Interview with Gary Clawson, CEO of the North West Learning Grid

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Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your role at the North West Learning Grid?

I’m Chief Executive of the North West Learning Grid, previously I worked for 8 years with Knowsley Local Authority. Knowsley is widely recognized as having a very progressive ICT strategy and is one of the first Authorities to implement a Building Schools for the Future Programme.

How does the NWLG work with schools in your region?

NWLG is funded by each of the 18 Local Authorities and delivers services that are commonly required by all. This is difficult as North West Authorities are as big as Cheshire, as small as Blackpool, they include Manchester and Liverpool and each LA has very different needs and development states. We don’t work directly with schools, we provide services to Local Authorities who then work with their schools to exploit the benefits of regional aggregation.

Who do you partner with to deliver services to schools? How do you complement each other?

We provide 1GB of Internet transit to North West schools, through JANET and funded by. BECTA So JANET and BECTA are important partners. Our Interconnect between Local Authorities is provided by THUS. All of our other partnerships are within the Education Community. The way you work with any delivery partner requires both parties to be very open and transparent about what each needs and expects and for each to be highly committed to improving the education of our young people.

Why do you think Open Source Software is so important to the future of ICT in schools?

ICT in education is very fast moving and the UK Government has had a recent history of subsidising the commercial market by funding schools to do things such as buying digital resources and implementing learning platforms.

Many of the products and solutions picked have very different proprietary standards. The Open Source Community is driven by, and can only flourish, by common open standards and this model suits the needs of schools and indeed the needs of any sensible ICT strategy, far more than the patchwork quilt of commercial solutions currently across UK education.

Schools are not individual institutions, they form one cohesive body of educators and it is essential that they are able to use local variations of products that have the same standards at their core.

Why is Open Content so important in education?

Whilst I accept the position of commercial content developers and the innovation some of them have brought into learning resources in schools I am also aware that some £465M of public funding was used for schools to purchase resources out of eLearning Credits. Now that funding has finished schools are left with a list of subscription licences and no content assets to keep and use within their shiny new Learning Platforms.

The nature of education and the way in which collaborative learning takes place, requires permanency and mobility of learning assets. We have exactly the opposite from the eLearning Credit Strategy and quite the opposite from how most of the commercial providers operate.

They seem to understand the weaknesses of government grants far more than the customer base they hope to retain. Open Content is very important but we have self imposed barriers as well as having a schools community that understands very little about IPR and has very few tools that make content creation and sharing particularly easy.

What commercial and technical benefits do you think UK schools can gain from using more Open Source Software and Open Content?

I think that Open Source will enable schools to break a commercial monopoly that isn’t doing anybody any favours, and that includes the commercial companies themselves. Easy ways to share content creates easy ways to make it available to schools and therefore reduce sales costs.

Common Open Source code in Learning Platforms reduces a company’s risks in development and enables them to innovate around that standard core. Reduced costs across the education system means more money can be invested in exploiting the technology, leading to continued demand.