Laurie O'Donnell: Leading the Way with Tech

In his native Scotland, Laurie O'Donnell leads a project that many in the United States might consider a mission impossible. It is Glow, the world's first national schools intranet. Launched last September, the system, according to O'Donnell, is "an attempt to provide a level playing field" to educators and learners in all thirty-two local educational authorities in Scotland.

The Scottish government has invested the equivalent of $80 million in this ambitious program to connect 750,000 learners and 53,000 teachers working in 3,000 schools across the country. Glow provides users with communication and collaboration applications such as videoconferencing and instant messaging, instructional resources like courseware and multimedia archives, and administrative tools that include grade books and assessment software. Half a year since its debut, Glow boasts six-figure registration numbers, thanks in part to support for new users provided in person by more than 600 trained mentors.

So far, twenty local authorities have signed on to use Glow, and more are expected to join later this year. O'Donnell, director of Learning & Teaching Scotland, the organization responsible for Glow, says the local authorities' main concerns "are just as you would expect." Mostly, he adds, they are worried about funding to support local implementation, the adequacy of local bandwidth, the ability to integrate with existing systems, and the need to muster reliable programs for training and support.

O'Donnell and his colleagues alleviated some of these concerns by engaging teachers and advisers from every local authority in a two-year process to draw up the specifications for the service. The result, he says, is a level of flexibility and responsiveness that delivers "one national intranet with thirty-two implementations."

O'Donnell describes the ups and downs of the Glow roll-out in his blog, but his main lesson learned is about the importance of patience and good-faith collaboration: "The time it takes to take people with you is an investment for the future."

Read the Q&A

How do you use the Web, or other technology, in your work?

At Learning & Teaching Scotland, we use the Web for everything from publishing resources to providing advice, sharing insights, and developing communities of practice. The LTS Online Service is the first port of call for Scottish teachers looking for support.

Our latest development draws together some of the Web to support Scottish education, and I think it points to the future as a space to enhance professionalism and deepen peer support.

I have been trying to keep an online learning log as a way of recording what I have done and where I am going. I also use Bloglines to keep up with what my colleagues and friends are up to.

Which resources have inspired you and informed your work?

Everything I have seen, heard or done -- good, bad or indifferent -- has informed my work. I have learned many things the hard way -- and in my view, the best way -- through experience.

I love reading the classics of literature, I am inspired by great movies, beautiful art, and wonderful Web sites. Difficult to list my top ten -- give me a week with nothing else to do and I might just about manage to draw up a list, maybe a top fifty.

Who are your role models?

There are lots of people I admire and love, but I don't really have any role models. My day-to-day inspiration comes from my family, my friends, and my colleagues, to whom I owe everything, including Tony van der Kuyle, director of the Scottish Interactive Technology Centre from 1989 to 2008, who passed away in January of this year. I would like to dedicate my selection to the Global Six 2008 to Tony.

I am also inspired by all the people I have met or read about who have dealt with adversity and pick themselves up and get on with living their lives as best they can.

What advice would you give those who consider you a role model?

Plow your own furrow, learn to be comfortable in your own skin, never stop learning, never stop doubting that you can do even better, make sure you enjoy the good times, and celebrate success whenever you can. Smile, and the world smiles back.

What fundamental beliefs have guided your work?

People really matter, and the right people in the right place at the right time can really make a difference. And for evil (or even just mediocrity) to prevail, all it takes is for good people to do nothing.

What is your mantra in the face of adversity?

Keep things in perspective. Keep doing the right things for the right reasons. Draw on the expertise and support of those around you. To misquote Jim Collins (author of Good to Great), never lose faith that in the end you will prevail, but in the meantime, face up to the brutal facts of your current reality and start to deal with them.

When you were a teacher, how did you become excited about technology?

What excited me over twenty years ago, when I started teaching, are the same things that excite me now about technology in education. It was seeing learners and teachers doing things that are just not possible by any other means. It was seeing the motivation that well-designed technology in the hands of great teachers can generate, and, of course, the potential that this unleashes into better learning and improved educational outcomes.

What's your favorite piece of technology or Web site in your personal life?

Right now, my favorite technology is the Nintendo Wii. I just love the way this device has transformed gaming. I also like using Google Maps with the GPS function on my phone -- great technology for someone like me with a hopeless sense of direction.

What advice do you have for new teachers?

Teaching is a tough job, but the rewards when you get it right are priceless. Teachers change lives, and they should make sure they are always a positive force for every young person in their care. Treat every young person as if they were your own children, and you will not go far wrong.

For veteran teachers, I would say this: Never stop learning from your learners; it will make it easier for them to learn from you.

If U.S. educators visited schools in your country, what would be most striking to them?

The extent to which our teachers are trusted and treated as autonomous professionals able to make judgments about what to teach, how to teach, and when to assess. In Scotland, the curriculum in grades 3-14 is based on broad guidelines rather than prescriptive regulations.

If educators from your country visited the United States, what would be most remarkable or different for them about U.S. schools?

The biggest difference would be the assessment regime that I have seen in most of the U.S. schools I visited -- leave no child untested for more than five minutes! Having said that, most of what they would see would be very familiar and viewed very positively. There is lots of great stuff going on in U.S. classrooms.

Mary Kadera, a former teacher, is a freelance writer who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, and volunteers with local environmental organizations.

Next article in "The Global Six 2008" > Feysal Osman

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