The tension at this year’s BETT Show

The BETT Show in London has, since it started, provided a window into the passions and fashions of educational technology and the ways education, teaching and learning are changing. Though many of us who have been involved with these changes in education since the early days of computers in education bemoan the slow pace of change, the last few years particularly have brought significant changes that will further develop and that cannot be stopped.

The question is whether these changes are improvements in education or retrograde steps. As has been the case throughout development of technology in education, there has been almost as much failure as success, with innovations that were shown to be effective in the 1980s still not widely adopted and several blind alleys that didn’t work. This is a generational change and there is still a lot to be done to make sure that it all turns out well and does not take schooling backwards, as it could.

This year’s BETT Show was truly international and included a strong presence by companies keen to profit from the growing use of technology in schools in India, China and other parts of South-East Asia, and developing countries throughout the rest of the world. These companies are looking to capitalise on the perceived educational opportunities that technology offers. Far too often these perceived opportunities are defined in terms of what technology can do, combined with what politicians would like it to do to give them good press releases about exam passes and where the country ranks in PISA. Too many education leaders are seduced by the technology and give credence to the claims of the technology companies and support to the politicians. Thankfully some school leaders have much clearer visions and are much more astute in selecting technology that really does improve teaching and learning; their voice needs to be stronger.

The classic example this last year has been the iPad debacle in California. Those who work closely with schools, helping them adopt education technology, regularly trade their own more local examples of the schools that have bought hundreds of tablets with no clear idea as to how they will use them to improve learning. We have also seen News Corporation withdraw from the educational technology market, having realised that the company they had acquired was unlikely to make the expected returns. Both of which bring me to the tension at this year’s BETT.

The tension, or perhaps I should call it the battle of ideas for that is what it is, is between those who think that the prime use of technology in education should be to give young people access to learning content, or to push it at them as in the California debacle, and those who realise that the prime aim should be to use technology to enable and extend learning activities that will develop deep and lasting learning. This will at times include a little passive reception of content and some activities to embed learning of knowledge, but without the context of real purpose, real problems and relevance this knowledge will not be valued and will be soon lost.

Talking to people at the Show I found some clearly aware of how the connected-world and technology can have real impact on learning, but still far too many whose horizons only reach to how much more engaging an animation, video or little game can be compared to a textbook, and how assessment of learnt knowledge can be managed more often and more easily recorded to support the school’s accountability.

To take just one example, when I mentioned to BETT visitors that a key impact of technology in a school is to make the work children create more visible, some immediately understood what I was talking about while others returned a quizical stare, obviously wondering what I meant and finding this idea beyond their conceptual understanding of the purpose of technology in education. Visibility is key to the processes of learning that enable connected-world learning to surpass good traditional learning. Visibility of pupils’ work, carefully arranged and well managed by teachers, sets higher expectations, makes the challenges of learning personal and relevant, enables reflection and discussion, enables wider audiences to provide more and better feedback, stimulates self-esteem and feelings of success, enables pupils to collaborate and help each other learn and is a real aid to parental engagement and involvement in their childrens’ learning. Critically visibility also presumes that young people have actively created something worth displaying, that they are proud of as it shows their progress, even if the quality of what they have produced is behind that of others. Compare all these impacts with the learning impact of pupils just interacting in some way with content pushed at them.

At the Show I listened to teachers and leaders from some schools that appreciate this difference, who clearly understand that effective learning happens when pupils are actively engaged in their learning and want to learn. And hence they then want to access the wonderful content that these schools are making available, which they do out of school not in class. And indeed some schools are collecting the data to show that those who access the content well, and often, achieve more highly. But without the curriculum, teaching, and active and creative learning that stimulates pupils’ thirst to access and learn from content, and that provides the context that makes the content meaningful, the students would likely use their access to technology for the purposes they find meaningful in learning instead – just as the Californian students did.

This all makes me more determined than ever to help school leaders appreciate that digital evolution of their schools involves a great deal more than installing screens, buying tablets or laptops, and buying software licences for multimedia content. That comes quite a long way into the digital evolution of a school and forms only a small part of what is required. If you want to see a full listing of what is required, have a look at the program for the Digital Evolution of Schooling Leadership Program and see what it covers.


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