This time last year, my colleague Sylvia blogged about her experience as a first-timer at the annual BETT Show. Another year, another Nesta newcomer: this year it was my turn to be initiated into the sector at “the world’s leading education technology event”.
It was as overwhelming as I’d feared - hundreds of companies flogging their wares to school procurement specialists with multi-million pound budgets. It has everything a school needs, from interactive whiteboards to CCTV and from robots to classroom furniture.
Sylvia argued last year that BETT’s biggest shortcoming was that it was reserved for the experts, but I’m not sure I agree. BETT is made for people whose job is to buy stuff for schools; it’s encouraging that teachers take a keen interest, but these procurement decisions aren’t for individual educators to make. On a personal level, apart from some obscure acronyms and incomprehensible jargon, I didn’t feel like an “outsider” at any point. I understood most of what I saw and met interesting, friendly people.
Nevertheless, despite not agreeing with Sylvia on its exclusivity, a number of other issues struck me at BETT. Here are four which stood out most markedly - none of them new, but all worth repeating.
A crowded and competitive market is obviously good for schools. From robots to classroom appliances, from data management systems to aural and visual technology, there’s a number of competing companies looking for schools’ custom.
But such a market only works if it is navigable - if schools can easily compare different products for their impact and value for money and work out what best suits their needs. This isn’t helped by the confusing layout of a trade show in an aircraft hangar-sized room, where one minute you can be looking at a great innovation supporting SEN kids and the next be getting an elevator pitch on cashless card systems. There’s no Which? for edtech - and we’re not talking about buying microwaves and TVs, but about a multi-million pound industry which will have a profound effect on current and future generations of young people.
BETT is a trade show. The exhibitors would be mad to do anything but sing the praises of their products - “transformational”, “revolutionary”, “you’ll never look back”, “how did you cope without it?”. And they’re right that the potential of edtech is huge, but only if that means lots of technologies being used together, and being used well.
One edtech purchase does not a revolution make
More worryingly, I saw some things which seemed to want to do away with teachers entirely, like pre-packaged classes. As we have long argued, technology should support excellent teachers to improve outcomes for their pupils and/or make life easier for them, their pupils, school management or parents. Many businesses want their product alone to transform education, but teachers - as our research has shown - want those products to make incremental changes to support their work.
Nesta’s work on edtech has centred on evidence-based research and on encouraging practitioners to use evidence better in their work. As we’ve argued several times, technology is only a good thing if it is the right technology, used well. Procurement specialists need better information about what works, what doesn’t, and what might have a negative effect, and teachers need instruction about how to make the most of edtech.
But the sector is still reluctant to put evidence of impact at its centre. When I spoke to people about how important this was to us, the response more often than not was a bemused look, or a gut instinct that the product was effective.
This isn’t a problem specific to the education sector - no one wants to think their product might not be making an impact or, even worse, having a negative impact. But without using better and more evidence we will continue along the trend we have seen so far: a trend of schools spending £1bn on edtech in five years with little demonstrable improvement in outcomes. It is essential that businesses understand the importance of measuring impact, and that consumers demand it from businesses.
The layout of BETT is telling: in the middle of the convention hall, the giants of edtech, with their meeting rooms and coffee bars; around the outside, the smaller companies, with their metal-framed stalls and trestle tables. BETT Futures - perhaps the most interesting zone, reserved for startups - is in the far corner.
The message is clear: this is not an easy sector to disrupt or infiltrate.
That being said, it was great to see Microsoft welcoming partners into its space in the centre of the hall or for Arbor Education, one of our investees, to be on a stand with XMA. But if we want real disruption, real competition and real choice for schools, we’ll have to find a way of helping small, innovative startups to reach schools more easily and grow their operations.
BETT was something of a baptism of fire for me. It was a great introduction to see some of the great things (and some of the less great things) going on in the world of education today. It’s an essential fixture in the calendar and a great opportunity for businesses and schools to meet each other. I hope it leads to meaningful conversations about the direction of travel in education, rather than being just a supermarket for cash-strapped schools.
Image credit: Lucélia Ribeiro via Flickr