Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Some green shoots at BETT

For me, BETT 09 at Olympia (14th-17th January) was encouraging. There seemed to be an air of optimism which was at odds with the daily depressing and gloomy news about the global economy. And this was underpinned by some genuinely exciting developments in educational technology.

The event started well with a reassuring speech by 'the minister' which included a specific reference to the use in the classroom of a visualiser. After so many years when the 'educational establishment' has doggedly avoided supporting the most enabling tool that any teacher could wish for, this was a truly remarkable landmark. I spent the rest of the first day being amused by the extraordinary lengths manufacturers of interactive whiteboards have gone to, to overcome some of the obvious and always inherent problems with the technology. Most of these deal with problems of 'shadow' and 'reach'. Just what would we do without ultra-short-throw projectors mounted on poles above boards which move up and down? Well, actually, the same things we have done for years when the same people sold us boards without these 'enhancements'. I guess when a market reaches saturation you have to come up with something new to start all over again. It just seems a bit odd, and rather shameless, to sell new products on the basis of what was wrong with the old ones you sold before!

Now on to the good stuff. RM made a spirited first attempt to create some new flexible learning spaces within their own space at Olympia 2. Although I was totally under-whelmed by much of it, lurking in the far corner was without doubt one of the most exciting teaching and learning aids I have encountered, produced by Amazing Interactives. We donned the special glasses and watched with open mouthed amazement as a beating human heart lept out of the screen in front of us. The cut-away view and the flow of blood through the heart were truly captivating. As someone who struggled for years with home-made polarising acetate filters for OHPs, and then later with 2-D computer simulations, to try and get this science across to demanding teenagers, I wanted to wave a magic wand and give this to every science teacher in the country. I suspect the software development costs will remain very high for some time to come, even if we could afford the 3-D projections systems in our 'schools of the future'.

Something else that popped up in several places by at least three companies was spatial recognition technology using sensors to respond to body movements against a projected image. With a mini-football pitch projected onto the ground, you can then kick the projected ball about with your feet, or walk across some ice which appears to break under your weight! Check out OMi's website - there is a video shot in a shopping centre. Also check out SpaceKraft and Avantis. The Avantis system was vertical and the image could be controlled by hand movements away from the screen, wherever the sensors were positioned. Very good for working with a whole class where you don't want anyone to get in the way of the image.

I guess it would be churlish of me, and a little disingenuous, if I didn't at least acknowledge Microsoft's Surface. I loved it, actually. It wasn't immediately obvious to me what teaching and learning problems it was solving but I expect there will be no shortage of people putting them in to classrooms to find out.

I had a good look at Intel's new classmate with built-in and swivel-over touch screen turning it into a mini tablet PC. Very portable and neat, but very small screen. Children in the future are bound to have access to web browsers on a multitude of small portable devices but it's in schools that we can give them big screens to look at. The big display still has that 'wow!' factor because it's easier to see things on it.

OK, those are my green shoots for this year. I probably missed something cool, but I did my best! I should mention that my primary colleagues of course are still swooning over the latest from 2Simple - 2DIY.