BETT 2016: What you need to know

by Hannah Cook
by Hannah Cook

It’s awards season, but not just for music and film.

In January, we exhibited our eBook platform for education, TECbook, at the annual BETT conference in London’s ExCeL alongside some titans of the tech industry.


BETT 2016

If your finger is kept on the pulse of social media you’ll have probably seen that six weeks ago we were exhibiting at the prestigious BETT conference in London. As the world’s leading education technology event, the importance of the show, its awards and exhibitors, cannot be underestimated. The flagship stands in the exhibition halls were monopolised by blue-chip brands such as Google, Microsoft and Intel who duly shared centre stage – but also showed just how important it is to be seen here.

Yet whilst we all know what these companies produce or represent (and are likely surrounded by their products in our homes) the question remained: why were these companies putting down so much capital to be at this event? After three days’ worth of workshops, seminars and speeches, it would appear that education is currently the most happening vehicle for these companies to connect with the next generation of techies from the earliest ages. Yes – even nursery level innovations exist in the form of downloadable teaching resources and early years coding, literally weaning your toddler off wooden jigsaws and onto a laptop. But if this sounds daunting, remember that what these companies are selling reflects the much-needed shift in the national curriculum to teach children how computers work. And if children’s minds are like sponges, and new languages are best learnt from infanthood, why not show them how to code then, too?

Even though technology in education is nothing new (which probably explains why there were so many companies clutching at straws to invent something original and relevant, and, well, needed -smart bean bags anyone?), the big names had their reasons for being there. Or, maybe two.

Networking

As the world’s most prominent education/technology event, it’s a coup for any business to rub shoulders with the roster of companies appearing here. This means the networking opportunities alone make BETT one of the most important events in many a tech company’s calendar.

Nurturing the next generation

Back in 2013, BBC Director General Tony Hall voiced the concerns of MPs and education experts alike when he spoke about the major skills gap affecting the take up of computer studies amongst the-then university generation. As a remedial step, he vowed to bring coding ‘into every school in the UK’, and ever since, the campaign to produce the next generation of entrepreneurs and engineering whizzes has been a tireless one (and naturally, giants like Intel, Microsoft et al. want first dibs).

Field trips aplenty at BETT allowed such brands to capitalise on school children’s sudden free time, meaning spontaneous workshops and trial sign-ups were common scenes around the show. As mentioned, there were also exhibitors there jockeying for an even younger demographic in baby and pre-school years, but they played a good joker, offering something to the kids that they do know about: playtime.

Obviously, companies like LEGO and K’NEX performed particularly well here and by encouraging children to create things with their toys were actually laying down the basic foundations of any coding experience – no baptisms of fire here. But really, how far away is building an app or a game from making a pirate ship from coloured blocks? Well actually, not very. The same fundamental principles that apply to playing with, and in turn, creating from toys, applies to the equivalent exercise on a computer programme.

No good reason

At the risk of scaling Larry David’s heights of cynicism here, there seemed to be an inexplicably large amount of non-tech related businesses at BETT – and more delegates wheeling around than a G8 summit. But unfortunately, the theme of irrelevance was an enduring one. Many of the technological innovations (and I use that term loosely) were overpriced and impractical to a point where they just weren’t capable of enhancing a student’s learning experience. For example, a 3D monitor priced at £2,000 moved virtual objects around a screen. That was it. Moving objects around. Oh, and a necessary purchase of glasses that interacted with said screen. At best, there’s a clear lack of objective to this product, at worst, it’s just a waste of precious funds for even the most moneyed institutions.

Overall, I felt that many companies hadn’t given their sales reps a full brief on where they were planning on going with their products nor how the technology within them would be relevant for classroom use. It’s also true that many companies shot themselves in the foot by rushing to get something to a show that wasn’t ready for school use –nor the spotlight of scrutiny.

BETT Panorama

BETT Barometer: From nay to yay, here are 7 stands you need to know about.

Intel

The Intel stand was almost single-handedly responsible for underscoring my feelings about the whole show – big and flashy, but why are you here? Intel, the largest chip maker in the world, most likely available for viewings at your local branch of PC World, spent considerable green on appearing at BETT. Ostensibly it was to launch the product of their latest collaboration with GeoGebra, a maths app of the same name, but really, they were here to reassure everyone that they’re still the Don Juan of computer processing.

To this end, I didn’t really glean that much from the nice American lady’s chat to us other than the fact that distribution of tech products (such as GeoGebra, presumably) throughout school districts in the US is an easier process than in the UK. Boards there agree to use a new product or programme and it gets put into their schools overnight, no questions asked, as opposed to the drip-feed approach of the UK. So there’s that.

@intel

Verdict: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Impressive stand, but other than that, I can’t tell you much. Apart from, that app they were launching? It adopted a ‘keep off the grass approach’ in that you don’t even have a touch screen to work with. Now, it’s all hand signals and camera-based operations drawing the graphs for you.

Clevertouch

“So advanced you’ll only ever touch the surface” is Clevertouch’s kitsch-y tagline. I’m not convinced about how accurate a statement that is; especially when you consider that they’re actually just selling big touch screens. Once you’ve paid the undisclosed amount for a screen (a rep had much trouble in naming a definitive figure), you have access to the free apps which span nursery to secondary age “abilities”. That last word there being wholly indicative of how complementary the content is to existing curriculums – that is, not very.

It was a surprise to hear that primary schools are the most regular client for this product, insofar as, the estimated price alone would likely stretch their budgets very thinly for little recompense.

@CleverTouch

Verdict: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

For those who want to/need to/can spend more on a whiteboard solution, this is the ticket.

Education City

This is an e-classroom offering learning materials and activities to support the Primary National Curriculum. As a subscription-based service, it offers 24-hour home access to pupils and teachers for work on collaborative assignments. Reading between the lines, it means children of primary school age can log on and complete homework or play games that will help them learn in their free time. If your child will be tethered to a computer at home, I suppose this isn’t the worst online forum for them to spend it in.

@EducationCity

Verdict: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

I wasn’t blown away by the demo we were given and the chat certainly wasn’t very inspiring. I’m also not sure whether other companies are offering the same tools but with better PR to sell it?

Integrex

Integrex are designers of interactive walls and floors that simulate environments and scenes for special needs classrooms. There are over 200 smells to accompany the scenes on the mats and screens – from candyfloss and chocolate to a *whoa* farmyard fragrance, so short of a field trip to wherever you’re re-enacting, these scenes are made as authentic as possible for the users. For me, the educational value lies in appealing to all the senses (or as many as possible) which is especially effective when showing children with learning difficulties new environments and for granting the wishes of terminally-ill children grounded in hospices.

The company vision originally intended to aid those in special education but the products are now more popular than ever for their effortless recreation of scenes from history or of exotic climes beyond one room. Whether it’s the National History Museum, the Amazonian rainforest or Disneyland, Integrex are paving the way for a 4D learning environment.

@integrex

Verdict: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

With a very touching backstory, I really liked the idea of creating virtual scenes for children that may never get the opportunity to go there in reality. It’s a cool idea and smart transition from textual learning resources to more tangible ones.

SMART boards

As schools are likely familiar with SMART products and probably use their whiteboards on a daily basis, any update on what they already offer should be of interest. In many ways, what we saw demonstrated was a reimagined board, but whether it was a necessary enhancement or not is a different matter. This time, the board interacted with a smartphone app so everything you write and draw on it is saved as a PDF before it’s transposed to your phone for later use. There was a cheaper edition too, a smaller board which meant once the saved PDF was ready, it could be accessed by all pupils in the classroom at once. This is a really smart feature and not dissimilar to the function of our own TECbook for instant classroom or at home access.

@SMART_Tech

Verdict: ★ ★ ★ ★

I’m not entirely convinced that schools really need the first more expensive board, especially given the almost £6k cost. But where this is unlikely to cause a stampede of orders, the edition one sixth of the price perhaps would.

Lynda.com

‘You can learn it’ is Lynda’s mantra, and it’s as succinct as they are cool. They’re one of the biggest video tech-tutorial and training companies in the world – oh, and they’re owned by LinkedIn. So far, so connected.

Offering professional development videos for programmers, teachers and pupils alike, they truly have some content of worth for everybody, so really it’s a question of value. (And here’s where I got really worried. The malaise of the whole show had been enquiring about the cost of products, only to be told they weren’t sure either). But to be fair to them, the licence fees are dependent upon pupil numbers when selling to schools, so it’s case specific. But doing it this way ensures any pupil can log on anywhere provided they have an email ending with the school’s name.

I think the fact Lynda have such wide ranging content is a really valuable asset, especially in an instance where a school is short on IT experts to teach extra-curricular skills such as the use of Adobe InDesign and Photoshop, or how to code, because their service will have tutorials with many levels to teach you.

@lynda

Verdict: ★ ★ ★

I loved their stand – the elegant monochrome stood out from the sea of gaudy masts and primary colours, and if their service is as slick as their PR, you’re onto a winner; but whether it’s feasibly priced for schools remains a grey area. However, if you still don’t know your PHP from your CSS, they cater for many sectors and abilities, so maybe check them out.

Tootoot

In partnership with Barclays and The Anti-Bullying Alliance, Tootoot provides a much-needed initiative for schools and colleges. Their service is available both domestically and abroad for concerned or vulnerable pupils to report issues to teachers that may be too challenging to say in person. The online worry box encourages pupils to whistle blow on issues ranging from radicalisation and homophobia to racism and cyber-bullying. After all, for all the good it brings, being visible online inevitably augurs trends for the bad, too. With the first 12 months free, it’s a no-brainer.

Check out their safety manifesto here:

@tootootofficial

Verdict: ★ ★ ★ ★

For the Social generation, this service couldn’t have come at a more important time.

Despite the question marks over a lot of the brands appearing at BETT, the show is undoubtedly the touchstone event of the industry and shows that to be seen is to be heard and subsequently to be successful.


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