Education needs dissenting voices and counter-intuitive thinking.
So says the leader in last week’s Times Educational Supplement Scotland. I’ve been asked quite a lot why it is that I’ve stopped being the ‘dissenting voice’ I used to be particularly with regard to Glow. I guess the answer to this is that I’ve tried to put my money where my mouth was and contribute to a future successful iteration of a national managed learning platform… however, recent developments have made me reconsider this comparative silence, together with my own role within the current process.
The ICTEx group, of which I was a member was tasked with producing a ‘blueprint’ of how a user-centred Scottish Schools National Intranet should take shape over the coming years from December 2013 onwards. My colleagues and I produced a paper outlining a vision for a future version of GLOW. It was a user centred proposal based upon vast experience brought to the table by group members representing all areas of education expertise and constituency, as well as the extensive collective consultations with the education community of the previous two years. This was a radical departure from the normal practice of collecting a spattering of the ‘usual suspects’ (Unions, ADES, GTCS, etc etc) and civil servants to form such groups and prompted huge expectations from the Scottish Education community that at long last, things were on the up with Glow and the future of ICT in Scottish school education as the excellence group brought an unbeatable combination of skills and experience to meld with the political will of an education secretary determined that the project should break free of the previous troubles and become something which would add real value to classrooms up and down the land.
This progress now appears to be in danger from two directions; Firstly, the current debacle which has been allowed to develop over the migration of GLOW resources to Office 365 (despite the problems being identified as potential threats as early as last August!). The changeover to Microsoft 365 with the migrated date being in a format which is unrecognisable has caused chaos around the country and will require significant time and effort from Local Authority education staff to reconstruct all of their Glow sites (and thats before they even get started on their schools!) This poses a threat to the future credibility of any government/Education Scotland managed learning environment, or GlowPlus as our paper called our vision. I will write about this shortly.
However, it is the second danger to progress which I’m going to highlight in this post.
Avid followers of the GlowPlus project evolution and implementation might be frequent flyers on the Scottish Government Learning Directorate website where all the minutes and presentations are published. The revamped website appeared to be a huge improvement and heralded a more open and transparent future (albeit with some rather glaring omissions like missing meeting minutes from all three connected groups ). And so visitors to the site might have wondered why the Project Board commissioned two particular pieces of work. The ones I’m referring to are of course the review of ”Learning VLE’s” by MRUK and a review of “user experiences/development of user stories and prototyping” by Story/Nile.
I’ve been out and about quite a lot in recent weeks, and more than a few folks have asked me why this first piece of work was commissioned as it tells us nothing we don’t already know. There are two educationalists on the board who could have told the board everything that was in it. Furthermore, the Key Reference group, set up to ‘act as a reference point’ for the board contains internationally experienced and renowned experts on learning platforms. Are the wider community observing this process seriously to believe that folks such as Ewan McIntosh, Mike Sharples, Ian Somerville, Jeff Hayward, Steven Heppell, Charlie Love and Neil Winton had nothing to offer the project Board here? And that the other group members, most of whom have experience with a range of learning platforms and who are frequently consulted by both suppliers and user groups on their use could not have given advice? It’s been said to me that their collective knowledge on Managed Learning Environments far surpasses anything a consulting business such as MRUK, a generic market and social research company could put together. They are, collectively, at the cutting edge of everything which has gone before, is currently in use, and what is coming, and so why are we spending education funding on this piece of work? In fact, if you look at the front page of their website, MRUK have lots of links to their ‘specialist areas of expertise’ but strangely enough, education does not feature amongst these! One well respected Scottish education figure privately described the MRUK report to me as ‘Utter shite’!
Ironically, Key Reference group Member Professor Stephen Heppell is chairman of Learning Possibilities, the company which is implementing the Hwb national education MLE for the Welsh Government which is mentioned nowhere in the MRUK report even though there are many obvious parallels with Glow. Incidentally, Hwb+, the secure part of Hwb, is based on the LP+ VLE and can be accessed on any platform or device (the favoured communications technology is Microsoft’s Office 365). Is anyone from the Project Team, Board or Education Scotland talking to our Welsh counterparts or, better still, visiting Welsh schools using the service?
What a pointless waste of taxpayers money, and shocking discourtesy and naivety on the part of the implementation team lead by Robbie Parrish. But then again, this team has one glaring omission which might explain this – it (currently) has no one on it with any experience at all in education!
And even worse, the Project Board agreed this. Now it does have educationalists -one of whom is still teaching in school on it, but were they listened to? Is this a gradual exclusion of the educationalists and the isolation of those that remain? Because there was a definite commitment from Mr Russell that this new practice of involvement of teachers and other educationalists started with the make-up of the Excellence group would continue. Are we going the same way as previous GLOW projects have gone? sunk by a sublimation into generic government project management and the exclusion of the people with the real experience to make it work well to suit the needs of the real end users – teachers and pupils. When will they realise that education does not and cannot work in this way?
The second piece of work is even more concerning. After nearly three years of consultation resulting in probably the most wide ranging opinion gathering exercise in education ever, why are we now spending more education money on a ‘Glow user analysis and GLOW user experience’ commission? If the team had *any* members from the education community on it (and there are many who are well qualified to do this work) then there would be absolutely no need for this. In any event, the ICT Excellence paper outlined a recommended plan based upon the needs of the education community represented by its members.
As a member of the Excellence group, and of the Key Reference group, lots of people have been asking me in recent weeks just what is going on with GlowPlus? And why is work being carried out which appears to be at best, duplication and at worst, downright incompetence? Particularly as there is already a group of people who both individually and collectively have far more relevant, strategic and international knowledge available which could have informed the Project Board’s decisions where necessary. A world- beating source of education experience and knowledge in fact. After all, in the remit of the Key Ref Group, it says..
“ Given the extensive and valued experience and expertise provided collectively by the Group, it is also anticipated that they will:
- provide advice in relation to stakeholder engagement and consultation activities;
- ensure the Project Board has identified all of the relevant issues and perspectives; and
- where consulted, make suggestions as to how the implementation could be changed or improved”
If I’m honest, I couldn’t answer these questions folks have asked me or defend the decisions of the board about the commissioning of this work. Only the board itself could do this.
However, as a member of the Key Reference group set up to..
“ to ensure that the implementation of those ICT in Education Excellence Group’s recommendations, as accepted by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, are designed, developed and taken forward with a user-oriented approach“
…I will be asking these questions on behalf of those teachers, parents and educationalists who’ve asked them of me. Yet again, I’m reminded of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and what he wrote in his book about the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South Africa which is highly relevant. He said this..
We need to develop our capacity for asking awkward questions.
I’ve had somewhat of a history of doing just that, at least as far as GLOW has been concerned. I see this an essential check and balance mechanism on the work of the project team and board going forward.
If we are serious about building a national intranet, then we must learn from the mistakes of the past. From a process which failed the country quite badly,
This is not a ‘Government IT project’…. this is an Education IT project. The difference is in the word beginning with an ‘ E’ . Research from past such projects shows why education needs to be treated rather differently. Michael Russell, to his credit, realised this very early on in his tenure in the education hot seat. However, six months later, progress on the implementation of GlowPlus is stuck in this mire of government procedure and red tape.
Just like before, the learning directorate appears to many to be unable to get a grip on this project or realise that an education community which has previously felt so disenfranchised and remote from the process is now feeling exactly the same way again. Confusion and poor communication yet again characterise every part of the overall GLOW project, both current and future. Transparency and openness are virtually non existent. Either this project starts moving forward in a way which will be for the ultimate benefit of the education community, rather than for the convenience of generic civil service project management planning checklists or it needs to be completely dumped once and for all.
With the myriad of resources, tools and devices now available, and with increasing capacity of both awareness and skill building within the education community, Maybe we need to revisit this fundamental issue of whether there is still the appetite for a national MLE in Scotland. There has been an apparent political consensus over Glow in recent years with surprisingly little mention by the opposition parties at Holyrood. With the independence referendum coming up fast and an election to follow, I’d think that the current government have a lot to lose in terms of political capital, if Glow can’t be realised in the way that the ICTEx report envisioned.
I started this post by quoting the TESS opinion leader comment - Education needs dissenting voices and counter-intuitive thinking -
So much for being a dissenting voice and my need to re-register my membership, but what about the “counter-intuitive thinking mentioned by the TESS?
Well clearly the intuitive thinking of our civil servants is that they know best. When it comes to technology that is their ‘snap to guides’. Even when their customers – educators and learners – tell them the opposite.
Counter-intuition should tell them that the Scottish education community is involved in all sorts of ground-breaking work so we are the ones who should be in the driving seat of GlowPlus. It might be the only way to get such this potentially transformational project back on track to release the value of such a massive investment of effort and cash.
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Filed under: Uncategorized
Tagged: Education Scotland
, Key Ref Group
, Michael Russell
, Microsoft 365