).
The situation appears to be symptomatic of a faiure of policy-makers in Scotland to continue nurturing and promulgating their own grassroots innovation, particularly with learning with technology. Scottish educators have been pioneers in this field and are respected internationally. Ground-breaking work developed in Scottish schools, for example using off-the-shelf gaming technologies for learning, have been emulated in classrooms in other countries, yet support for that at policy level appears to have ebbed.
'Mr Russell would do better to take it on the chin and just apologise'
The Glow project itself has been extremely ambitious, and massive efforts have been made to achieve a working consensus, but the weakness is clearly at the executive level in delivering a network that teachers and learners are happy with. And educators have not felt that they have been in the driving seat, where they belong, although they have been brought in to work on the long-term aim, known as Glow Plus.
Speaking after the education questions clash, educator Jaye Richards-Hill commented: "Despite the spin so well applied by Mr Russell, the migration to Office 365 has been badly managed and the latest in this catalogue of disasters will further dent the credibility of the Glow project. Mr Russell would do better to take it on the chin and just apologise, and then make sure this sort of mess never happens again.
"Education Scotland was warned a year ago about the potential for problems, and it chose to ignore this warning. Serious questions need to be asked about the competence of this organisation, and about accountability for the chaos. Glow Plus is currently taking shape and will now be lead by educationists. Nobody would be blamed if they decided to keep their migrated data parked in Office365 and wait a little longer for the Glow Plus solution, or whatever it will be called."
The Glow controversy looks like finally emerging as a party political issue. Michael Russell is SNP and the independence dabate is hotting up, so this is not likely to go on the back burner, and it's already back in the Scottish press (see "Technology - Red faces after Glow's false dawn"). The education minister has committed to delivery of the current version of Glow, with Office365, in time for Christmas for Scottish learners, teachers and families. With some £80 million already spent, Christmas expectations will be high and failure to deliver can only be met by further serious questions.