My second visit to BETT and for the first time I visited the show for two days as I was fortunate enough to be released from teaching on Friday. A little bit of prior experience and a more intimate knowledge of the DLR made the journey down much more straightforward this year. It also helped that I didn’t lose my travelcard on the tube this time…
Having been before, I was a bit more focused in my aims this year – I wanted to see more of the speakers and more carefully target the stands. I guess less product, more pedagogy summed up my approach.
As soon as I got there two themes emerged very clearly – physical computing, mostly in the form of robotics and virtual reality, mostly in the form of Google. The sheer number and variety of robotics was mind boggling, the vast majority of it beyond the budget of a financially stretched (or not) primary school. I also thought there was a lot of product, but the links to learning were much less clear and in many cases non-existent. As is so often the case, you had to search carefully to find the pedagogy, and some of it came in a great little session – ‘We are the droids’ in which Mic Hughes, Bill Harvey, Neil Rickus and Lucy Rogers shared their experiences of robotics in the classroom. This included the crumble bot, a low cost (£25ish) entry level robot which children can build and program themselves. When questioned on the key to success, the answer was watertight planning. It doesn’t matter what the tool is, you have to know what you’re doing and what the learning is. This shift towards physical computing is also blurring the lines between computing and DT which is both a challenge and opportunity for all schools.
I must, at this point give huge credit to the Raspberry Pi Foundation, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that no other organisation is doing more to promote computer science in education than they are. Not only were there a great variety of Pi themed stands and activities (real ones, with ideas you could try and touch), but they also launched the rather wonderful Hello World magazine, aimed specifically at educators. I have no idea have they can create such a quality publication and distribute it for free, but I’m very grateful they have.
The same themes were evident with VR – where’s the learning? I actually though Google might have made more of it on their stand, maybe they’re mindful it’s early days too. The number of VR suppliers out there surprised me. With Google offering a pretty strong option free of charge, I can’t see much space in the market. It’ll be interesting to see how many of them are around in three or four years time.
Other speakers I saw were Rajen Sheth, Senior Director of Product Management for Google for Education, who mercifully limited the hard sell and spent more time discussing Google’s principals for reimagining education. These hold true whether or not you are under the spell of the mighty G, and a couple of his phrases stuck with me. He discussed how learning should be personalised and measured, and that we should ‘ teach to the edges of the classroom’ meaning learning should be inclusive for everyone. He also highlighted that we should be equipping students with the skills to become life long learners. I’m writing this blog on a tool which didn’t exist before 2010, publishing it on a platform which was launched in 2003 which runs on the World Wide Web, which contrary to most children’s beliefs once didn’t exist. Enough said?
Another great session was Ashton Sixth Form College’s Digital Literacy Initiative by Brian Cooper and Dan Atkinson. You maybe wondering why I was at this one, being a primary practitioner, so time to declare a interest, it was recommended to me by my good mate Anton McGrath, who happens to be the Principal. I’m really glad for the tip off. The initiative is all about empowering teachers to use technology effectively by offering incentives and encouraging them to play to their strengths. We’ve all seen expensive, top down initiatives thrust on to over worked, under pressure teachers which are poorly implemented and supported and which probably get canned when the next big thing comes along. Ashton’s approach is the opposite, they encourage teacher led development, reward ideas (through an innovation of the month award,) support change through small, managed and sustainable steps. It’s an approach that would work in any institution and is definitely something I will be pitching to our SLT.
Another theme which I noticed was the gradual move from up front to annual licensing costs. Three of the main apps I looked at – Explain Everything, Minecraft and Erase All Kittens, are all moving to annual licensing. Whether these are on a named or concurrent basis isn’t clear, neither is how they will enforce their licensing. In isolation the costs are not too prohibitive, but when combined they start to add up. If we were to licence all three it would come to around £10 per pupil. I can see why vendors we doing this, in a market where there are so many new tools emerging it makes sense to tie schools in to a longer term relationship. However, the reality is we’ll have to look at restricting some tools to narrower year groups, which is a shame when previously we could budget more easily with an up front cost.
I’ll leave the last word to a lad I sat next to on the DLR on my way out of the Excel. He was 17 or 18 years old and was discussing his career ambitions with his mum. First of all it was great to see a lad of that age actually communicating with his parent and there wasn’t a phone in sight. He recounted a meeting he had with his school careers advisor. He recounted how he told him that his goal was to become an investment banker, to which his advisor replied “I think you should focus on something more realistic.” At that point he described to his mum how he got up, turned around and left the room.
Maybe I learned more from that incidental exchange than I could at any conference. Keep the fire burning, son. We all should.