Just what was the dominant flavour at BETT? Tony Parkin savoured what was on offer
Every year there is a ‘thing’ at BETT. A couple of years ago it was 3D TV (this year seemingly, and mercifully, absent). Before that was the era of wall to wall whiteboards, still around at BETT 2017, but not in such oppressive numbers.
This year’s BETT 2017 ‘thing’ was VR, virtual reality. Every other stand seemed to have people shambling around with their faces buried in headsets, bumping into the furniture, uttering ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, and generally challenging health and safety guidelines.
In fact this year’s thing was such a thing that ClassVR even had THE Thing (pictured above), or at least the suit used in the Fantastic Four movie, standing there in an appropriately orange headset. And I mean orange is appropriate for The Thing, rather than for The Donald, in case you were confused. So I decided NOT to write about VR, as everybody else was bound to be, including ace cub reporter Megan McTaggart (see "Space, but not as we know it — VR@BETT").
Countries waged turf wars for BETT space
BETT2017 was bigger and more international than ever. The major company stands all jostled in the central ‘mine is bigger than yours’ territory. Country pavilions seemed to win many of those turf wars, and highlighted just how international BETT has become. UK Trade and Industry were again occupying significant floor space at one end of the huge hall and frantically working to avoid a post-Brexit apocalypse. At the far end, in the opposite corner, the Village STEAMed along nicely again, featuring micro:bits and Raspberry Pi. So far, so samey.
But, like many others, I constantly found myself gravitating back to the future – BETT Futures. This top corner, with its tiny stands and big buzz has been a winner for the past couple of years. I have written about it before, but it’s difficult to resist the ideas, the energy, and frankly the people who are vesting everything into getting their concepts into schools, into the market, and into sight.
It’s like dragon’s den, but without the dragons. Unless you count Dick Taylor, the venture capitalist who also spends a fair bit of his time in this space; dragonish, and he always brings energy, insights, humour and ideas along with his capital. Though this year there were also some marauding foreign ‘dragons’, who appeared to be just trying to find ideas to plunder.
Each year the number of BETT Futures stands seems greater, the crowds squeezing between them feels larger, and the pace ever more relentless. In another change this year, one or two familiar faces were allowed back in BETT Futures, giving an opportunity to renew old contacts as well as meet newbies. So this year I tried to spend time with a few of the Futures folk each day. I didn’t manage all, and the selection was largely random, but always serendipitous, and there’s no reflection at all on the many with whom I didn’t manage to catch up. I bet their products were equally interesting.
There’s a moose on the loose…
Mind Moose, the latest project from Zoe Ross, aka as @ZoeRoss19 or @psychologyzoe on Twitter. It stood out thanks to the large moose-head that stared out like a beacon over the thronged area. So I decided to ‘head’ on over and hear more about the Moose from Zoe (see what I did there?).
Mind Moose uses research from psychology, character education and beyond to give children practical tools to help them understand themselves, and to improve their relationships with others, and help their learning. Focussing on the healthy mind, rather than the healthy body, this delightful animal-laden tool aims to help young children manage their emotions, recognise and develop helpful character traits, and help get their brain working better. Never has there been a more timely technology development, with the current focus on wellbeing, and anxiety about children’s mental health. So there was considerable interest from the BETT attendees in what the moose and his friends had to offer. Zoe was using BETT to hear more from teachers and others about possible directions of travel for the Moose. By the end of four days she was reeling from an embarrassment of riches, and of praise for her concept.
Zoe wasn’t the only startup focusing on student well-being. A few stands away was MeeTwo, a result of a serendipitous meeting between parents at a children’s trampolining class. Suzi Godson, a well known journalist and agony aunt specialising in sex and relationships education got talking to Kerstyn Comley, education technologist and governor, about her idea for an app supporting confidence and body image.
The result is the MeeTwo app, which allows teenagers to access advice and information through a smartphone. Young people can post problems, seek help from peers and experts, and access resources, all in the safety of a carefully moderated environment with expert staff to help with all aspects of troubling teenage issues. A great example of how having a good idea and access to educational expertise means real grassroots, ground-up innovation is possible for startups using today’s technology.
By students, for students
Equally demonstrative of grassroots innovation, and inordinately popular, was the adjacent Studentnomic stand. Co-founded by three students in 2015, who took turns staffing the stand throughout BETT, these highly professional looking solutions are produced ‘by students, for students’. And this student perspective shines through – the apps actually do just what students want and need, rather than what some edtech company believes they might like.
Simplicity, innovation and curation are the keywords for success. Confused about differences between syllabi, course content and exam variations? Why not have a curated solution that brings all these things into one easy-to-access place? I can think of many teachers who will love that, too! Then, when trying to plan your revision, what wouldn’t you give for an app that pulls together the best resources selected by students that are tailored to deliver support for the exact course you are doing? No longer are expensive in-house revision guides the sole arbiters of what works best for you; there are crowd-sourced selections from your peers.
And on top of the Studentnomic app there is StudentNote, which schools can use to push notifications directly to students and parents in place of expensive texting solutions. Brilliant. As I went around the show and bumped into old friends, Studentnomic was the one stand I was advised to make sure of visiting by many of them. I left it to the last minute, largely because they were so busy each time I tried, but boy was I glad that I took the advice and grabbed them for the last hour of the show.
Another of the small businesses getting a lot of word of mouth promotion at BETT was Stepping into Business. I had come across this team before, who are bringing enterprise and business education into schools, but had not previously seen their new digital gaming app, Entreprenaws. There were enough people walking around BETT with Entreprenaws badges on to indicate that this was a popular favourite with attendees.
Entreprenaws brings a new playful approach to learning about business and enterprise though digital gaming, via an app which features characters such as Tickleton, from the Snaperoos, and Swaggit of the Arctic Swagger tribe. Everything you need to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs. All clearly aimed at children in the primary sector with a love of game-based learning.
But this team is finding there is a demand for increased support in business skills and education from students, teachers, heads and governors alike! The increased autonomy of schools has certainly raised demand for their services, as heads and governors grapple with an increased requirement to operate in a business-like fashion. It is very reassuring to meet such an enthusiastic team that combines solid business backgrounds with a real grasp of educational needs. I could see why there was such a buzz around the stand.
Should auld acquaintance...?
123Go! Still at a relatively early development stage, but with great potential, promising online learning and micro-credentialing alongside traditional training approaches. Mark’s pedigree, longevity in and understanding of the ed tech space means that it will definitely be one to watch going forward. Particularly as there is increasing recognition that continuing professional development of teachers is being badly-neglected, and that better solutions need to be found.Talking of bumping into old friends, lest I give the impression that BETT Futures was entirely the province of the youthful startup, I was delighted to see Mark Allen (@EdintheClouds) at an adjacent BETT Futures stand, showing his interesting CPD platform,
It was also a delight to see that Erase All Kittens had a stand, and to finally meet Leonie, pixel wizard and one of the founders who doesn’t get out and about very often, pictured here with some of the characters from EAK. And of course to catch up with Dee Saigal, the CEO (see "Where's the creativity in coding?"), who is often out and about talking about Erase All Kittens at Meetups and elsewhere! This coding and gaming platform goes from strength to strength, now has a much richer game play, and is rightly now getting sales and attention from wider media. If you haven’t revisited their site recently, it is definitely worth another look. But remember, you probably first read about it some time ago here at Agent4Change (see "What's up pussycat? Pupils who erase kittens")!
Another Meetup-type encounter in Shoreditch had introduced me to A Tale Unfolds (see right), a lovely way for pupils and teachers to improve their learning, teaching and digital skills through film-making. And there they were at BETT Futures. A wonderful blend of literacy and digital literacy organised around a carefully-crafted curriculum with a wide range of projects that should meet the needs, aspirations and available timeslots in almost any school. As Quadblogging has shown, giving children a purpose and authentic audience for their work can unleash great improvements in literacy, and here the final outcomes are both written and cinematic creativity. A great idea, and nicely implemented.
Talking of literacy, the BETT Futures returners also included Pobble. They, like Erase All Kittens, have received additional financial support following critical acclaim, and are expanding their operations in their own take on literacy improvement. This also involves getting students writing with purpose, and comes with a raft of support structures for a whole-school approach. Good to see the growth continuing.
Last year I also met up with the team of Geordies responsible for VEO, an annotated video tool. They too were back again at BETT Futures, and I was delighted to hear that VEO also is going from strength to strength. Another simple idea, ideal for observations, superbly executed, and so useful that it is such a surprise it hadn’t been done sooner. Definitely worth a look for anyone involved in training.
Night draws in... and out comes the VR
Night Zookeeper gang. Busy doesn’t begin to cover it, and at one point one of the team almost collapsed, after non-stop talking, missing lunch, and forgetting the essential top-up with water at a dehydrating exhibition.Almost last, but certainly not least, it was great to see the throngs of students and teachers around the returning
But better busy than bored, and again they were so popular that it wasn’t until late on Saturday that I really got to catch up with them. And having said that I wasn’t going to write about VR, here’s the one exception.
As BETT was winding down, and I was interviewing them, the news reached Night Zookeeper that they had won one of the most prestigious Awards that BETT has to offer. Forget all the posh stuff on Wednesday night, this was the #BestatBETT VR Award from that most critical of judging panels, the pupils themselves! And it was awarded to Night Zookeeper for their own virtual reality creation that had garnered so much attention over the four days.
I was left to guard their stand while they shot off to the main arena. Which is how I met the folk at SparkJar, at the next stand. They initially thought I was a dodgy-looking character who was after stealing the Night Zookeeper kit! But it meant I also got to hear from Sparkjar MD James Carroll about their own elegant-looking app development, aimed at schools with one-to-one iPads.
It was late, I was tired, and I am not an iPad user, but this was a product that oozed such class and was clearly geared to what teachers wanted, rather than a technologist’s vision. Which should not be that surprising, as Sparkjar has had teachers embedded in its development all along, and one was there to help explain why it was the right tool for the job. And this is what BETT Futures is all about, a wonderful synergy between enthusiastic startups, quality developers, and engagement with teachers to make sure that the products are meeting real needs.
Keep Futures funky! Camden Lock, not Covent Garden
There were some ominous signs that BETT Futures may be becoming too successful for its own good. There was a smattering of stands away from the main corner that were also bearing the same branding, though in several cases it was hard to see why. And there were some understandable mutterings about some of the high prices being charged for a number of the BETT Futures stands.
In many of the funkier corners of our towns, areas are turned round from being rundown and unfashionable by incomers with creativity and enterprise. The subsequent hiking of business rates can then turn a creative, fun and energetic district into just another bland mainstream area. It would be a real shame if the undoubted success of this busy BETT corner was to mean something similar becomes the fate of BETT Futures. The BETT 2018 planners need to think Camden Lock, not Covent Garden, and keep it funky!