In its final year at London's Olympia, the BETT Show stands at a crossroads. George Cole takes its pulse
The BETT Show has undergone many changes and weathered the odd economic storm during its 26-year history, but few would argue that the economic context for BETT 2012 is especially bleak.
Investment in ICT is being squeezed by a combination of tighter school budgets and cut-backs in educational ICT spending. But while the UK economy has stalled, grassroots innovation continues to gather pace, which might explain why BETT organisers claim that potential visitor numbers are unaffected.
“We are currently tracking [numbers] and are 8.6 per cent up on pre-registered visitors compared with this time last year, and exhibition space sales are tracking at almost exactly the same level as this time last year,” says Joe Willcox, content director of Emap Connect, the BETT show’s organiser.
BETT 2011 attracted more than 29,000 visitors, with international visitor numbers up 17 per cent, compared with the previous year, a trend which suggests that fewer UK teachers are attending the show. But Joe Willcox refutes this suggestion: “The UK:non-UK split remains unchanged at 70 per cent to 30 per cent, so we don’t accept that it looks as though UK visitor numbers are dropping. We are also working to ensure that BETT attracts new UK visitors, with the co-located Education Leaders @ BETT conference currently having about 800 registrations, about 50 per cent of whom are headteachers and local authority education chiefs who have never previously attended the BETT show.”
Radical overhaul for seminar programme – Learn Live
One major difference at this year’s show is a radical overhaul of the seminar programme, now called Learn Live, with the ICT association Naace responsible for two major tracks of CPD workshops, seminars and discussion sessions – "ICT – Teaching and Learning" and "ICT – Buying and Integrating". This has been seen in some quarters as cost cutting and outsourcing, but Joe Wilcox disagrees.
He says that Naace reviewed hundreds of proposals before advising EMAP on what would be the most relevant and compelling sessions, and adds, “There were no economic reasons for the move. The costs were not that high previously, and I’m not even sure that we’ll achieve cost savings with this new approach.”
“By using the expertise of Naace members, we believe this has improved the quality of the programme,” he says. The two other tracks – sessions for school leaders and sessions for SEN professionals – continue to be organised by Emap.
This will be the last time the BETT Show takes place at Olympia, and in 2013 it moves to its new home at the ExCeL Centre in Docklands. The move will no doubt provoke mixed feelings, and many will hope that transport links to ExCeL will be less frustrating than the Tube link between Earl’s Court and Kensington Olympia – as anyone who has ever just missed an Earl Court connection will attest.
According to Transport for London, which has carried out its longstanding plan to close Olympia station for weekday District Line trains, there will be a special service for BETT – just two trains an hour between Earls Court and Olympia for BETT 2012, with the first one leaving at 10.28am, after the show starts. EMAP has promised to run shuttle buses from Earls Court to supplement the service.
So why is BETT moving venue? “We’re very excited about the move to ExCeL," says Joe Willcox. "The primary driver for the relocation was a desire to offer a broad range of partners the opportunity to co-locate existing events with BETT, and devise new events that were previously difficult to organise for reasons of cost or resources.
"The plan is for BETT 2013 to be co-located with a number of conferences and training events organised by associations and professional bodies in the education space. We also feel that a clustering of complementary events will benefit everyone. On a single trip, a visitor could look in at a couple of conferences, attend high-value training sessions and see what’s on offer at BETT.”
Consumer technology is making inroads into classrooms – and BETT
Industry trends are quick to affect BETT, and one of the buzz words of the moment is “consumerisation” – using consumer electronics technology to improve access to technology and learning. Lord Jim Knight, the former Labour schools minister, says, “The consumer technologies being taken up in the home are reliable and resilient,” adding that schools can improve home access by using consumer-based technology rather than pursuing bespoke "educational" solutions for technology.
Lord Knight works closely with Apple Inc, one of the leading exponents of consumerisation, and although Apple does not support BETT, visitors will be able to see why schools like Longfield and Essa Academies (see "iPads changing the game for learning at Longfield") are attracting such attention on the stands of Apple "solutions experts" like Toucan (stand K16) and wireless specialist MERU (stand F99).
A 2010 Ofcom media literacy report on children found that more than one third of 12-15 year-olds owned a smartphone. Steve Gater, secondary school consultant at school leadership specialists Connecting Learning, and former head of Walker Technology College in Newcastle, says harnessing consumer technology is, “An opportunity for schools to be bold and grasp the nettle, and be transformative. Young people have this technology in their pocket and we can help them use it in schools creatively, imaginatively, securely, responsibly and effectively.”
Scottish educator Ewan McIntosh, CEO of NoTosh Limited, a digital and learning company, says that consumer technology should be used in place of educational technology, because much of the latter is, “pants”. He explains why, “If you look at the descriptions of a lot of educational technology, you’ll see words like 'safe', 'secure', 'simple' and 'easy'. There is a place for this type of technology, for example, when teaching specific elements, but compare this with the description' for consumer technology, "exciting", "enticing", and "the world is limitless'.
"In schools we put in filters to stop students seeing beyond a limited world and a lot of educational technology is designed for this closed environment.”
He adds that every Christmas, students receive high-tech presents like smartphones. “In January, every school should sit down with a large cohort of students and see what technology they have in their hands, and then develop a strategy for harnessing this technology in the classroom.”
School services continue the drift into the cloud
Expect to hear a lot about cloud-based services and products at BETT 2012. For example, several Learn Live sessions cover the migration to cloud computing, and the Education Leaders @ BETT conference features a networking function led by European Electronique, Toshiba and Scale Computing, designed to raise awareness of client-to-cloud solutions that enable the effective use of mobile technologies.
On the exhibition floor, a growing number of companies will demonstrate the capabilities of their cloud computing solutions and educational software designed for cloud computing environments. All school management and MIS service providers now claim 'cloud compatibility' (see "New MIS 'sheriff' in town – will schools take control?").
Expect smaller companies, like ParentMail, to be even more nimble. After an investment of £2 million and its entry into the world of apps, ParentMail can now offer primary schools a communication service that can handle all its communication needs, including running school dinners for just £100 a month – and that includes the iPad2! Unsurprisingly, ParentMail has been shortlisted for a BETT award.
"Parents are very busy people," says ParentMail boss, Paul Hughes. "They've got lots going on in their lives. They've got lots of things they need to deal with to help bring up their children. Our app centralises all the information - all the different feeds they get from the schools, nurseries, clubs all the things that children do – it centralises it in one place so they can remember it, do reminders about it, pay for things deal with all the many things that they need to do for their children on a daily basis."
Steve Gater says cloud services can prove more cost-effective for schools, for example by allowing them to dispense with a large server infrastructure. “I’d be surprised if schools don’t opt for this route,” he says. But Ewan McIntosh is worried that companies selling cloud services, and schools using them, won't take advantage of the collaborative opportunities they present. He warns that cloud services are in danger of being over-hyped, “Cloud services are a big hard disk in the sky and my worry is that companies selling cloud services, and schools using them, simply see them as storage services and don’t take advantage of the collaborative opportunities they present.” He says that too few schools are using tools like chat and Google Docs, for example, for collaborative work.
“Cloud services should not simply be about office functions, MIS and library databases," he adds, "but inspire a sense of collaboration across a school.” And school broadband services need to be improved to take full advantage of the cloud: “If you compare the broadband provision for a school in Taiwan with one in the South of England, there’s a huge difference, and not just in speed, but capacity. Schools ideally need to upgrade their broadband provision every six months or so, just to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for bandwidth.”
Microsoft Education will be promoting its concept of "School in a Box", a cloud-based solution that includes transferring software, services and ICT infrastructure to the internet. Google will make its BETT debut with the Chromebook a netbook which uses a web browser to access software and applications that are in the cloud. Chromebooks can be rented for around £15 a year per student and Google says that they require almost no maintenance, thus easing the burden on schools (see "Google steps up help for schools looking for savings" and "'Google it' takes on new meaning for UK schools").
The push for cloud-based services comes at a time when many managed services offerings are being revised. RM for example, has launched a new division, RM Managed Services. Its director, Mike Allen, admits that several years ago, many managed service offerings were “proprietary, inflexible, and suppliers hid behind technology integration” to justify an “all-or-nothing” approach. Now, he adds, managed service providers see themselves as partners with schools, helping them plan their long-term educational ICT strategy.
Steve Beswick, Microsoft UK head of education, says, “In the next five years, you’ll see new and more flexible types of managed services being provided.” For example, a school may decide to use a cloud-based service like Microsoft’s Live@Edu service, which offers free email, storage and apps (now used by more than 6.5 million UK teachers and students), while keeping other IT services in-house.
“Managed service providers will die if they don’t produce a tailored service for schools," says Steve Gater. "But whether it can be done cheaply enough will be the real test. I don’t think we'll have a truly bespoke service, because of cost considerations, but the market will need to offer more choice.” The cloud-based services and managed services on offer at BETT 2012 should tell us whether this objective has been achieved.
People have been predicting trends at BETT for more than 25 years, but the fact is that no one really knows until the first visitors walk through the doors at Olympia, and the noise and the temperature immediately rise, and, finally, when the temperature drops to the cool statistics that spell success or otherwise.
The schools "market" in which BETT stands has been tumultous since the last election, which makes it difficult to predict the conditions for BETT 2013. But it depends a lot on the the state of national leadership – all eyes on secretary of state for education Michael Gove MP who will be opening BETT – and on the performance of the companies that will be delivering 21st century learning. Remember, it's a buyer's market folks!
BETT 2012, January 11-14