The force is with Glow as virtual help links up schools

IN A galaxy not so far, far away there is a website, that has impressed a certain Star Wars director and is leading the world.

But despite this intergalactic commendation, the website in question is more likely to be found in a school up the road from you than on a distant planet.

The capabilities of Scottish school educational internet site, Glow, are proving "out of this world" for teachers who can use it to find free resources and materials for school projects on topics as wide ranging as the Vikings to the planets.

The site has proved so successful in achieving its aims that the education foundation set up by George Lucas, who directed the famous series of science fiction movies, recognised one of its founders with an international award for his influence on education.

Laurie O'Donnell, director of Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS) the organisation that runs Glow, was last year named by the George Lucas Educational Foundation as one of its prestigious "Global Six" for 2008.

The elite international group is selected annually by Lucas and other directors of his not-for-profit organisation, in recognition of their contribution to innovation in the sector.

Mr O'Donnell was honoured for his work on Glow, as well as for his efforts promoting the use of technology in Scottish education.

George Lucas, now reportedly worth 1.8 billion, set up his foundation to support bids to make education more exciting for children after he admitted being bored and frustrated himself as a schoolboy. The director himself said Scotland's efforts were putting the United States to shame. Appearing before the US Congress, he described Glow as a shining example of how technology could boost education.

As the world's first national intranet system for schools, Glow aims to connect Scotland's 800,000 pupils and teachers online and allow them to pool resources and share educational materials.

This means teachers are able to find things such as fact sheets and pictures created by colleagues in other parts of the country, as well as posting materials they have created themselves for others to use.

At no cost, it is popular with cash-strapped local authorities and is a key plank of the incoming Curriculum for Excellence framework which has a massive emphasis on teachers working together

Despite potentially being several hours' drive from each other, schools from all parts of Scotland can collaborate on projects. Video-conferencing allows contact with schools in other countries to assist language learning, and the network can even permit online marking and assessments by teachers in different local authorities.

Jennifer Sweeney, of the California-based George Lucas Educational Foundation, last year described Glow as "incredibly useful".

"Scotland's Glow project is a wonderfully ambitious and pragmatic tool which facilitates the kind of connection and bonding that are essential to large networks of schools," she said.

Set up in 2004 with 37.5 million of government cash, the network is expected to be maintained with its current funding through to 2011.

The most recent innovative use was the broadcast of a live autopsy of a seabird found off the east coast of Scotland.

Higher biology pupils throughout Scotland were able to see leading experts in the field of marine pollution perform the surgery on the seabird at the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick.

Scientists, led by Dr Jan van Franeker, carried out the dissection as part of their Save the North Sea project, which aims to raise awareness of the damage caused by 20,000 tons of litter dumped every year.

Dr Franeker is a senior scientist at the Institute for Marine Resources and Ecosystem studies in the Netherlands and took pupils through the dissection and its findings before hosting a question-and-answer session.

The scheme aimed to educate pupils on the cutting edge research being conducted in the North Sea on the many deaths of fulmars caused by swallowing plastic dumped in the sea.

Marie Dougan, Glow's programme director, said

: "The Scottish Seabird Centre is involved in groundbreaking work that provides an ideal opportunity for teachers to discuss science, biology, environmental change and citizenship in the context of real life work that is ongoing in these areas in Scotland at the moment.

"This is exactly the type of experience that is envisaged taking place in terms of Curriculum for Excellence. Not all schools would be able to visit the centre or talk directly to the scientists involved but Glow provides the tools for schools to take part, no matter where they live."

She added: "This type of approach not only gets pupils enthusiastic about their learning but also helps them make connections across different subjects.

Emily Dodd, an education officer for the Scottish Seabird Centre, said: "This is a fantastic way to interest students in Scotland's wildlife and hopefully encourage them to look after our precious environment."

Darth Vader himself would likely be impressed at the force and influence of Glow.