What's new, and what isn't: Observations from the BETT show (2009)

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stopping at Kensington Olympia to get a glimpse of the future | image attribution at bottomThe British Educational Training and Technology Show (BETT) bills itself as the world’s largest trade show of its kind.  This year’s show in London (14-17 January, www.bettshow.com) featured more than 600 distributors and over 30,000 visitors.

A visitor from abroad -- or at least this visitor -- is quickly struck by a number of products and services that appear to be specific to the UK market, or at least indicative of market needs in the UK that differ from other countries.  Two product areas notable in this regard are those addressing issues of cyberbullying and truancy.  These include products that allow schools to notify parents via text message (SMS) when their child is not in school and network monitoring tools designed to detect on-line communication that may indicate where bullying is occurring.

With interactive whiteboards (IWBs) now gaining traction in many other OECD markets, the great number of vendors selling IWBs at BETT -- as well as vendors selling software products to run on top of IWBs -- is not as notable as it was a few years ago, when widespread use of interactive whiteboards was pretty rare in OECD schools outsdie the UK.  Indeed, conversations with major IWBs vendors indicate that they see the UK market demands flattening –- no doubt a result of the success in selling IWBs over the past five years.  (Some estimates place IWBs in over half (!) of all classrooms in the UK!)  IWBs are beginning to show up en masse in many developing countries.  They were included in a large World Bank project a few years ago in Mexico (linked to the ‘enciclomedia’ initiative); I came across three brand-new whiteboards in a government school in Armenia in December.  Many developing country government delegations with whom I spoke were quite interested in procuring whiteboards for their schools, and vendors are readying lower-cost options (under USD$1000) to help address these markets.  IWBs in new orientations were rolled out at BETT, most notably in form factors that resemble a table or desk, around which teachers and students can sit and work collaboratively.

Perhaps the ‘coolest’ technology on display for most visitors was Microsoft Surface [demo on YouTube], a product (mostly) still in the research labs that is essentially an interactive digital table.  Surface utilizes multi-tough technology –  think of the way you can use your fingers to manipulate images on the Apple iPhone – and is designed to allow users to use natural gestures (waving your hand, grabbing and pushing/pulling objects, etc.) instead of using a mouse.

A number of low-cost laptops and computing devices were on display, demonstrating that the market niche first made famous by the so-called “$100 laptop” is now entering the mainstream.  Asus, the Taiwanese company that has been the industry leader in producing low cost laptops (sometimes called ‘netbooks’ – they go by many other names as well) since the debut of the Asus eeePC a little over a year ago, demonstrated its new low cost products, including a new tablet PC .  Intel unveiled it new third- generation Classmate models for use in schools, including tablet additions.  Exhibition spaces displaying 'low-cost' devices such as these appeared to receive heavy traffic from delegations from developing countries.

As with my last visit to BETT, I was struck by how many small companies were selling school-level educational management information systems – product differentiation was difficult, and this is a market that appears to be far from consolidated.

Perhaps a result of the success of music-related video games like the Guitar Hero franchise, there was a notable increase in the number of products and software designed to connect music instruments to computer devices in some way and/or teach music. 

A considerable number of firms  were displaying datalogging or probeware education products – these are devices that record data over time or in relation to location either with a built in instrument or sensor or via external instruments and sensors which typically can be connected to a computer (either via a USB cable or, increasingly, wirelessly).  A sensor that you insert into soil to measure PH levels would be one example.  This is a product segment that is often not on the radar screen of many ministires of education in developing countries that are considering ICT use in schools.  This will no doubt change over time, as the utility of such devices are immediately apparent to science teachers once they are exposed to them, and they can inexpensively extend the utilization of existing computing facilities in schools in many useful ways.

The advanced technologies section at BETT did not appear to be of great immediate relevance to many delegations from developing countries, as most products relied on high end displays and/or processing power (to say nothing of reliable, abundant electricity!) that are simply out of the reach of schools in developing country environments. 

I did not speak with any ministerial delegations that visited the section devoted to servicing students with special needs (and their teachers).  This is a shame, as it is in this area that the most demonstrably positive impacts on learning performance and outcomes of students have been achieved through the use of ICTs in many places.

I spent a good amount of time investigating the small booths of small vendors, in the hopes of finding something I had not seen before.  (I often enjoy these booths the most.)  One notable product that I saw this year was a colored bracelet (looking much like those made famous by cyclist Lance Armstrong) that opened to reveal a USB memory stick, which contained a set of programs that could run directly off the USB stick once it is plugged into a computer.  This sort of device would seem to have great utility in many developing country markets – they are inexpensive, can be used to facilitate the use of a small number of computer in a school (in a lab, for instance) by a large number of students, who could store their files on their individual USB sticks and wear them home.

A few things were notable to me by their absence.  I expected to see many more small, unknown (at least to me) Chinese vendors with low-cost versions of various hardware products.  I especially expected to see one or more such firms with a low cost IWB, but none was in evidence.  I also saw almost no applications designed to run on mobile phones.  This was a bit surprising, given the hype around the potential relevance of mobile phones in education contexts, and the increasingly ubiquity of mobile phones among schoolchildren in the UK.  While there were lots of things that would fall into the category of ‘educational games’, there were only a few vendors of so-called ‘serious games’ – software applications with explicit educational contexts and objectives that resemble higher-end computer games.

Leaving BETT, I was left with the impression that the gamut of ICT devices and applications considered for use within the context of most large scale education projects in developing countries that seek to incporate ICTs is quite narrow.  While the ‘gee-wiz-wow-factor’ of a bleeding edge gadget like Microsoft Surface hints at where ICT use in education may be going in the coming years, (‘digital desks’?), it was variations on existing products --  lower cost laptops, multi-touch displays, devices for use in science and math classes that can be connected to computers, devices optimized for use by students with special needs – that made the strongest mark on me, and left me most hopeful that products are emerging that will help developing countries take advantage of the sizable amounts of money being invested in basic computer infrastructure in schools.  Innovation in this area appears to be accelerating, and I can’t wait to see what BETT 2010 brings.

Note: The image at the top of this blog post is from Chris McKenna via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0, Attribution ShareAlike 2.5, Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 and Attribution ShareAlike 1.0 License.


Michael Trucano

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

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