Gerald Haigh invokes Alberto Semprini in his reflections on some of the BETT Awards finalists
Remember Semprini? Probably not. He was a radio star of the Fifties and Sixties, a charming and highly popular pianist who hosted a light music programme called Semprini Serenade. Here he is playing the amateur pianist’s Everest, Sinding’s ‘Rustle of Spring’ (‘Bet tha can’t play t’ Rustle o’ Spring, Gerald,’ they used to say to me.)
Why did I think of him when I read down the list of BETT 2014 Award winners and runners-up? Because Semprini always introduced his show with the same words: "Old ones, new ones, loved ones, neglected ones." I guess there can be no finer tribute to the BETT Awards process than the way their choices so beautifully fit that description.
Other people, better qualified than I, can write critical or appreciative reviews of this year’s finalists and winners. What I’d like to do here is just pick out, Semprini-style and in no particular order, one or two finalists that have caught my attention.
Among them, Capita’s SIMS Learning Gateway (Finalist, Management and Leadership Solutions) might qualify in Semprini’s taxonomy among the ‘Old ones’, except that ‘Familiar ones’ is probably fairer. SLG was first announced, after all, at BETT 2006, and a year later I was writing about it for an editor who had asked me to explore whether online parental engagement meant the death of the parents’ evening. The answer – then and now – is that it actually leads to better parent-teacher meetings, with fewer misunderstandings. As Phil Neal, Capita SIMS managing directo,r put it at the time: "They will just involve schools in more focused, more targeted meetings with specific objectives for the parents, the teacher and the student."
Of course, as with all technologies, SLG has moved on, with new features and a broader reach. At BETT this year Capita announced its 'SIMS teacher app’ that makes key SLG features instantly available to teachers on their mobile devices. It’s a really neat product that thinks ahead of the teacher – log on and it knows who you are and which lesson you’re taking, gives you pictures of the class and enables you to mark lateness and absence. I saw it looking good on a Surface RT tablet but of course it will work across all the usual devices and platforms.
How to lighten a school's carbon footprint
Another name familiar to me was Turn IT On, (Finalist, ICT Services and Support). I came across them last year when I looked at something of a virtuoso implementation they carried out at the 200-pupil West Wycombe Combined School. By choosing well and making the most of available energy saving features in both hardware and software, they had replaced the school’s 38 ageing desktop Windows XP computers that were costing £1,598 a year to run, and installed instead 50 energy-efficient Windows 7 machines that would cost £729.
In other words, a lot more computers for much less than half the electricity cost, with a correspondingly significant effect on the school’s carbon footprint. At that rate, given its effect on the budget of a hard-working primary school, I’d say Turn IT On counts as one of Alberto’s "Loved ones". (Full story on the Microsoft Schools Blog.)
Another "loved one" for me is Microsoft’s Kodu (Winner, Free Digital Content - see Microsoft Innovative Teacher Nikki Madams demonstrate her work with Kodu below) That’s because of the enjoyment I’ve had from seeing children engage with it, most notably at the Kodu Kup competition back in July, covered here at the time (see "Girl programmers lift first Kodu Kup at Microsoft UK"). It was particularly satisfying to share the delight of the team of girls from Afon Taf High School in Merthyr Tydfil who won the event.
As to "New Ones", when I first saw John Pearce’s iAbacus, (Finalist, ICT Leadership and Management Solutions) some time ago I was impressed enough to contact John – a well established consultant in professional development -- to hear more about it. He told me about his link with Daniel O’Brien’s OPEUS software to produce an online version of a concept which he’s been using for some time. His iAbacus looks to me to have the great advantage of being the right way round.That’s to say it has an easy and intelligible entry point (abacus-style virtual sliding beads for making personal judgments) and only when you’ve taken the idea on board does it lead you insistently on through questions and challenges that are as deep and analytical as you wish, or need them to be.
'Neglected by me perhaps'
What about Semprini’s "Neglected ones". There probably are some, but not, I assume, among the BETT finalists. That said, there were products that I felt I should have known more about – neglected by me perhaps. I didn’t realise, for example, that Education City (Finalist, ICT Exporter of the Year, and winner, BETT Exhibition Stand of the Year) has been around for 15 years and has 16,000 schools on its books across 63 countries, updating weekly and producing several hundred new pieces of content a year. I see, too, that it wins approval on Edugeek with comments about children and teachers loving it and how it’s "gone down a storm".
What I did recognise though, when I talked to partnership manager Kieran Dwyer at BETT, was a challenge that comes eventually to every successful technology business, which is knowing when to stop adding piecemeal upgrades and do a bottom-up restructure. As time went on, the fact that Education City was Flash-based, for example, caused problems for subscriber schools committed to the iPad. (A sentence including the words ‘cart’ and ‘horse’ had to be stifled at birth here.) This nettle has now been grasped, and this year there’s a new platform also geared up to the 2014 National Curriculum.
"The new version is HTML 5," says Kieran, "and it will give us space for all our ideas, and be compatible with everything that schools want to use."
MediaCore, (Finalist, Innovation in ICT - see the two Kodu videos above which are housed in MediaCore) which provides schools with the means to organise and use the increasing amount of video content that teachers and students create. It was good to meet James Cross, MediaCore’s director of education on its BETT Stand. I last met James, who has a teaching background, when he was working with another organisation, and I know him to be a real evangelist for the use of video in the classroom. His book Digital Media in the Music Classroom (Rhinegold Education 2012) is full of ideas and techniques.Another supplier previously off my radar – neglected by me if you like -- was
At a time when teachers are realising that flipped learning, far from being a gimmick, is a sound and established technique that’s much enhanced by the use of technology, a product like MediaCore is likely to generate increasing interest.
So, just a handful of personal reflections then, based more on gut feeling than on deep analysis. But, hey, dear old Alberto Semprini built a whole career on that.
Gerald Haigh is a former teacher and headteacher and a long-established freelance writer of articles and books on education. Currently, a major part of his work is to write case studies, ebooks and blogs for Microsoft UK.