Breaking out of the silo? The VLE formerly known as Glow

I’ve been out of the Glow-sphere for eighteen months now. In that time I have been waiting patiently for parental logins, sighing knowingly when my 8 year old daughter describes forced IT lessons using Glow as the medium (and if she realises they’re forced, something is seriously wrong with using Glow to enhance learning and teaching) and reading – with increasing interest – the often faltering attempts to rebuild Glow as a serious VLE built for learning and teaching but that also allows students and teachers to move beyond the silo and harness the myriad services that exist on the Internet for digital creation, curation and citizenship.

A Digital Learning Environment for Scottish Schools clearly states that teachers “should be trusted to use their professional judgment in how ICT should be used.”, enabling staff to decide how best to use Internet-based or locally installed services to augment their learning and teaching. Some staff will be more comfortable in finding and utilising these services than others, so ICTEx proposed that ‘best of breed’ services should be made available through a national schools Intranet (they have called it Glow+ in their document). The accelerating pace of change in both hardware platforms and software resources means that any solution has to be future-proof and this means that (1) the system must be easily adaptable with regard to access, platform and cost (2) the interface must be device agnostic (3) it should be a springboard for innovation in the classroom, not a constraint.

This goes against the grain of the original Glow design – already out of date when I first saw it in 2006. At that point the security was so tight that access to resources from another school was near impossible, there was no search functionality to make links with other teachers and your individual upload limit was 5MB. There was no option to access via a mobile device (I’m still amazed at how quickly the smartphone explosion has changed the way we demand to access services, but even so I wasn’t designing a future-proof national intranet for Scottish Schools) and no way for students to get feedback or inspiration from those outside of their school but completing the same certificate course.

Admittedly there was an attempt to improve things but, by then, it was too little and far too late. Glow as it exists today is suffering from dwindling numbers of users due to the development of freely available VLE competitors, tech-savvy teachers setting up their own Moodle / Google Sites / hand-built solution or formerly positive teachers becoming disenfranchised with utilising technology in their classes and being forced to use Glow over any other solution by their local authorities.

I’ve sat in on enough seminars, workshops and online discussions to know that the current demand is to utilise existing services in a way that makes the learning outcome greater than the sum of its (online) parts. Rather than having data hidden in silos, unable to control who has access to the information you created, actively sharing content across a number of web services to develop digital citizenship skills and engage students creatively and collaboratively is rightly placed high on the educational agenda. The last two years of presentations at the Scottish Learning Festival have taught me that there is no single solution to the problem of enhancing learning and teaching through the use of technology.

The way the solutions were shared was consistent but the solutions themselves were disconnected. Research and development was inefficient. Schools still remain silos of ideas unless you happen to have connected to an individual teacher in another establishment via social media, email or good old face-to-face meetings. The only difference in these methods of communication is speed of access.

One development that may encompass the aims of the ICTEx group as well as provide a means of sharing good practice between educational establishments is Glew, a single sign-on service that allows access to a variety of Web 2.0 or social sites. Since initial creation in late 2011 Cults Academy Teacher of Computing Charlie Love has utilised the Agile model of development to quickly extend the functionality of his Glew service based on user feedback. The current iteration utilises GlewTiles – a user interface based on Windows Metro – to allow users to customise their Glew desktop.

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Glew is accessible from desktops, tablets and smartphones. Visit http://www.glew.org.uk to sign up to the service and try it for yourself. Then tell Charlie what you’d like him to add!

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