What's happening with educational technology in 2011? A visit to BETT

This page in:

a new take on the traditional London phone boothThe annual BETT Show, which takes place every January in London, claims to be the "world's largest education technology exhibition and trade show", with over 600 exhibitors and 100 seminars. Those who visit it are typically overwhelmed by the vast scale of the exhibition space at London-Olympia, by the big crowds, and, for lack of a better term, all of the cool stuff.  As in past years, I was fortunate to be able to participate in the Education World Forum (EWF), an annual gathering of 60+ education ministers that occurs during the two days before BETT begins (the last morning of the Forum actually takes place at BETT itself), and so was able to stay on and tour the BETT exhibition space.  As in previous years, my goal was to visit every vendor and exhibitor.

In case it might be of any interest, and like I did back in 2009, I thought I would share some random impressions (ten of them, in fact) from this tour below:

1. It should probably go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: It is obvious that educational technology is increasingly big business. This is true not only in developed economies like the UK, but, judging by the number of international visitors and delegates in attendance, in many so-called 'middle income' countries as well.  Given the dizzying variety of equipment and gadgets on display at BETT, as well as applications to run on and monitor this equipment, there appear to be few parts of existing school infrastructures, and of the teaching, learning and administrative activities of schools, that are not being targeted for transformation by companies of all shapes and sizes. 45 product categories, from assessment products to microelectronics, robotics to learning platforms, behavior management to networking to furniture -- one gets the impression that schools (at least in the UK) are slowing on the path to becoming as saturated with technology as the rest of society.  (What impact all of this will have on student learning is another question entirely, of course.)

I spent much of my time at BETT tagging along with government delegations from developing countries to get a better sense of what they are interested in, what types of questions they have, and how companies are marketing to them. In most of these places, the use of 'computers' is limited to what is known as the 'computer lab'.  Coming from this perspective and experience, BETT can be particularly overwhelming for some first time visitors.  "It's like the whole school is becoming one big computer with lots of little parts", one delegate from Africa remarked to me. 

2. The most interesting stuff is often to be found at the 'little booths'.  Perhaps because the big vendors have little trouble getting out their marketing messages, and because information on so many products is easily findable online (and because I am deluged with marketing information throughout the year from 'the big boys'), I spent comparatively little time at the large exhibition spaces in the middle of the two halls.  Instead, I spent most of my time talking to people at the small stands away from the main floor.  This usually meant I had the benefit of speaking with someone who actually built the product being exhibited, and/or ran the company, instead of a straight marketing person. Some interesting things I saw (as is my normal practice, I'll do my best omit the names of individual products and companies, except where doing so is unavoidable, so as to avoid giving the impression that the World Bank 'endorses' any particular commercial product or service, and in the hope that doing so will lessen the unsolicited blogspam and emails I get from vendors touting their wares):

  • inexpensive visual software tools to enable students to design video games themselves
  • an application that takes data from mobile dataloggers and projects it using Google Maps into specific places (one demo I saw enabled students to track the path of a javelin, with the path of the projectile through the air then mapped onto the streets of a mid-size English city)
  • tools to allow students to create stop-action video using their mobile phones
  • charging carts for mobile devices (an extensive of the computer-on-wheels concept)
  • an interactive whiteboard that included no whiteboard

While on that topic ...

3. The interactive whiteboard space is getting very interesting. One defining feature of BETT over the years has been the prominence of interactive whiteboards (IWBs).  Indeed, it was in the UK that IWBs first saw broad adoption, a path that many other countries (including many middle income and some lower income countries) are now seeking to replicate, for better or for worse. To me, the most interesting thing about interactive whiteboards themselves has not been the fact that they allow users to manipulate projected objects through touch or hand gestures, but rather the fact that they often came bundled with interactive response devices. (For those not familiar with them, they are essentially handheld voting machines that teachers can use to quiz students and assess what they know in formative ways, with the results displayed on the whiteboard at the front of the class.)

For many (traditional) school leaders, and for many (tradition-minded) teachers, a key selling point of whiteboards has been the fact that it is easy to envision how they can be used in classroom settings. Most teachers lecture, many use PowerPoint -- wouldn't it be cool if we could add some bells and whistles to this? At the same time, with many schools in OECD markets already boasting long-standing computer labs and increasingly equipping individual classrooms with a computer for use by teachers, the looming presence of a new interactive whiteboard at the front of the room provides further evidence of just how 'tech-savvy' an individual school is (and, by extension, how 'visionary' the responsible education officials are for staying at the edge of the technology adoption curve). The fact that IWBs are attractive for many people precisely because they reinforce traditional teacher-centered pedagogical practices has been widely lamented.  At the same time, however, the increasing inventiveness with which the small interactive response devices can be used to help teachers gauge how much individual students are understanding during the course of a particular instructional hour does hint at the potential for something wonderfully disruptive to occur in traditional classroom settings.  Critics of the use of education technologies in schools (and critics of IWBs in particular) may pooh-pooh this sort of 'Trojan Horse argument' as naive, or an example of successful marketing by vendors to the gullible.  They may also argue that there are much more cost effective ways to introduce 'interactivity' into the classroom. Fair enough. This isn't to say, however, that there aren't very interesting things happening as a result of the use of these small gadgets.

That said, I do wonder if this whole market segment is not about to be greatly disrupted.  The proprietary interactive voting devices offered by some firms would seem ripe for replacement by apps running on already existing hardware like mobile phones (or other handheld devices like iPod Touches, and presumably soon a variety of Android devices).  Additionally, I saw a lot of IWB vendors at BETT that I had never seen before, and one expects price competition from new companies (especially from Asia) to be intense. At the stand for the Sankoré initiative (a topic for another blog post), I also saw open source IWB software for the first time. What this may mean for this market, I don't know, but one hopes that these competitive forces will be a spur to innovation.  Many middle income and developing country delegations that I followed around at BETT were explicitly interested in interactive whiteboards; my impression was that many of these folks left the exhibition both excited and confused. 

4. From country-specific to global educational technology markets.  While I haven't seen the figures, this year's event seemed to me to be the most 'international'.  The large multinational players in this space of course had large presences at the event.  But many medium-and small-sized companies from outside the UK and the USA were notable by their presence as well, and (for example) firms from Scandinavia, Brazil, Turkey, Singapore, China, or the Netherlands were very easy to spot.  It appeared that many of them had grown reasonably large (and presumably, reasonably profitable) in their home markets and are now looking to expand into new education markets where opportunities may exist.  For World Bank client countries, this impression (if it is indeed valid) reinforces the notion that innovative ICT products and services are springing up all over, and those who look only to 'traditional' places like the UK or USA or Korea may be missing some real opportunities.

5. Augmented reality is part of the conversation, but it is still very early days.  It is clear that the use of so-called augmented reality in education has very promising potential applications, but, based on the products I saw at BETT this year, we still have a ways to go before these have the potential to become mainstream in education. It is coming, but perhaps not as quickly as predicted in places like the Horizon Report.

6. Much talk of the cloud.  Perhaps a sign that the hype about cloud computing in education is beginning to have an impact on school ICT purchasing decisions in the UK (presumably this would apply to many other places with good and widespread broadband connectivity), many more vendors featured educational applications that were meant to run 'in the cloud' (i.e. over the Internet) than was previously the case.  This is not to say that individual applications running on individual computers were not in evidence -- they still made up the majority of software on display at BETT -- but it appears that tide is now starting to shift.

7. Mobile phones? One topic impressed me by its absence.  Where was all of the mobile (phone) learning? some colleagues asked me.  I had the same question, and this will be the topic of my next post.

8. Where's the computer?  As is the case with increasing number of consumer appliances and products (including toys), a visit to BETT reinforces the notion that the use of computers in schools is about much more than what happens in the computer lab. Indeed, the fact that small computers are being incorporated more and more into other types of learning products, and that these products are increasingly connected to each other, will continue to challenge conceptions of what 'ICT use in education' may mean for schools.  I spoke with one person in charge of an IT-specific budget for a school in the UK who said that she was increasingly confused about what constituted fair use of dedicated 'ICT funds', given that the lines between what an ICT learning device and a normal 'tool for learning' were becoming, in her words, "dauntingly fuzzy". (For what it's worth, as an educator she seemed rather delighted by this budgetary dilemma.)

9. The science lab is connected -- and mobile
A great variety of equipment meant to be used as part of scientific investigations and experiments was in evidence, as it as in past years.  While five years ago at BETT it was noteworthy that increasing numbers of such devices (probeware or dataloggers comprise one common category of such equipment) had USB ports to help share data, in 2011 the fact that increasing numbers of such devices are wifi-enabled surely points to where this category of electronic learning aids is headed. 

10. Games, games and more games
Perhaps fearing a backlash from educators and parents, many large, traditional videogame companies do not actively market their products to schools (even if many of them do at the same time offer many 'educational' applications for use in homes).  For the first time at BETT, I noticed a little less reticence on this regard.  I suspect, for example, that a stand touting the use of the Sony Playstation 3 in education -- rather an outlier at this year's BETT -- will be joined by many other stands in the years to come.  There was buzz about what things like Microsoft's xBox Kinect product might mean for education, even if no educational applications using this cool motion-capture technology were in evidence.  While there weren't that many of them, it was hard to miss the booths touting various serious games (a category into which I suppose the World Bank-sponsored EVOKE best fits).  Many educational applications and on-line learning environments displaced at BETT owed clear debts to video games designs and sensibilities -- when they were not structured as games themselves.

This is just a small sampling of what made an impression on me.  A quick search of the Internet should yield other accounts of what people saw at BETT as well.

Note: The public domain image used at the top of this blog post ("a new take on the traditional London phone booth") comes courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000