New Terrapinn show succeeds with inspiration, but footfall worries shadow sustainability
If there was any doubt that teaching is also a performance art, Tim Rylands and Sarah Nield removed it in their keynote presentation at London's new Digital Education Show (DES) last week.
Along with other top keynotes, like Ewan McIntosh, Sugata Mitra and Sir Ken Robinson, they proved the point pf the organisers, Terrapinn, that educational technology shows should lead with the learning and inspiration rather than the tech. But while competition for BETT, now a corporate money-making machine, is welcome, disappointing visitor numbers clouded its prospects.
Suddenly digital education events have gone global. Just as BETT has been attempting to grow roots in the Middle East, Asia and South America, its rivals have their eyes on the UK, and competition is fierce. Just registering a digital interest in some of these events can lead to an email inbox over-burdened with marketing material.
Digital Education Show building a global brand
The organisation behind Digital Education Show UK 2015 is Terrapinn. It may not be particularly well known in the UK but it's hardly a Johnny-come-lately, and is now attempting to build the Digital Education Show brand across Europe, Asia and Africa. It developed its approach to education in Australia with the highly popular EduTECH event (see "EduTECH comes to Brisbane – Dan Down Under 4").
With the focus on inspiration, DES organisers have taken pains not to position the new UK show as a direct competitor to BETT. But given BETT's greater than ever ability to Hoover up technology companies' marketing budgets for the year – the organisers and partners control ExCeL facilities, even hotel accommodation, in ways impossible at their former base, Olympia – it is a herculean task to establish a new show, particularly when others have recently closed their doors because of lack of commercial support.
The keynote appearance of Sir Ken Robinson at BETT 2015 in January may have given the impression that the BETT organisers had finally lifted their bar for inspiration for its visitors. But cynics could be forgiven for seeing it as an inspired way to undercut the new show which had already advertised its own crowd pleaser – Sir Ken Robinson. Of course it could just be a coincidence...
However, attendance for Sir Ken's opening talk at DES was thin, which was just as likely to do with the high cost of admission (up to £900 for early bookings before cut-price offers) the relatively early start for a London audience and the time of year. Fortunately, there was no shortage of quality presenters, which underlined the need for UK events to highlight and promote emerging generations of innovative educators like Ewan McIntosh whose NoTosh consultancy is at the frontline of fresh classroom practice globally.
A visit on Wednesday took in a refresher keynote from Professor Sugata Mitra, of Newcastle University, on his work with SOLE (self-organising learning environments) following his award of $1 million dollars from TED. As usual it was a talk filled with unusual and rewarding observations and analogies, lacing common sense and profundity with a gentle, self-deprecating but nonetheless lancing sense of humour. Try these: "Allowing the internet into the examination hall will change the entire system"; “It’s not about making learning happen: it's about letting learning happen”.
None of the nuances seemed lost on the educators in the audience, making it difficult to understand why his work is so badly misinterpreted as critical of teachers rather than appreciative of the tremendous potential of children when the 'learning stabilisers' are removed.
Learner potential - teachers' too – was at the heart of the “Out of this world: Tech to inspire” keynote from Tim Rylands and Sarah Nield (pictured above). They took their audience on a virtual safari, exploring ways of engaging children with their own learning journeys, all set in a context of the range of innovative apps and online services now available to spark and inflame their creativity.
'A tour de force of invention and fun'
How could that fail with technology that created the most impossible and amazing hybrids of the animals children know and love, but which also helped them explore habitats and diets of the real animals they were based on? (Check out the information and links at Creating Composite Creatures.) And as with Sugata Mitra, there were aphorisms aplenty – like "The best teachers have bite marks on their tongues"
It was a tour de force of invention and fun, but firmly anchored to the great classroom practice that the couple inspire in classrooms with their professional development work internationally. The technology was always in its place, part of the range of tools available to teachers and their learners. And the creative educators in the audience were ready to demonstrate just what is possible with good old Plasticine and 'pipe cleaners' – on my table West Thornton Primary Academy (Croydon) head Di Pumphrey and her colleagues instantly put themselves up there with the Aardmans (see photo). Networking with them also revealed pioneering work with learning spaces.
It was easy to see why Terrapinn will be including Tim and Sarah at their events worldwide to share the inspiration. In fact the whole programme went down well, as Naace chief executive Mark Chambers pointed out: "Naace was pleased to attend the Digital Education Show at Olympia, to connect with members like Dominic Norrish and David Mitchell who were part of the excellent professional development programme brought together by Terrapinn, and to catch up with the Naace partners demonstrating why their products and solutions should be considered by schools looking to use technology as a focus for schools improvement or simply to improve the management and administration of the school.
"The edtech community needs a range of these kind of experiences spread throughout the school year and distributed across the country so that we can maximise the possibility of schools finding the keys that unlock their potential for taking education to another level. This was the first Digital Education Show in London with hopefully many more to come."
What will ensure the return of DES however will be commercial sustainability, and that was not obvious at a show where the footfall was sparse to say the least. The exhibition featured a great range of technologies and services, from the innovative new offerings from LearnPad through to the tried and tested, like 2Simple, and newcomers like Lynda.com who want to bring a commercial "how to" service to schools. Small shows beat the behemoths in having better space for quality conversations, for example discovering why long-time schools supplier has moved from learning platform to portal (RM Unify) to give schools pick-and-mix online facilities, or how a learning platform specialist like Frog continues to innovate and retain its community.
Healthy footfall essential for exhibitors
What is absolutely essential for exhibitors is footfall, and Terrapinn will have its work cut out creating a business model to bring in exhibitors and visitors for 2016, despite the obvious wider need for competition and variety. But exhibitors are always open to opportunities as Parotec business development manager James Betts explained: "Parotec are always pleased to support education conferences in the UK, especially ones that bring amazing speakers such as Sir Ken Robinson, Ewan McIntosh and Tim Rylands in front of delegates, as well as forward thinking educators such as Dawn Hallybone and her digital leaders. Supporting a new show is always a risky move, but we felt that this was an opportunity not to be missed and indeed used it to launch a brand new range of Charge & Sync solutions for schools.
"Although numbers were lower than we had hoped, the show gave the opportunity for some quality conversations both with delegates and also the UK reseller channel who we support. Feedback on our products was fantastic, and we were thrilled that the show attracted decision makers who were there looking for the kind of solution we can provide.
"There is always a time and place to exhibit alongside hundreds of other companies at large trade shows, but there is also increasingly a need to attend more 'intimate’ events where there is time to have quality discussions with visitors. I do hope this show continues to grow, and offer the same level of quality CPD and education-focused products which help to keep UK education at the forefront of the worldwide stage."
BETT all about money – the bottom line
It's a hope that is widely shared. BETT 2015 demonstrated that it is now all about money – the bottom line. The creative 'contra' deals that built the community and brought in players that had little cash but bags of value have now been dispensed with as organisers who view the world through spreadsheets have gained the ascendancy. It won't be obvious to newcomers, but this has brought about the absence of a visible BETT presence for organisations like Naace, Mirandanet and the subject associations. BETT 2015 might host "the biggest teachMeet in the world" but the last BETT at Olympia, where there was less money and poorer facilities, hosted no less than three well-attended teacher-organised events. But that was in the days when the organisers employed people like Martin Jacks to cultivate and support grassroots innovation.
A return to Olympia was also a welcome reminder how a show in central London, rather than out in Docklands, can feel more like a fun day out. Yes, Olympia has its issues, and it still promotes woe-fi rather than wifi, as well as unimpressive catering, but a vibrant city feels only a walk – not a world – away.
The increased competition in the world of exhibitions and shows holds great promise, and that was clearly demonstrated at the Digital Education Show. Sustainability, however, will depend on a strong commercial model supported by visitors – and that is yet to emerge.