Tony Parkin gravitates to the more creative corners - and he found them at BETT 2016

One thing no-one ever said about the BETT Show is "intimate". Held in ExCeL’s vast exhibition halls, it feels like being in a giant international airport, complete with aircraft hangers. This year the impression was heightened by the presence of a United Arab Emirates stand looking exactly like a first-class airport lounge.

In total contrast, however, were the show's corner areas, changed from former no-go zones into thriving and successful elements of the main show. So what brought about this transformation?

With a hall so long that you can get a DLR train from one end to the other, this presents the organisers with a challenge – how on earth do you lure people from the busy (and more expensive) central aisles out into the far-flung corners? Traditionally these have been populated by desperate looking folk in tiny booths, staring listlessly at their phone screens between desperately pouncing on the few creatures that have strayed off the main avenues. Often with some nice stuff to offer, but unlikely to be found. Clearly a challenge to the floor layout designers.

BETT Futures set the benchmark in 2015

But last year the excellent BETT Futures Zone, tucked into one of these corners, showed what could be done. Bustling and thriving even during the quieter sessions of BETT when the main avenues were empty, it showed that having a themed innovative area, curated by enthusiasts, could reverse the trend and turn an under-used corner into one of the more successful parts of the BETT Show. In stark contrast, last year’s white, echoing UKTI space, next to BETT Futures and only populated on the Wednesday, showed what not to do. So what happened at BETT 2016?

pibett16microbitBETT Micro:bit sign: 'no wonder teachers can’t get their hands on them'First, in all fairness, I must say that UKTI had learned from last year’s experience. Occupying the same space, if a little smaller, but with a far better organised presence, that UKTI corner did what we all hoped it should do – it offered international visitors to the show a supportive experience throughout. Education technology is a key UK export industry, and it was cheering to see how many educators from overseas were taking the opportunity to develop trade links and network. It felt busy and successful.

At the far end of the hall, the STEAM Village clearly hoped to emulate the success of the BETT Futures zone. Looking as much steampunk as STEAM (Science Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics), it was a bizarre bazaar of little stands at odd angles, covered in wacky looking gizmos and wires. Unlike in real life, the area was awash with BBC Micro:bits, being used for everything from giant display boards (no wonder teachers can’t get their hands on them) to the controllers for the tiniest kits imaginable. The Raspberry Pi was also well-represented, with familiar figures in lab coats – Oliver Quinlan and Carrie Ann Philbin being two of the more recognisable ones – rushing around demonstrating all sorts of gadgetry wonders.

Buzzy in every sense of the word, the STEAM Village was again, like BETT Futures, highly successful in drawing in the visitors. There were collateral beneficiaries too, as the adjacent Naace stand, in one of the traditionally quieter spots, picked up a lot of the passing STEAM-driven traffic.

TES also 'revitalised a quiet corner'

picbett16tesTES back in role as BETT 'global knowledge partner'Adjacent to the STEAM Village, and in sharp contrast, was a large TES Global area, with its own presentation theatre, and an adjacent eating area (it marked the return of The TES as a BETT media partner, now "global knowledge partner"). Sharp contrast in look and feel maybe, but not in success in attracting visitors. Like the STEAM Village it drew large numbers of visitors and revitalised a quiet corner.

Unsurprising, perhaps, when there was a session by the DfE’s behaviour tsar and regular TES columnist, Tom Bennett to draw them in. This was so packed in fact, that I could only watch from afar in admiration as he mounted for his sermon, and catch the odd word over the buzz from the packed hordes.

"Blessed are the cheesemakers," I think I heard him say, but I could be mistaken. But it was also buzzing and thriving between such sessions, and it was a real delight to see so many TES ‘names’, from Lord Jim Knight to editor Ann Mroz, and Michael Shaw to Ed Dorrell, meeting and chatting to the TES Community.

The new TES Institute was also in evidence, and it was a real personal pleasure to be shown the new TES Blendspace tool ("Create digital lessons in 5 minutes") and talk over their development plans with Bill How, a former colleague. Another corner successfully populated.

Futures' coming up roses - daisies too

Finally, a return to BETT Futures, back though somewhat expanded in the same corner as last year, and with a similar look and feel. This year the vegetation was not quite so lush and green, with the artificial grass replaced by a daisy-strewn carpet version, but the real buzz was still in evidence.

The stage area again had that resemblance to the Windows XP desktop image that now brings a warm, nostalgic glow. Mark Anderson, (@ictevangelist) was again in evidence offering his inimitable mix of presentations and advice that drew in admiring crowds of teachers.

picrichardtaylorRichard 'Dick' TaylorAnd again this year, fringe events on the stage, such as the LEGup meeting from the London Educational Games Meetup Group, offered real insights and advice to emerging edtech startups. Superbly chaired by one of LEGup’s founders, Kirsten Campbell-Howes, this excellent session featured Richard 'Dick' Taylor (@dick_taylor), angel investor and ‘the straightest talker in edtech’, Edd Stockwell, co-founder of TutorFair, Erika Brodnock, founder and CEO at Karisma Kidz, and Joe Dytrych, co-founder of Drumroll HQ and Erase All Kittens fame.

Dick’s ‘straight-talking’ was as insightful and provocative as ever, with Edd Stockwell ensuring that his provocations were met head on (Edd on? Please yourselves). Erika and Joe also added their rich, personal experiences of getting started, and their own advice on what works for them. With the sort of expertise and insights that events companies would charge three-figure ticket prices for folk to hear, this made for an intriguing and informative session for anyone interested in ed tech, and all for free at BETT Futures.

Small stands scattered around BETT Futures again featured startups with exciting ideas, though this year one or two of the names were maybe better known? Night Zookeeper were there again, and with a novel approach – yes, they have a novel, Night Zookeeper and the Spying Giraffes. Pobble, the online literacy startup that won a place in the competition for Microsoft Ventures Accelerator were also there. But there were still some new names with some innovative ideas that I hadn’t come across before.

Annotate your video observations - in real time

screenVEOVEO (Video Enhanced Observation, leftis the brainchild of Jon Haines and Paul Miller, and is one of those wonderful ideas that seems so obvious that you can’t believe it hasn’t been thought of and created before. Paul explained that the inspiration was the frustration of handling video during follow-up after real-time observation recording, and annoyance at not being able to identify and jump to specific sections easily, without also making careful detailed notes with timings.

The upshot is a video app that can go on tablet or phone that allows for annotations to be made in real time while recording. Clearly an ideal potential tool for lesson observations, skills assessments, teacher training etc. The team are working with Newcastle University to further develop the Video Enhanced Observation tool after obtaining VC funding in 2015, and have launched their secure data portal.

picKahootBETT Futures: 'where the cool kids hang'But BETT Futures is also now a place where some of the cool kids hang out to network, bounce ideas off people, and generally get the best out of BETT. The Curiscope folk ("Educational Adventures in VR and AR") had augmented reality t-shirts that let you ‘see’ their innards at work, and a virtual reality headset that had you peering frantically about while a Great White shark swam around and really got your adrenaline going. Great fun, but with obvious educational potential.

Close to BETT Futures I met Jamie Brooker, of WeAreHuman, at the stand that the hugely successful startup Kahoot! was sharing with fellow startups ClassDojo and GoNoodle, who are also doing extremely well in building their education following. He told me they had deliberately chosen their stand location to catch some of the excitement and traffic from the BETT Futures space. So much for the ‘dead corners’ problem! And my tip for next year’s BETT? Never mind the suited and booted on the lavish central stands, head for the corners if you want to find a real buzz, excitement, and creativity aplenty.

thumbtonyparkinTony Parkin, former head of ICT development at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (The Schools Network) and now an independent consultant, describes himself as a 'disruptive nostalgist'. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or on Twitter via @tonyparkin  
Photography: by Jack Terry and Tony Parkin

More information

BBC Micro:bit   
Curiscope VR video    
Erase All Kittens    
Karizma Kidz     
Night Zookeeper      
Raspberry Pi   
TES Institute     
TES BlendSpace    
Video Enhanced Observation