Carrie GrantBy Chris Drage and Merlin John

"Death by PowerPoint" is still a regularly heard whinge, but how many professional development events manage to break free from that and give educators their own opportunity to be creative, to take a chance, to learn?

That's exactly what TV personalities David and Carrie Grant (left) achieved for the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and education services supplier RM at their jointly run Strategic Forums "tour" of the UK. School leaders 'learned by doing' to sing a four-part harmony of "Let it be" to demonstrate a basic education tenet - you can't learn and you can't teach unless you are prepared to take a chance, and you can't take a chance if you don't build confidence.

It might seem obvious in theory but the practical, inspiring effect it had on the London audience of school leaders was palpable and opened the way to them thinking about creating imaginative, effective learning spaces for the nexRichard  Gervert generation of learners. In fact there was no shortage of inspiration. The day had kicked off with school leadership guru Richard Gerver (right) introducing specially shot video footage of the inspirational Sir Ken Robinson for an insightful and entertaining double act detailing the possible future and challenges for 21st century educators. It was a quality act.

David and Carrie Grant, however, were the ones to really unlock the creative energy. Working with their pianist they soon had their audience belting out a four-part harmony of "Let it be", using their complimentary iPod Touches to check whether they were in tune and to ultimately record the performance. In addition to their television work, the Grants work in management and leadership at the Ashridge Management Training College where they teach regularly. Imparting good management principles via the medium of choral singing is no mean feat and the session proved to be great fun but also conveyed important leadership messages. And if you had polled the participants beforehand on whether they could sing, the majority would have replied "No".

'A perfect way to ratch up energy and openness'

It was also a perfect way to ratch up the energy and the openness before the participants, by now working in groups, went through to the learning spaces exhibition to model intriguing combinations of technology, furniture and fittings for all kinds of learning. There were even human guinea pigs – learners – on hand with their teachers to demonstrate how things could work.

If you managed to get a day out to visit the BETT 2010 educational technology show, the chances are that, at best, you managed to spend at least half an hour at RM’s Real Centre based in the same Olympia 2 building (there's a permanent Real Centre at their Abingdon base) – but, at worst, you may have missed it altogether. Many of those who made it said that they wanted to get "hands on" with the products for themselves. Between the April 22 and May 4 RM attempted to bring those experiences to educators in the strategic forums that were run at Bristol, London, the midlands and Leeds.

Replacing what had become the ‘traditional’ free RM leadership conference format, each Strategic Forum (paid for) enabled delegates to also experience RM's own 21st Century learning environments and participate in workshops enabling them to experience what it’s like to be a 21st Century learner. And while visitors to previous RM leadership events may have thought "This is pretty good but they are trying to sell me something aren't they?", very few would have thought that at the new events.

The partnership with the ASCL meant that learning and leadership were truly at the top of the agenda. A panel of education experts were also on hand to answer questions and debate the issues arising from those sessions. It was open to primary heads and secondary heads and their senior management teams as well as local authorities and college principals and vice-principals.

The afternoon expert panel was where the learning debate really took off. The London panel had Sir Tim Brighouse, David Cameron (the educator), John Davitt, Ollie Bray and architect Jayne Bird, all on sharpest form to spark conversations packed with insight and humour (see videos above and below, and check RM and ASCL websites for the relase of more video clips). The range of learning and design expertise on stage was immense, and David and Carrie Grant made their interventions acutely to bring out the best possible contributions.

It was one of the best discussions on learning, ICT and learning spaces that anyone could have hoped for. And even when a voted "top ten" list of products came up at the end, there was Ollie Bray with a fiercely independent voice to urge matching of products and services to the models of learning being pursued – with a timely swipe at those who think that ICT education means inflicting pedestrian use of office products on learners. Most important, he pointed to the wide range of Web 2.0 products and services – many of them free – now available for schools (check out his website for help with using services like Google Earth)

For those looking for feedback from the hands-on experiences with learning spaces, it's worth mentioning some of the highlights. The VerTable (pictured below, with RM BSF consultant Dave Fitzpatrick ), from Isis Concepts, is a combination of folding/tilting table, short-throw projector and eBeam interactivity combined to produce what is, in effect, a height and plane-adjustable interactive whiteboard. 
VerTable at Strategic ForumsYou can mount it vertically for use with a large group or horizontally so a smaller group can get hands on without disturbing the class. Sadly, it does not support multiple-touch like the SMART Table, but it is so much bigger and, for older students, rather ‘cool’ compared with the SMART Table which suits younger pupils in its current configuration. Yes, the SMART Table was present too, running a range of applications including the very well received ReacTickles for children on the autistic spectrum and for early learners.

Taking the whole concept of interactivity to the limits, two multi-sensory devices really captured the attention:  the Graffiti Wall and The Interactive Image. The former is a 3.2m x 2m backlit screen which behaves like an enormous IWB.  The challenge is what would you use it for? And that actually governs where you should site it. Use it for ‘urban art’? Validate anti-social graffiti into the socially acceptable? Student voice?  Graphic-art interaction?  Place it near to the entrance of the dining hall?
At £15,000 each you need to have a clear idea! However, the device, like the SMART Table, does beg applications involving collaboration between students.

The Interactive Image (SpaceKraft Ltd) works in a similar way to the eBeam in that, in order to interact with any of the eight applications (currently) the user must break a beam. However, with this device the camera and beam are mounted above a white, mat-like surface on the floor which can be of any size depending on how high the projector is mounted. The projected image responds to contact. It really has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. But how else could you get children to stand on the sky and run around as butterflies follow their every move? Or, lying on the floor, the smallest movement will cause a change in display – creating ripples or rolling a virtual ball? Combined with sound, the Interactive Image offers truly multi-sensory experiences!

The evolution of interactive white boards could possibly be seen in the U-Touch interactive plasma screens: no glare, no shadow, no projector and fully height adjustable. However, at £5,000-£6,000 I suspect their wider deployment may have to wait until prices drop.

Digital projectors like the Optoma (3D Ready) will probably shape how we present images and movies in the future classroom: featuring a DLP chip, this projector can project both 2D and 3D images, although in order to ‘see’ in 3D you need special Polaroid glasses which currently cost about £50-£60 each.

The media classroom too showed interesting developments with Chroma Key to the fore: this package combines a special background screen with a device comprising a ring of green LEDs clipped over a camcorder lens. Students can film themselves against the backdrop and place the resulting image seamlessly over another background of their choosing e.g. weather forecasters over scenes depicting a meteorological situation or ‘newscasters’ with the cityscape as background.

'The most impressive SEN device was the Tobii eye-tracking technology'

Control technology developments were represented by a range of Lego NXT robots in all manner of guises running under Lego Mindstorms software. The most impressive SEN device was the Tobii eye-tracking technology in which software can be controlled on screen by the eyes only – blinking to simulate a mouse ‘click’. Just a few moments was enough to convince anyone how liberating such technologies are for the severely disabled.

Finally, two items which are more ‘furniture’ than ICT are the T41 table system (Isis Concepts) with its own power hub enabling a whole range of quickly assembled table-grouping arrangements from circles, and hexagons to octagons or even a snake! The portable power hub means that groups of laptops/netbooks etc can be powered in several configurations – an extremely flexible ICT solution. And the RM Learning Pod is a self-contained, circular, moveable ‘room’, with wifi and mains power supply, and it's virtually sound proof – ideal for small group withdrawals or for children to make audio recordings without all the ambient classroom sounds. The transparent walls mean that everything within is clearly visible to those on the outside.

The Strategic Forums represent a step change in events of their kind for learning, ICT and learning spaces. The partnership between a school leaders' organisation, leading school services company and creatives like David and Carrie Grant managed to spark a creative space not attainable via traditional conference presentations. RM CEO Terry Sweeney said the company had been looking to create new and engaging events: "We wanted to move away from a more traditional conference style. We wanted all delegates to walk away having felt they had experienced learning. We wanted them to see and feel, not just listen and learn."