John Galloway shares some of the secrets of the BETT Awards judging rooms
Once a year a group of education experts meet in a non-descript, red-brick, office block in the Midlands to deliberate on the myriad entries to the annual BETT Awards – and one of the most fundamental questions: "Is it accessible?"
Passing through not one, but two doors marked "Authorised Personnel Only", the team enter a room where the daylight that filters through slits in the blinds is lost among the ranks of shelves and benches that create narrow fissures in the gloom. Only after non-disclosure agreements are signed does briefing begin with a reminder to: "Never talk about products outside of this room. Even within Becta."
This annual contest, organised by government ICT agency Becta, school suppliers organisation BESA, and BETT 2010 organisers EMAP, is intended to "Reward educational technology that is creative, innovative and of high quality." If you are saying, "This is as good as it gets," then accessibility must be an important issue.
Over two days these six expert assessors are tasked with providing the wider judging team with a sense of how true that is for each product. Even where an entry may not be built to work with a wide range of other tools and devices, that doesn't mean that it won't be well considered. Assessment is a question of balances: "In the hands of the right teacher it could be good," or perhaps, "That it is difficult to use," or "It excludes learners."
Judges work in pairs on specific judging categories, sometimes looking at hardware, sometimes software, sometimes websites. Entries range from managing school finances, to changing behaviour, to teaching early phonics, to novel methods of printing. There are handhelds, desktops, tabletops and even wearables. All have to be assessed fairly and objectively.
Some aspects are easily considered, such as whether an online resource conforms to industry standards, or works with the accessibility tools provided in the computer's operating system. But that is not the essence of the process. "Access is important but usability comes in to our assessments too," asserts one judge. "So the program might be inaccessible, but in the hands of the right user it could be fantastic." Or in the words of another judge, an expert in accessible web sites, "I've got to accept that some of these developments have gone the extra mile, but have not been able to make it fully accessible."
The breadth of experience among the judges means any concerns are quickly dealt with. "Can you create a DAISY [Digital Accessible Information System] file from a text file?" "Yeah," comes back the answer in a flash, "But you would have to use its artificial voice." Elsewhere a call for assistance to reduce a font size rings out. But there is no cause for concern because the computer constantly reassures: "If you make a mistake, don't worry." And any problems using a resource are quickly dealt with by the skilled technicians who have already spent hours making sure all the entries are fit for use in schools.
Every so often the team comes together. Sometimes intentionally to verify assessments, or because the arrangement of the benches means six judges, three staff and a dog are congregating in an area the size of a wardrobe. Everything is given the same diligence, and a summary to go back to the producer, and to inform the next stage of the process.
The court is in session and here come the judges
Judges, moderators, technicians, administrators and organisers – 87 in total – make it standing room only in the next venue, a room in a conference centre somewhere in the heart of England. Computers line the walls, each loaded with a selection of entries from one of the nine categories, while in the middle of the room are gathered the "digital devices".
Before using their considerable professional expertise to find the winners, judges scrutinise entry forms, which vary in tone. "Some is marketing jargon - their PR company has done it," explains the awards administrator, "others have tried really hard to give us an insight into the product." They also refer to the accessibility evaluations during their deliberations, a process every entry goes through, along with technical testing, before it gets to this point.
According to the moderators, accessibility assessment is used all the time, but not unquestioningly. "It was useful, but we didn't take it as read," says one. “We think of the accessibility comments as guidance rather than as an arbitrator," says another. And although judges look for "a balance of innovation and effective classroom delivery" to determine a winner, no product would win unless more than a passing nod had been given to accessibility, even though that is a very broad term.
To the moderators, accessibility is about cultural, technical, disabled and intellectual access. “What I don't want is to take things to the lowest common denominator," says one. "There are several levels. Technically does it work? Which I think is essential. What would be ideal is that it also is sound enough to give different access points for different ages and different ability levels."
This notion of flexibility of use for the entries comes up again when discussions move to whether there should be explicit categories for primary and secondary. General agreement is that targeting particular groups is often difficult - "I don't believe anyone can write stuff that is purely for six-year-olds," says one judge. And it would be more useful to think of "stage not age". However, in the instances where they are intended for specific audiences, like A-Level art students for example, accessibility is considered less on understanding and creativity, and more on technical aspects, such as whether someone who had difficulty using a mouse would be able to use them independently.
Behind all the black-tie glitz of the annual BETT awards ceremony lies exceptional hard work and cause for optimism. A diverse panel of educationists, all experts in their fields, closely examined the large number of entries amid spirited debate, particularly over what constituted an innovative tool for teaching and learning. All this to come to what one moderator describes as, "a really well researched, collective judgement."
In January, amid further debate and argument – reminiscent of the old print saying "Publish and be damned" – we shall see if those judgements are broadly shared by the wider 'ICT in education' community. But take-up will be the ultimate judgement – because innovation is nothing without adoption.
John Galloway works as advisory teacher for ICT/SEN and inclusion in Tower Hamlets, London, and as a freelance writer and consultant. He is the author of Harnessing Technology for Every Child Matters and Personalised Learning.
You can see his round-up of 'don't miss' items for special needs and inclusion at BETT 2010 here.
John is giving two seminars at BETT 2010; one, "Making Learning Platforms accessible for pupils with SEN; wherever they are, and whenever they want", at 12 midday on Thursday January 14 in the main BETT seminar programme; the other, "Learning to live with a learning platform – one year on", at 3pm on January 14 at the Special Needs Fringe 2010 seminars in the Olympia Hilton Hotel.