Bett 2019: Beware the sales patter…

Written by: Bob Harrison | Published:
Image: Jack Terry Photography

The Bett Show is the world's largest technology in education exhibition. Seasoned Bett attendee Bob Harrison offers his advice to visitors this year – focus on the smaller companies, search out the teacher-led CPD, avoid flash-in-the-pan gimmicks, and beware the sales patter!

People sometimes forget Bett is a technology trade show; probably the biggest and most successful education technology gathering in the world.

How else could you explain the arrival of almost 100 education ministers and policy-makers from around the world, all jetting in to London for three days at the Education World Forum, which is deliberately organised to coincide with Bett.

They are attracted by the technology companies such as the many big-hitters – Google and Microsoft for example – and their mega-stands staffed with hundreds of bright and energised smiley faces.

There are also hundreds of smaller, and perhaps more interesting, innovative start-ups and technological creative solutions looking to scale up from their initial pilots to become the global corporations of the future.

The organisers must be doing something right to scan the barcodes of hundreds of thousands of educators over the four days of bright lights, loud presentations and, of course, the infamous freebies (which become ever more creative every year).

However, exhibitors be warned – it takes more than a bucket of sweets and a stress ball to get teachers to step on to your stand these days.

But let’s not forget that this is not an educational conference. It is a showcase to promote goods and services which (allegedly) will help improve teaching, learning and assessment outcomes.

However, mindful of the need for teachers to increase their knowledge, understanding and skills in the use of the newest and shiniest gadgets and gizmos, the organisers do provide a wide and varied programme of keynotes and CPD.

This ranges from the latest politician (who usually reads a speech mentioning the latest tech buzzwords but with little or no understanding of their meaning, relevance or implications) to the big-name stage presentations (usually paid for by the same global companies who have the mega-stands and very deep pockets).

From my experience of attending Bett for 20 years now, I would say that better value is always to be found in the smaller workshops and seminars, usually run by teachers and educators whose only vested interest is trying to share what works.

In particular, I would keep an eye out for interesting innovations in the use of augmented and virtual reality, artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning. And it is always worth checking out the developments in adaptive and assistive technologies for SEND learners.

Finally, a highlight for me is the Bett awards dinner and as a judge it is always pleasing to see the growth and development of those companies that started in a teacher’s spare room and are now big global players (for this year’s award finalists, see page 30).

A shifting dynamic

The dynamic of Bett seemed to shift several years ago when the show (and what a show it is) moved venue from the cramped and overcrowded Olympia to the corporate exhibition playground that is Excel.

Being close to City Airport provides a much greater international dimension and more than 30 per cent of last year’s footfall was from international delegates.

A noticeable development in recent years has been the large stands from overseas governments, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and so on. Often these exhibitors seem more interested in promoting their own countries’ educational systems and teaching opportunities than actually sharing how technology can improve teaching, learning and assessment. As a guide for the Education World Forum, I have had the pleasure of meeting ministerial delegates from across the world and translators are critical.

Of course, the UK has been seen as a world leader in the use of technology in education but in recent years cuts in school budgets, the degradation of infrastructure and decline in funding for local authorities – not to mention a techno-sceptic schools minister in the form of Nick Gibb – means that is now in doubt.

However a recent reform of the ICT national curriculum and an £84 million investment in the National Centre for Computing Education (computing not computer science please note) should lead to some interesting developments this year (See: Can new £84m NCCE solve our computer education woes? SecEd, November 2018: http://bit.ly/2EpqkAg).
Some people may also have been inspired by education secretary Damian Hinds’ recent epiphany about the potential of digital technology to improve teaching learning and assessment, which he declared in an article in August in the Daily Telegraph (See: Don’t look back in anger? Really? SecEd, September 2018: http://bit.ly/2rFc6mF).
It will be interested to see how this all plays out at Bett 2019.

The humble teacher

All the politics aside, for the humble teacher, one of most beneficial bits of Bett are the fringe events and the opportunities for networking or just catching up with old friends and colleagues and learning from them whether the latest product launch has some benefit and value (to teachers or learners) or whether it is just another puff piece with built in obsolescence.

I have always felt it was more reliable to listen to colleagues’ recommendations than to rely on the megaphone marketing and hordes of t-shirted troubadours that are, sadly, ubiquitous at Bett nowadays.

For this reason, and given how large in square meterage the show has now become, you will need stamina, resilience and careful planning to make the best of your investment of time and travel to attend the show. Most days are busy but things slow down late afternoon and later in the week.

Register online beforehand to beat the queues, and if there are a few of you attending share and spread yourselves around the show before reconvening to reflect. The online guide is usually excellent and there are hard copies by the lorry load inside Excel.

Fewer teachers?

I imagine the Bett footfall from UK teachers may suffer this year as budget cuts means many schools cannot even afford to replace aged and degraded kit. In addition, it is difficult for teachers to get released and travel costs are high.

For this reason, many teachers attend on the Saturday morning in their own time (disregarding work/life balance challenges).

If you can afford to spend some time, if not money, then a day at Bett is worth it just for the conversations with other teachers and educators about what really can help to improve education outcomes (as distinct from those flash-in-the-pan gimmicks that are here today, gone tomorrow, which eat away at your budget and, more importantly, your credibility with pupils, colleagues and managers).

So I hope you can get to Excel this year. Do come say hello as I am there all week and let me know what excites you and what you think is rubbish. Maybe I can use the information in my next piece for SecEd.

Beware!

One final note of caution honed from 20 years’ Bett experience. Be aware (beware): there is no evidence of a causal link between any technology and improved learning outcomes. However there is evidence of a correlation between those teachers, schools, colleges and learners who use technologies effectively and improved learning outcomes.

So if a vendor says “buy this product or service and your students’ learning outcomes will improve”, move on quickly.

If you ask a vendor “if I buy your product or service will my students’ learning outcomes improve?”, and the vendor says “it depends, it’s complex because of a number of factors” it might be worth a chat – but keep your purchase order in your bag for now...

  • Bob Harrison has spent more than 40 years as a teacher, lecturer, principal and governor in schools and colleges. He is a trustee of the UfI trust and a judge for the Bett and Tes awards. He was education advisor for Toshiba Information Systems Northern Europe for 16 years. He also chaired the ICT teacher-led DfE expert group supporting the implementation of the new computing curriculum. Follow him on Twitter @bobharrisonedu. For Bob’s archive of best practice and commentary pieces for SecEd, go to http://bit.ly/2zS0bpQ

Bett Show 2019: A guide for secondary professionals

This article features in SecEd’s preview supplement to the 2019 Bett Show. The free supplement offers 28 pages of secondary-specific show advice, previews, highlights & general education technology best practice. Download the free pdf version at http://bit.ly/2VCl7dP


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