This week is the BETT show. If you are involved in education in the UK and have any interest, however passing, in education technology then you will be well aware of the size and scope of this event. BETT is simply a large (OK, humongous) hall where manufacturers of education technology and suppliers of educational services exhibit in order to make schools, colleges and universities aware of their products. This all seems rational enough; in fact the trade show draws its roots from the medieval market where sellers came together at set dates and places to trade their wares. BETT bears more of a resemblance to the Victorian-scale celebrations of industry and commerce in the mid 19th century labelled, with typical bravado, 'The Great Exhibition'
Rational though that aim is, visitors to BETT can expect to have their senses assaulted with a totally different experience to the Victorian ideal of order, control and rationality. As you enter the hall, stands stretch as far as the eye can see while bright colours and banners crowd in on every side. And sounds emanate from each stand, sometimes music, but most often the amplified voice of someone selling their wares. This seems more like a carnival than an exhibition; more like a travelling fair than a respectable tradeshow. Eager looking stand staff with brightly branded shirts and permanent grins try desperately to make eye contact, keen to engage you in conversation and to get you to notice what they have to offer. The most enthusiastic of these exhibitors will leap into the aisles thrusting their leaflets in your general direction, making forward progress tricky at best. Yes, BETT can be an ironically claustrophobic affair given the grand scale of London's Excel venue. (Unless it's Saturday in which case exhibitors normally cower away from you as they seek dark corners within which to nurse sore throats and bleary heads).
It’s so overwhelming...
After just an hour at the show you may amass more freebies than you will ever need (plastic stick with a hand on it, anybody? Frisbee? Baseball cap you’ll never wear?). You will have listened to so many 'brand spiels' that sorting them into some kind of meaningful narrative becomes tricky, while applying them to what you want to achieve in your teaching seems a very tall order indeed. Small wonder that many visitors to BETT have a great time but once back in their school have a hard time working out exactly what to invest in, and how to sort the products which can really make a difference from the white noise of all the other messages they were subjected to.
…And yet so useful
BETT is of course far more than this if you know how to exploit it. It is a space where people gather to talk about technology and education. It is home to the largest and highest profile TeachMeet of the year and much networking and informal learning takes place as educators throng into the hall and rub shoulders in a way which is simply not possible back in the classroom. This informal learning crosses cultures too, with this year's show expected to attract in excess of 35,000 visitors from over 110 countries. So see BETT as being bigger than a list of exhibitors. Read it, that is take the show in totality and decipher it like a text, interpreting the signs which the whole melee is emitting, and BETT becomes an important indicator of the big topics and trends to watch. As each BETT comes and goes, the relative importance of technologies and the ideas associated with them changes. Ten years ago all talk was of interactive whiteboards and the BECTA scheme, whereas today IWBs though important, can be taken for granted. More recently 3D projection featured heavily but even in one year the spotlight on this technology shifted away. This year it may be too early to read all of the signs from BETT (this was written before the show is officially open), but with the risk of getting it completely wrong, here is our pick of the themes that will take the podium.
- Election Year: In case you hadn’t noticed there is an election around the corner. We’re sure the keynotes will be peppered with talk of policy, of what’s been done right (what of the stuff that didn’t work?). Our prediction is that hypothetical post-May education policies will permeate many a conversation at BETT 2015. It’s great to speculate but remember to go in with your ears and brain switched on.
- 1-1 tablet computing: You don't have to be a genius to predict that iPads and other tablets will play an important role. Education in this respect is simply following the path led by business where the growth in ‘Bring-Your-Own-Device' (BYOD) schemes has been ongoing for some time now. But our context is different. Our need for security and responsible use is even more critical as more of us become connected. So look for opportunities to talk about sensible mobile computing policies for staff, students and parents.
- The Cloud: Microsoft's Office 365 becomes an even bigger contender while Google continues its march into education. As more of us get access to multiple devices the premise of 'always synced, ubiquitously available' documents becomes a necessity.
- Big, interactive screens: We can see an interesting shift away from interactive whiteboards towards so-called large format displays as the likes of Samsung become more prominent brands at BETT. Whether the interactivity is built-in or enabled by iPads and tablets doesn't really matter: what matters most is what the teaching community will actually do with them; we'd like to see more focus on effective integration with the curriculum.
And that brings us on to the keynote we're most excited about. Sir Ken Robinson. His 2006 TED talk, on how education kills creativity, is essential background viewing before this year's keynote. His point is that we are losing sight of the real goal in our schools. And that can become true of this great exhibition too. Because although BETT is a technology show, it is first and foremost a teaching show. And none of the technology we put in the classroom is worth anything without proper focus on the real point of it all.
So what to say about Ombea. How do we fit into this? What do we bring to the BETT party?
Although the most strident themes of BETT may change from year to year, certain underlying themes are constant. One such underlying theme (we would argue), is the goal of doing excellent assessment (both formative and summative) using technology where appropriate. Well-designed assessments help students reflect on what they have learned and strengthen their grasp of material, while the data which teachers get from timely assessment can help them plan and deliver better lessons in the future. Technologies and approaches may change over the years, but time and time again we see that classrooms where teachers use assessment as an integral part of the teaching package, the quality of the teaching and learning is higher. We are confident that our student assessment solution, Ombea, can really help teachers achieve this. And as more and more classrooms become tablet or iPad equipped, our Ombea ResponseApp system might be the more appealing solution from our range.
We won't hype our own product though. We know that the only thing which can really transform learning is an excellent teacher. We are very sure about what Ombea can do in the classroom, and confident that our product has been designed from the ground up to deliver.
But most of all, enjoy the show, the networking, the freebies, and the well-deserved rest at the end!