BETT 2020 Review – A learning technologist’s perspective

By Matt Cornock

Adobe stand at BETT 2020

I managed to get to #BETT2020 for the Friday afternoon. It’s only my second time going to BETT, the massive expo for educational technologies and the like, even though I’ve been a learning technologist for quite some time now. I go in knowing that BETT is geared up for schools, and FE/HE/professional education providers are on the periphery, but it’s a useful opportunity for me to check in with what the sector is up to and the trends.

Last year, for instance, was very much the year of maker spaces, building robots, robots that track lines, robots with sensor kits and endless clones of really, really rubbish robots that did very little but flash lights and say your name back to you. This year, once you get past the BETT mobile app that doesn’t work as expected (oh, the irony), the insatiable scanning of your lanyard barcode (assuming you’ve not printed at home, which doesn’t work, forcing you to get it reprinted) and the feeling that every step you make is being tracked for marketing spam to land in your inbox come Monday… I’m pleased to say that the proportion of space dedicated to battery-powered gimmicks seemed to have reduced (though not entirely).

Highlights

Like others on the Twittersphere, one of the key takeaways for me was Google’s launch of originality reports for assignments in Google Classroom (text-matching for you and I, or “plagiarism detection” for the ill-informed). Whilst I haven’t looked in depth at where assignments disappear off to for subsequent use, the matching algorithm uses, unsurprisingly Google Books and Google Search.

Google stand at BETT 2020 and demo of new assignment tools
Live demo of Google Classroom assignment tools at BETT 2020

Could Google’s move into this field seriously disrupt some of the commercial players such as TurnItIn and Urkund? The established text-matching tools have a lot of functionality and can sit outside of LMS as well as being seamlessly integrated. They’ve battled with terms and conditions about how submitted assignments are used, but in doing so allow comparison against other submitted essays. Their data archive, our students’ data, is their biggest asset. From the current literature, Google are not going to make a similar move and will be sticking to public searchable results. This could be a wise strategy from Google to avoid the rights issues that existing text-matching tools struggle to navigate. There is possible provision of a private pool which would allows the peer-to-peer text match. As Google Classroom is only available to Edu customers, I’m wondering at which point Google will move similar technology into the business sector and what opportunities that may provide for professional development. The video below gives a snapshot of Google’s other highlights.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZCk0odQMOI&t=120

Beyond the technical direction, what I find most interesting is the idea that Google is making text-matching technology available in the K-12 sector. One of the big things I remember from supporting academic integrity at HE level was the difference in attitude required of students when they start degree level, in comparison to school work, about how to reference, paraphrasing and copying. Some students got it, others were terrified of it, some thought it only applied to text and not to non-text media. Bringing text-matching and academic integrity technology into school level will have its challenges too. In HE there were many discussions about ‘the acceptable percentage of plagiarism’, which was actually referring to the number that the tool spat out about the amount of matched text. To infer plagiarism from this number you always had to read the actual essay, and sometimes it was down to quotes and references not being interpreted correctly by tool or student. It’s great that the idea of academic integrity will now be more accessible to K-12 school and college level, as long as the support for students and realistic expectations of its use are provided.

CFA Trading's stand at BETT 2020
CFA Trading with a stand at BETT 2020 made of recycled materials and promoting refurbished hardware

Another game-changer, more for the hardware side of things, was the increased visibility of companies who provide refurbished computers to schools. This is essential for sustainability, both for school finances and environmental reasons. The idea of scalable refurbishment directly challenges the ‘buy a load of iPads but without the support’ approach that has plagued many educational institutions. Instead devices are available on lease, and at prices which are not too dissimilar to buying outright, with the added advantage that if it goes wrong or becomes obsolete hardware, you just lease the next model. There are always tensions though between the provision of tech that can do the job, but might be a bit slow, and tech that is shiny and new. As a student, which would you prefer? Refurbished doesn’t always mean slow, but it might mean less appeal to end users. Sadly, that belittles all the potential that provision of meaningful tech could offer, and perhaps with an environmentally conscious generation a few sacrifices in shininess can be made. I’m excited by the prospect of hardware being reused and repurposed. Even if repurposing means students get to take it apart and put it back together to find out how it all works.

Plateau of potential

Overall, I’m not sure I was wowed this year. Perhaps I missed something that really changed my view of what #edtech can do? Either the innovations were buried in the tiny start-up stands with vague names that really didn’t tell you what the product was they’re trying to launch, or I’ve just adopted a very cynical view that all the new stuff (such as AI and VR and AR and other two-letter acronyms) hasn’t really established its educational value base yet. Julian Stanley’s review is a little more appraising of the value of BETT to showcase eye-catching tech. I particularly like the turn of phrase: “there is still room for dazzling, if (intentionally) naive visions of the future.”

I am increasingly concerned that AI in its most rudimentary form, essentially adaptive content based on student quiz results (which has been knocking about for years now), is being touted as the digital saviour for teachers who are struggling to cope with the diversity of learners in their classroom. Although I am a champion of effective use of educational technology, the thought of students spending their time sat in front of computer screens for the sake of monitoring progress worries me. Does that make me old fashioned? I don’t know. I’d hope that collaboration, discussion, group work and listening are all part of any educational experience (online or in person). I’m still working out ‘where does AI fit into this?’ and ‘can AI really replicate, and hence replace, forms of human-human learning?’ If AI goes beyond monitoring interactions on digital platforms, does this lead AI educational technology down into the murky world of automated monitoring of classroom conversation or, worryingly, making assumptions about learning taking place based on facial expressions.

Hard work for some

I am probably the wrong audience for BETT, but I go to make sure I’m not left behind in the ever-changing #edtech world. I have conversations with vendors to find out where they’re going next in their product development. I tend not to get stuck in with the demos and the gadgets. I’m more interested in the pedagogy behind them. However, it’s not necessarily the pedagogy that is of most interest when these products are sold. Of course, the whizz-bangs and fizz-pops are great to look at, even if a novelty, which makes finding the non-whizz-bang stuff really tricky. Here I’m talking about that one app that can revolutionise (too strong a word) educational interaction, independent or collaborative learning. It can even be that tiny little function buried within one of the big players’ cloud-based offerings. These are the products that need explaining, that need more than a screenshot and definitely need more than a funky sounding name. Unfortunately, that’s really hard to do at an expo.

Divoom pixel art stand
Divoom pixel art gadgets. I think I want one, but not sure why I do.

There are hundreds of vendors, each with their own brand, each standing patiently waiting for anyone to say hello (or, staring longingly at their mobile device for a BETT app notification) and putting a lot of energy and enthusiasm to engaging with educators. It’s great to see and hopefully the learning goes both ways between supplier and customer. For me, I’m looking for clues as to what on earth the product is about. Scanning the leaflets, display boards and inferences from brand names whether it’s a platform I want to unpick further, clearly I am far too judgemental on first appearances than I should be. I’m also aware that for many start-ups, it’s a struggle to enter a market where purchasing is underpinned by due diligence.

Giant iTab stand at BETT 2020 - huge mirroring for phones
Giant iTab stand at BETT 2020 with a huge-scale mobile screen, because cloning to a projector isn’t enough sometimes.

The start-ups in particular need a strong evidence base to get into educational institutions, they need to show they’ve been around for a few years, and that they’ll be around for another few years yet. Purchasing educational technology is sometimes less about the money, and more about the time and investment in the people who will be expected to use the edtech. Managing change in educational institutions is tough as it is, so when there is a technological change, it has to stay around for a bit. There is an agenda as part of the UK #edtech strategy to build light-touch evaluations, with the edtech impact platform acting as the hub for this. Even with case studies and evidence from relatable contexts, new technology, or suppliers providing the same thing in a different way, always requires a leap of faith. Adopting new edtech is not for the risk averse.

If I were to impart some advice, to both edtech consumers and suppliers, it would be to brush up on the pedagogical arguments. If it’s obvious what your tool, device or app can do, I want to know why it is useful for learning. The response to this is not “because students can create stuff” or “students can interact”. The answers need to go deeper, why is creating stuff in this particular way, with a particular tool, better (or worse) than this other way? Why is interacting through this app, better (or worse) than through this platform? For me, the worst kind of educational sales pitches prioritise words such as “innovative, engaging, fun”. The absolute worst are those which talk about learning styles… but that’s a whole other argument.

I think BETT can actually be a very useful day for so many people. The discussions that educators have with tech suppliers can spark ideas, thinking about tools to be used in new ways, enabling educators to voice their perspective (particularly for start-ups). This is the point that Gary Henderson makes in his blog post: “underwhelmed, but admittedly useful.” For me, I was exploring the potential of some platforms to go beyond what they normally offer. This edges into the territory of big promises based on loose conversations, but actually the process of learning about what features a platform can offer and how they can be adapted for a particular use case is what makes learning technologists tick. It’s not always about a new feature, or a new package of development, as long as the user experience and learning is not compromised unduly by the technology.

Development win

I didn’t make any of the talks I wanted to, apart from one which was unfortunately a badly disguised sales pitch that I admit I had to walk out of, but I did make a hands-on session that made the day for me. The big three (Microsoft, Google, Adobe) had the full force of their training department on hand with ‘real educators’ (always good to have the experience there). These are where the nuggets are found for me. A few minutes on these stands and you get a better sense of how everything is supposed to work together than you would watching YouTube videos on individual tools.

Screenshot of Adobe Premiere Pro 360 editing
Adobe Training at BETT 2020 – 360 video editing

I’ve been playing with 360 degree video and whilst the technical how-to is easy to come by, it is the experience of what and why use such media that I was pleased I got out of BETT. Led by @BeckStewart_ I found the key buttons to get going with 360 video in Adobe Premiere Pro, discovered what ‘Ambisonics’ meant, why curving text is needed, but also got a glimpse of why 360 video has a different type of storyboarding and narrative. 25 minutes of CPD for me well spent.

Final thoughts

My BETT 2020 badge

I get the sense now that educational institutions are more savvy to what educational technology can offer, and in some respects suppliers have upped their game. It was pleasing to see through the windows of some talks that evaluation frameworks were being shared and there was much interest in educational technology strategy. #edtech is becoming part of the norm of educational leadership. At BETT there was still enough there to keep the mavericks and pioneers excited, and I think also the maturity of cloud-based platforms to reassure the risk averse too. I was surprised to see some international names sharing the same stand where they have well-integrated API offerings. There is a sense that edtech companies appreciate each other’s strengths and to be competitive means you have to be collaborative.

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