Right up front, I must say how impressed I was by several of the radical changes seen at #BETT2020. OK, there were still a lot of the familiar features that we have come to expect, but there were some major improvements that breathed real life into the usual format.
After some 34 BETT Shows, the majority of which I have visited on most if not all four days, I sometimes set off thinking that nothing there could surprise me. (I started going in 1985, before it was called BETT, and then missed a couple in the 90s). But each year there is usually something that makes me stop short, and forces me to reappraise my thinking about the event.
During the year leading up to #BETT2020 I, like a number of the BETT regulars, had been contacted by the show’s organisers to discuss a possible revamp, and one of them had had a couple of hours of my thinking. I was sceptical anything I said would make a difference. I was a little more optimistic when I saw that they had set up an advisory panel, full of educators who I admired and respected. But after visiting the show on its first three days, I want to acknowledge that the organisers really have listened, and the show was so much better for it.
2020 and hall’s well
The most obvious change was in the layout. Instead of mile after mile of linked North Halls, with an isolated and largely ignored Education Show in a South Hall like last year, the show became shorter and fatter by using both North and South Halls at the west end of the ExCel. It was still large, but you didn’t keep finding yourself absolute miles from where you needed to be, and movement round the show was so much smoother. It also allowed for an excellent approach to zoning, that really made a huge difference this year.
The international section, including the DfE’s own showcase, was all together in the far section of the South Hall, allowing the many overseas visitors to find each other more easily, and felt so much more integrated. It also meant the rest of the show floor wasn’t broken up by large stands with a completely different design and focus. The Education Show was also much more integrated, moved into the bottom end of the North Hall, and it clearly saw a more substantial footfall and felt a real part of the overall event. Stands focusing on the hardware were mainly co-located in the South Hall, so if you went looking for robots, it was much easier to find them. The separation of Teaching and Learning Zones was perhaps less successful, because ‘it’s complicated’, but they were next to one another in the west end of the North Hall run, and they largely felt cohesive and well laid out.
Real thought had gone into getting balanced footfall. Whilst Microsoft’s massive stand dominated a focal point in the North Hall, a correspondingly impressive Google stand was strategically placed in an equivalent position in the South Hall. The other main focal point, The Arena, had also been moved over to the South Hall, so that those wanting to see major presentations would also head over there. Other small theatres were also scattered around the venue, and again, real thought had gone into their location, and their agendas, so that they were both easy to find and appropriate in size and feel for their content. Real CPD content, not the thinly-disguised purchasable time-slots that seemed to have dominated presentation theatres in recent BETTs. Nice touches, like having Pie Corbett and Michael Rosen in the Education Show presentation area, made it feel like everything was where it belonged.
Talking of which, it was so good to see the REAL Bett Futures back, an area with a large number of small podia which allowed startups to make contacts, and display their wares affordably. The open presentation areas with headsets were also really successful this time, and if you weren’t wearing a headset, provided areas of amazing quiet and calm. The whole show felt far less cacophonous and chaotic, and was much the better for it. Much less stressful!
People who meet people
But what did I enjoy most about BETT2020? As ever it was the people, most of which I bumped into randomly as I walked round the show, others I arranged to meet. BETT really is still the place to catch up with ed tech folk, especially the many overseas visitors with whom you have worked with in the past. And there are the people giving presentations, too!
As I said, for the last few years I have tended to avoid presentations, which seemed largely to have become marketing opportunities rather than genuine CPD (though with notable exceptions if you sought them out, to be fair). This year I found the range of presentations much more compelling, and spent much more time in the theatres. The sit down is also welcome after spending time pounding the aisles. It was great to see #CampEd chum, Martin Bailey of Animate2Educate, with a packed house of primary teachers, and I finally got to see one of Carol Allen‘s famous literacy presentations, another packed house in the Schools Theatre. This theatre was also home to a packed Friday evening’s TeachMeet, and it felt a much more natural venue than the Arena that had been used in recent years. But to be fair all of the BETT Teachmeets have been a must to catch up with folk, some of whom you may usually only encounter on twitter during the rest of the year.
I even attended a couple of sessions in the main arena – with commercial links, true, but the most acceptable face of ed tech . 2Simple are supporting Dot Com Digital, which was launched at BETT2020. Sharon Doughty, a former news presenter and crime reporter who was herself the victim of violence and abuse, created the Dot Com safeguarding programme, which had been further developed by children working with Essex Police, the National Police Chief Council, Internet Intelligence and Investigations and safeguarding leads.
Dot Com Digital with 2Simple now takes this initiative online, and provides a safeguarding programme that supports children’s personal development and offers a safe environment for them to learn about wellbeing and keeping themselves safe. Some excellent pupil graduates of the programme spoke tellingly at the launch about the effectiveness of the programme. Sadly, in some ways, yet one of the most powerful testaments to its effectiveness, had been a serious disclosure from one of the pupils going through the pilot programme. A really impressive new safeguarding resource.
The other Arena session I visited was a live version of the Edtech Podcast. This time it was episode 138 on Skills, last of the blooming Sophie Bailey‘s ‘What Matters in Ed Tech?’ series. As a regular listener of the Edtech Podcast, I always enjoy a chance to attend a live recording of a show – a fact that BBC Radio 4 has traded on with its live audiences for years. It’s always good to watch radio!
Quite a few things get launched at BETT, and this year was no exception. But one particularly welcome move was the setting up of the #EdtechEvidence Group, a gathering of folk in the industry who are keen to see the gathering of better evidence in terms of the impact and outcomes of the use of education technology in classrooms. This was launched by Dan Sandhu, on the Sparx stand, one of the initial co-signatories, and who commissioned research looking at the levels of trust in schools. In an area where we are surrounded on one side by hype and smoke and mirrors, and on the other by technobes challenging its very existence in the classroom, let’s hope more people in the industry can get behind this move, and sponsor the gathering of robust practical evidence of ed tech making really positive impact in the lives of school pupils.
But possibly my favourite session involved donning a headset in the Technology South area to listen to a panel from The Gender Equality Collective asking ‘Where are all the women in technology?’ Founded by two of the attendees, Nic Ponsford and Cat Wildman, the session breathed new life and energy to the much-discussed topic of the gender imbalance and prejudices found in the worlds of digital technologies. Not a new issue, each time there has been a past rise in the numbers of women in technology, someone has moved the goalposts, and we have seen numbers fall back.
I have been lucky enough to encounter or work with some superb role models in the field, notably Durham’s Prof Sue Black and Debbie Foster, now CEO of the Tech Talent Charter. But what this feisty panel made clear is that we certainly need even more of the existing women in the industry to let those in schools ( and elsewhere) know that it *is* a career for women! As the Tech Talent Charter also has it, diversity is key to the success of technology companies, as well as a moral imperative.
As well as the five panel members, there were many representatives of the GEC in the audience, and not a manjack of the smaller group of men lucky enough to hear them would ever doubt their place at the table. Sadly though it isn’t us that they need to convince, but that myriad of teachers, parents, employers and school children out there who somehow don’t seem to have got the message! And it’s a problem that has to be addressed by all genders. But I was heartened to see such a powerful group of women gathered and starting to kick down the doors again.
But what about the technology?
No matter how assiduous you are, the selection of tech that catches your attention at BETT is usually random and serendipitous. I am sure many people are much more methodical, and arrive with lists of stands, and planned routes, and shopping lists. Me, I am just listless and aimless these days, and let luck have its way.
The stands I visit are not entirely down to luck, I must confess. When ready for a coffee, we all know that the LGfL stand is *the* place to pause. The best coffee in the show, without doubt, but it was great to see how busy the excellent LGfL team were meeting teachers and helping identify their needs and solutions. There is a similar feel at the 2Simple stand, rather more professional in appearance this year but still heaving with teachers talking tech needs and solutions… a very similar buzz. Teachers are always really good at knowing which stands are the must-visits!
Both Microsoft and Google stands were equally busy, to be fair, and though I didn’t linger on either, it was good to hear a real college lecturer from Grimsby talking about using a specific product in her class, rather than the slick tones of the typical US-based evangelist that seems to have the monopoly in the larger presentations from these giant ed tech suppliers.
But I like to seek out the small and quirky. Quirky maybe, but no-one could ever accuse Russell Prue and Anderton Tiger of being ‘small’ – always ‘larger than life’. Given a larger space on the NetSupport stand for an enlarged ministudio, it was really good to see Russell back as the official radio voice of BETT, and impressive to see the number of guests he had lined up, both children and adults. I decided again there was no need to inflict my dulcet Yorkshire tones in his airwaves, given the number of volunteers, and I suspect we are all the better for it. Let the new blood in. Both Russell and his radio stations continue to improve with age, however. And as podcasts continue to rise, his offering becomes more and more relevant to schools.
Right next to the Microsoft stand was a tiny booth called Beedle. As someone who has come lately to Microsoft Teams, and was impressed, I am surprised that more use of it has not been found in schools. Folk whose opinion I value, however, such as Mark Anderson, @ictevangelist, have said that as yet it is not ‘school-ready’ which may explain this low uptake. But Beedle, a group of Norwegian teachers, developers and technical specialists, have spotted that Teams is there in many schools as part of their free Microsoft offering. So they are working in and with schools, asking them what school-specific things they would like Microsoft Teams to do, and quietly developing school-ready products that teachers have said that they want. A wonderful model for ed tech development which I think deserves a wider recognition… and teachers can sign up for free!
When it comes to stands, this year seemed to see a small turf war between our beloved DfE, and the Dept for International Trade, who have previously been high profile at BETT. The Ministerial speech came from a Chris Skidmore. Many people said ‘Who?’ Turns out he is a minister with a foot in two camps, having responsibilities in both DfE and BEIS. As Michael Caine would say, ‘Not a lot of people know that’. Or probably care.
What was interesting though, was the rapid change that took place on the UK’s pavilion in the international zone at BETT. When erected, it proudly bore branding for the Dept for International Trade, as one might have expected from previous years. A flurry of activity ensued, and the branding was rapidly removed, and replaced by the branding of the Dept for Education. Given the arrival of Brexit in the following week, and our need to get international trade beating a path to our door, this seemed a rather odd move. There were rumours that DIT could shortly be no more, and that a departmental rejig is in the offing. Whether this is the case… or it was a simple turf war, only time will tell. But you read it here first (probably).
The Future today
Talking of teachers meeting teachers needs, the BETT Futures area always has interesting offerings by teachers, for teachers.
One that caught my eye this year was Computing Owls, put together by primary Computing specialists who had heard so many of their colleagues saying that they were happy to teach Computing, but didn’t really know enough themselves. Computing Owls is a deliberately low-cost, teacher-led attempt to supply the whole KS2 Computing curriculum as a series of resources, including instructional videos, lesson plans and assessment ideas that aim to help novice teachers deliver a meaningful Computing curriculum to their students. The idea is the teachers can use the videos to help them learn for the lesson, but are also used by the students to help them move at their own pace, or to revisit the teacher’s instruction for revision and to clarify missed points. An ambitious project, but with an authentic ring which I am sure will help those many KS2 teachers who are finding teaching Computing a real challenge. Though it is slightly saddening to realise that one of the rationales in the marketing recognised that teachers in our under-resourced system often end up buying such products out of their own pockets.
Technology can often get a bad press when it comes to sustainability. So I was delighted, late in the day, to bump into Mike Lloyd, one of the earliest Heads of ICT I worked with at SSAT before he was lured into the Microsoft Education team. My final quirky find was one of Mike’s brainchildren, the Zep Island starter kit, and before you ask, ZEPs are zero-emission people.
I know I will not do this product justice. Imagine bringing together the philosophies of computational thinking, sustainable development, and the maker community. Think of a project that covers a multitude of STEM subject areas including; design, coding, physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics. That you can do in a classroom for a starting price of about £100. And you might start getting a feel for the power and potential of Zep Island. Don’t take my word for it.. please go and look at it on the website.
This was the last product I saw before dashing off to the Teachmeet. And I can think of no better way to finish an amazingly successful BETT Show. And this article. Congratulations Mike, a doozy of an idea!
Maybe unlike the headline of this piece, explained below for the younger reader… ‘Bett Show by golly, wow, you’re the one I’ve been waiting for’…. indeed.