Wow! I have just spent the last two great days at #BETT2020 – what kind of learning environment is that! My enthusiasm levels are pumped up high and last night, when I visited my 94 year old dad, I tried to get him excited about the pedagogy of smart-boards. BETT makes a big impression – there are two vast spaces full of technology, stands, visitors and bright-eyed reps. The platforms along the railway that takes you there, London’s Docklands Light Railway, were so crowded that they needed special marshalling staff. Teachers, advisors, buyers, trainers, governments come from all over the world to feast on Edtech – new devices, latest apps, beta versions, peripherals, security systems and tech-gurus.
BETT has impact because it is big and because it is a bubble – it is a place to learn about Edtech without the distraction of the world and work. You can spend days (I spent 2) playing with robots, interactive screens, trying out VR, coding etc. It’s immersive – it’s obsessive. In addition to hundreds of stands there are at least 8 (I lost count) stages or learning spaces which offer non-stop programmes of demonstrations, training, practitioner stories, briefings, inspirational messages and philosophical reflections.
Every direction you go, you encounter something that flashes, teases or moves – you are compelled to want to understand what it does and how you can use it. The reps, dressed in branded t-shirts or even superhero capes, patiently talk you through their products, smiling tirelessly and not letting-on how dumb your questions were. You walk in, listen, interrogate, play, get distracted and move on. It’s the kind of learning that is offered by a (very well equipped) kindergarden. What links together these experiences? Well you do – if you can.
Of course, this is a multi-million dollar business. On the hardware side, there are sales people ready to negotiate prices if you are ready to buy hundreds or thousands of units. They say that they can deliver all over the world: the BETT show is also a bazaar. There is selling going on – and there is a theatre of selling – which stokes up demand. Entry-level prices for cloud-based laptops start at around £150 going up to £350 per unit (with touchscreens and drop-proof ‘rugged’ casings) and then upward to get more memory and speed. The message from the schools, orchestrated by the suppliers, is that technologically transformed schools boast one device per learner. Maybe funded through some kind of partnership with parent. The content providers want to sell you a general annual subscription to ‘eat all you can’. So get buying!
Interactive smart boards are big at this year’s BETT – big in every sense. They are the pedagogical hub of the digital classroom – not only does the teacher use them to orchestrate learning outcomes, lesson plan, content, exemplary work, stimulus material, structured tasks and rich media on one big screen but, in addition, she can pull together the contents of their screens onto the big screen to enable collaboration.
In terms of software it looks like Microsoft’s 365 and Google’s G Suite for Education are dominating the school software market. Apple and dedicated LMS systems seem to be getting less attention now than a few years ago, though of course things vary by country and sector. Microsoft 365 Education and Google’s G Suite are free for schools – but everyone knows that ‘free’ software is not really given away. Microsoft and Google give their software to education so that educators will train learners to think, communicate and create by means of their tools. Teachers and learners become Microsoft and Google teachers and learners.
Google and Microsoft promote models of transformed schools where teaching and learning is largely digital: writing and studying text books are no longer among the main activities in these schools. Students input text by keyboard and stylus and their work is organised, monitored and assessed through the Microsoft or Google apps. This is only possible if teachers master the apps – so Microsoft and Google provide free on-line training, support and valorisation through their badges and certificates and they promote the products and services through showcases, champions and trade fairs.
This year many providers are offering kits to build, programme and run robots: all over the exhibition hall robots are writing, fighting, navigating obstacle courses and interacting with humans. There is also a big offer on coding and computational thinking. Educational VR and AR have become ‘mature products’ – robust, wireless viewers, packages of 4 players plus software player costing less than $1000.
Many exhibitors offer software or hardware that supports learners with dyslexia, autism or other special learning needs. Edtech, we are told, means that everyone can do anything – well almost. The utopian, West Coast wing of Edtech is not dead – it lives on, cheek-by-jowl with the hegemonic tech giants. Professor Sugata Mitra in an inspirational lecture demonstrated that:
‘Children clustered around the internet in safe, unsupervised spaces, excited by questions they like, can self-organise to learn anything by themselves.’
BETT has got it all: it’s hand on; thousands of passionate teachers and learners can’t get enough of it; there’s lots of freebies; big techno-business struts its stuff; governments are jumping on the bandwagon and there is still room for dazzling , if (intentionally) naïve visions of the future!