Glow reached for the stars but digital dimness holds it back

THE Glow network, a government-backed intranet to supply digital content to schools – doesn't really work. I can already hear the chorus – so what? I could say it's a waste of £37.5 million. I could say it makes Scotland look stupid on the international stage, because Glow has been hailed by educational technologist and Star Wars director George Lucas as a world pioneer.

But the failure of Glow to deliver cracking, colourful, imaginative teaching material and a common e-platform for student, teacher and parent exchange, is more serious than that.

It's part of what mainland Europe calls the Anglo Saxon way – where evidence and outcomes come second to hype and bluster. If a project promises the earth and gets backing from someone in Microsoft and MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), it will attract investment.

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Having overpromised to secure investment it is almost bound to under-deliver. But by that stage, few politicians, funders or decision makers will be interested and those inside the system know the penalty for disloyalty. So never mind actual performance, the Anglo Saxon model guarantees that he who shouts loudest wins. Our banks are a case in point.

At last though, an educationalist has finally said in public what many people have privately observed. Congratulations to Jaye Richards, the straight-talking headteacher of Cathkin High, who revealed at the weekend, (Leading teacher calls for rethink on schools intranet, The Scotsman, 9 January) that Glow is clunky, not user-friendly and often doesn't function.

Far from dispersing educational materials to every school across Scotland and allowing video conference lessons for pupils miles apart (which would be rather useful right now with thousands of pupils stuck at home) vast swathes of Scotland have no plans for implementation, the EIS reports many teachers cannot operate the system and schools lack the hardware or bandwidth to access it.

I must confess my own experience of Glow has not been dazzling.

While making a four-part BBC series on teaching Scottish history in schools last year, I noticed how few audio or visual resources were being used to kick-start classroom debate.

So in May, I tried to donate relevant material by my own production company to the Glow network – topical programmes discussing everything from setting up in business, to Scottish myth-making and the problems of depopulation in the Western Isles.

Glow representatives liked the material, but explained they had no budget to host it and would need me to fund that and pay to encrypt the material so only registered pupils could have access.

Why? Why should Glow operate on Fort Knox principles when popular learning sites like Apple's iTunes University are free and open to all? And why should someone giving material to a digital network have to pay to host it?

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Even then, there were complicated rights issues. They went away to devise a plan. I've heard nothing and it's now 2010.

Undaunted, I approached a few education departments directly. One said she'd love to get the material on CD (because Highland like so many other education authorities can't access Glow) but she has no budget to make CD copies. Could I possibly do it for them?

Another council's educational development team are still "trying to get their heads around the offer".

Contrary to the story Scotland's been spinning about its unrivalled grasp of all things interactive, digital, and multi-media, many parts of our civic world are talking the talk but not walking the digital walk.

In the really important worlds of health, education and social services there's a reluctance to go digital. Even though their children are on Bebo and their holidays are booked online after checking opinion on Trip Advisor, "professionals" still leave their digital home environment every day and continue to administer an analogue working world. Thus Glow is not being used to distribute educational material as planned but appears to be operating as a giant and very expensive messaging system.

Scotland – like many other countries doubtless – is caught between two fashionable extremes. It's still acceptable to disparage computers, games, mobile phones because of the stultifying effect too much e-activity has on children. The worry is that complete immersion in a digital world has created a generation of grunting children who cannot communicate, speak confidently, use grammar or express themselves without recourse to internet-derived Americanisms. There is, of course, a simple solution to this: achieving balance and applying discipline.

Instead, we decide either that the internet is the worst thing ever invented or that people who know their meta tags must always but always be right.

This dangerous digital deference arises from the fact most adults stumbled online and are self-taught and uncertain. Each person who can't easily download pictures, upload a podcast, or change settings believes he or she is the only incompetent one. Our children though are digital natives – perfectly at home with drop down menus, scrolling and changing default settings, jumping intuitively between phone, PC, and PlayStation technologies.

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The sensible, serious adult world has basically given up on reaching kids in digital media with high-quality, usable, reachable stuff. The focus on big talk instead of actual delivery means the gap between "personal" and public digital domains will continue to widen. The generation gap will therefore widen too. There will be imagination, cleverness, responsiveness and visual clarity in the relatively trivial "entertainment" aspects of our personal lives. But business in our all-important civic, public, educational and health worlds will be conducted as if the Stone Age was a yet-to-be-realised milestone of ambition.

Despite the good will of George Lucas, and the great idea that underpins Glow, the force is not yet with us.