The annual BETT show, at Olympia, London, is the biggest and most successful exhibition of technology and learning in the world, with 30,000 visitors in 2009. But it's a trade show, and with commerce the main shaper of its future, the technology has tended to outweigh the learning.
The good news is that features like Stephen Heppell's Playful Learning keep learning at its heart, and at BETT 2010 this week there will be an unprecedented level of teacher involvement, with teacher events on three nights in succession in Olympia's biggest seminar space, the Apex Room: Wednesday, TEDx Orenda; Thursday, AmplifiED; Friday BETT TeachMeet 2010. And TeachMeet will be spilling out on to the exhibition floor with teachers going on to commercial stands to show the free online tools they use with their learners. Welcome to TeachMeet Takeover.
"One of the things I want to do is get back to the real practical learning ideas that can be applied the next day," says Tom Barrett, who is the lead organiser for the team that is organising the BETT Teachmeet (Twitter hashtag #TMBETT2010). I think that’s really important. Even though it's been done before, we have to make sure the message is about classroom practice – what is affecting kids and real learning activities.
'People should feel they can organise their own'
"The other thing I want to get across is that people should feel they can organise their own, and it shouldn’t be some kind of elitist group that's organising these things. I think the sense of preaching to the choir has got stronger and stronger over the course of the last year, even though it has been an amazing year for TeachMeets as a teaching community. When I went to the Scottish one in 2008 I went away feeling I want to do one of these myself, and that’s the kind of feeling I want people to leave with from these events.
"Its about the narratives, the stories that we don’t often hear. Those are the things that teachers are really interested in. They want to go into other schools and other classrooms and just listen in – take it all in and look how they are doing their displays and how they are doing the register or whatever. Really practical stuff. They might just get a fresh look at it. They may have been doing it for years and years but getting a chance to see other people’s classrooms is often something that we don’t get a chance to do."
Visitors ("enthusiastic lurkers") and presenters have signed up from all over the world for TeachMeet so the event is virtually certain of success before anyone even turns up. That's why it's possibly the best format for continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers and learning technologies. It originated at the Scottish Learning Festival when Ewan McIntosh established it from a pre-existing format called Pecha Kucha.
It's creative, collaborative, unpredictable and fun. And visitors learn - a lot! Presenters and attendees alike sign up online via a wiki. Each speaker is given just seven minutes to “show and tell” (there are smaller 'nano' presentations too) while trying not to incur the wrath of a flying stuffed camel that signals their exit as a result of their being boring, selling a product or 'death by presentation software'. Organised by the participant themselves, these kinds of events are known as 'unconferences' and they shie away from the more formal constraints of more traditional conferences.
At BETT 2009 TeachMeet packed the Apex Room and the atmosphere was more like a cabaret night than CPD. In 2009 EMAP offered the Apex Room free of charge for teacher-managed events for BETT 2010. It could have been three nights of different flavoured TeachMeets (after all, the concept hasn't reached all of the workforce yet) but the consensus was to keep the foot on the innovation pedal, and teacher Drew Buddie, with Leon Cych (pictured below), came up with the concept of TEDx Orenda and AmplifiED.
TEDx is an offshoot from TED Talks. If you haven't come across TED it's time you did and there is no better start than Sir Ken Robinson's classic presentation on creativity (see YouTube clip below, and you can see videos of previous TeachMeets on Leon Cych's excellent Learn4Life website). TEDx is a format which works as a sort of 'franchise' of TED. You have to run the events a certain way to be able to use the name.
Whether BETT's TEDx Orenda (Orenda a Huron Indian word favoured by the US master of social media, Howard Rheingold, which apparently means the opposite of ‘fate’) hits the Ken Robinson benchmark remains to be seen but it's likely to be a lively, creative event organised by teachers for teachers, and it's being compered by BBC technology writer Bill Thompson. There has been a buzz on Twitter about the panel which incluldes musician (of Hue and Cry) and writer Pat Kane, television presenter Gail Porter and a range of social media entrepreneurs, with video guest spots including Howard Rheingold and BullyingUK CEO John Carnell. Tickets are already going quickly so watch out for more on tickets/registration here and on TEDx Orenda's own web space here.
AmplifiED – 'speed dating for education ideas'
Amplified is a concept favoured by NESTA and is described as a network of networks. This particular version, called AmplifiED, will not be as dependent on the panel as TEDx Orenda or TeachMeet, and will feature more audience participation so may be even livelier. Like all the other events it's free and you can join by registering here with Eventbrite. It's a good bet for an entertaining evening, particularly as it's described on Learn 4 Life as "speed dating for educational ideas".
Organiser Drew Buddie says, "As a teacher, it is a privilege to have been given the opportunity, along with other organisers, to help curate the content for the three-night teacher residency of the BETT show. The foresight of those such as Ewan McIntosh and Ollie Bray in setting the TeachMeet wheels in motion has led to a sea change in what is possible in terms of CPD for teachers. By combining 'unconferences' with the established BETT show model it has become possible for teachers to gain much more."
"It is to the great credit of some companies attending BETT that they, like EMAP, have seen the benefit of unconferences. As they are orgainsed voluntarily, the sponsorship provided by these visionary companies is vital to the success of the events. The unconferences show that companies and teachers can collaborate to push learning to the forefront of the BETT show.
"I am proud to be part of the team hosting TEDxOrenda with its eclectic mix of speakers all of whom have been handpicked to provide inspiration to the audience. This free event will be simultaneously broadcast over the Internet to provide access to as wide an audience as possible. Bill Thompson will compere an evening which includes Pat Kane talking about his Play Manifesto, James Proud describing life as an 18-year old entrepreneur, two London cabbies talking about the importance of 'The Knowledge' and Gail Porter telling us about the indefatiguability of the human spirit. It promises to be quite an evening. All 13 speakers and our compere have agreed to speak for no fee and we are hugely in their debt that they should have agreed to do so."
Teacher activity will not be confined to the Apex Room however. Tom Barrett and his collaborators are also organising TeachMeet Takeover. Teachers will go out on to BETT stands and talk to visitors about the good free services they can use with learners. It's not as "missionary" as it sounds, because good use of free materials and Web 2.0 services can only lead to wise purchasing, which astute companies with good products do not fear. It will bring more visitors to their stands too.
'Some of the most powerful things I’ve done in my classroom I haven’t paid a penny for'
"The takeover is born from the sense that TeachMeet happens in one room and if you know about it and you’ve signed up then you can go and you’re part of that experience," says Tom Barrett. "What I thought is that we could take TeachMeet out of the Apex Room at BETT and on to the stands, actually in front of people.
"The key thing is that we talk about free tools – it has to be about free things. It is a bit subversive in a sense that all these companies have paid so many thousands of pounds for these stands and we are going to take them over to talk about free things... Not everything needs to be proprietary. Some of the most powerful things I’ve done in my classroom I haven’t paid a penny for. And I’ve been able to set them up in minutes.
"We are doing it on some of the bigger stands. Firms like Adobe, Brainpop and Scholastic have been brilliant. They’ve been the people that kickstarted it by offering not only sponsorship for the TeachMeet but also offering some time on their stand. I saw that as an opportunity that we couldn’t miss really."
Tom Barrett is a passionate supporter of TeachMeet and its bottom-up approach to CPD. He thinks it's high time that people and organisations that have responsibility for CPD woke up to the potential and showed interest. "Policy makers need to be aware of it," he said. "This year the interest in it from sponsors has been bigger than I have ever seen it before. For example I’ve never talked to the Guardian or mainstream papers about the event before. They’ve never really covered it. And I’ve also had the BBC and ITV, and Teachers TV. They are all interested in doing something. And somebody at the DCSF is interested in coming along or maybe going along to the takeover and having a look. It's those people who need to see it."
'TeachMeet can handle all sorts of different terrain'
There's no doubt that the format of TeachMeet can handle all sorts of different terrain. Scottish educators have had a LeadMeet and local authorities in east London held a very successful North East London TeachMeet that was engaging from beginning to end without in any way compromising the general principles behind the event.
TeachMeet is an antidote to audiences being preached at and turning off, When teachers are making great efforts not to do that to their learners why should they suffer it in their own learning? It seems the right time for this grass-roots enthusiasm to climb further up the education food chain. Tapping into professional pride and enthusiasm is, after all, what CPD is all about. "TeachMeet is unique in its style," says Tom Barrett. "You just have to tune into one of the flash meetings to find out. I tuned into one of the North East ones and they were having a right old laugh. You had to take your headphones off because the laughter was distorting the speakers.
"But the underlying nature of all that is that, behind all of the informality, there is a serious professional approach to commitment, to something that is really valuable. We see great value in those events. We’re passionate about learning something new [Tom is on his way to becoming a deputy headteacher] and we are all learning and taking that voluntary step to say, "OK, I am going to go along and I don’t want anything less than inspiration from these sort of events.' We have high expectations. It’s very rare that you come away from a TeachMeet not feeling anything but that really."
January 13-16, Olympia, London