The BETT educational technology show is by far the greatest ICT in-service training event of the year - and it's free. So says Alastair Wells, head of ICT at The Netherhall School in Cambridge and a regular BETT attendee.
"BETT is many things to many people," he adds. "As a technology showcase it encompasses the worlds of education and ICT, from teaching and learning to continued professional development. It's a chance to engage in innovation and develop a good understanding of ICT initiatives and good practice."
He adds that, at this year's show at Olympia, London, teachers can find the best in software and hardware for teaching, management, assessment and special needs. They can also explore developments like networking, e-learning and online courses. He concludes: "It's great to be able to talk to equipment experts, designers and hardware and software manufacturers about their latest developments."
It is the continuation of a journey. That is how Nigel Ward, managing director of Granada Learning, sees the current progress of ICT in schools.
Visitors to BETT 2004 can see just how far schools have come - and how much further there is to go.
The National Grid for Learning (NGFL) saw the government provide vast amounts of funding for ICT infrastructure in schools and it has achieved most of its aims. The Department for Education and Skills' (DfES) latest statistics for England show that the computer-to-pupil ratio in primary schools fell from almost 1:18 in 1998 to 1:8 in 2002. For secondary schools, the figures are 1:9 and 1:7 respectively. Almost every school is now connected to the internet and more than a quarter of primaries and almost 9 out of 10 secondaries are said to have a broadband internet connection.
Putting technology into schools is one thing. Making effective use of it is another. The Government's successor department to the NGFL, ICT in Schools, marked a radical shift in focus, with more emphasis on using ICT to enhance teaching, learning, management and administration. In some schools these aims are well on the way to being achieved. However, in many, ICT is still a bolt-on activity, partly through lack of resources, partly through lack of teacher confidence but also because the current examination and assessment systems do not encourage its widespread use.
With the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) undergoing a radical change this year, from a reactive organisation to a proactive one, with greater influence on government ICT policy, this picture could change.
The education secretary Charles Clarke is keen to see schools "embed" ICT into the curriculum, placing it at the heart of teaching and learning rather than on the periphery. Nigel Ward agrees: "ICT has embedded faster as a management and administration tool. The next step is embedding it in the curriculum and classroom practice." But some warn the rush to embed ICT has its dangers and that, to be effective, it must be carefully managed (see Edict, p8).
One of the most obvious benefits of ICT has been to help reduce workload in preparation and administration, says David Burrows, Microsoft's education group manager. But he adds: "While there has been pleasing progress in the pupil-to-PC ratio, the aim remains to achieve a one-to-one ratio. And how many staff are confident and competent users of ICT?" The DfES's figures suggest that 87 per cent of primary and 82 per cent of secondary teachers feel confident about ICT, but Nigel Ward believes the challenge is:
"Getting the professionals to be more accepting of ICT and being more confident with it. It means having the training opportunities to become more aware of the possibilities ICT offers, for example in delivering blended learning." Sharing self-made resources and good practice can help encourage teachers to explore the use of ICT and, at BETT, Microsoft will be promoting its teacher online communities, the Education Community and Innovative Teachers.
Visitors will be able to see many new and interesting developments, including a higher profile for learning environments (virtual learning environments or VLEs), online systems for delivering digital content and then tracking, assessing and recording pupil progress. RM, Microsoft, Ramesys, Granada Learning, Netmedia Education and Digital Brain will be showing various versions. The growth of broadband in home and school has seen the rise of online services and communities, many designed to strengthen home school links, such as those offered by Juniors and Vektor.
According to the latest research from the British Educational Suppliers Association (Besa), the number of schools with interactive whiteboards has increased rapidly. In 2001, just 13 per cent of primary schools had these tools, but Besa forecasts that during 2004 the figure will reach 74 per cent for primaries and 93 per cent for secondaries. Many companies will be showing interactive whiteboard products, including Hitachi, Promethean, Polyvision, RM, the Interactive Whiteboard Company and Interactive Technologies (formerly DisplayMate). It's easy to see the interactive whiteboards as just high-tech replacements for the blackboard, but Nigel Ward says their impact is more radical than that: "They represent a new learning paradigm where you now have whole-class interactive learning."
Wireless networking is bound to feature strongly at BETT and Professor Stephen Heppell, director of the Ultralab educational research centre at Anglia Polytechnic University, says: "Any school not looking at wireless networking is in for a shock, as children are going to expect to be able to access ICT from almost anywhere in a school." An ideal wireless network companion is the Tablet PC, and software such as The Skills Factory (designed for lesson planning and record keeping) fits well with these devices.
Many schools may have broadband, but bottlenecks still occur when a group of learners wants to go online. Web caching products allow schools to store vast amounts of web content on a school network for quick and easy access, and companies such as RM, Avantis and Freedom2Cache will have these on show. Also expect to hear the mantra of open source and open standards, with more products using the Linux operating system and internet standards.
Broadcasters will be out in force at this year's BETT. Granada Learning's stand, for instance, will be home to many software companies.
The BBC plans to launch its Digital Curriculum in 2006, but meanwhile BBC World and the Open University are launching a new online professional development service at BETT for primary and secondary school teachers. The new service, Teach and Learn.Net, has Professors Tim Brighouse and Ted Wragg on its advisory board and provides materials and support for most areas of the curriculum. Channel 4's 4Learning will be showing a new range of TV-Roms (CD-Roms with TV footage), as well as introducing two new online subscription services for 14 to 19-year-olds, GCSEASE, designed for students taking applied GCSE, and Life Stuff, which focuses on citizenship, PHSE and career guidance.
One of the highlights at BETT is the vast range of software on offer.
Companies such as Sherston, 2Simple, Crick Software, Softease, Sunflower Learning, Neptune, Dolphin, Sibelius, Indigo Learning and Topologika have new and innovative products on their stands, while Apple will be showing its range of software and tools designed for digital video work in the classroom. Truancy Call and Langtree Skills Centre will be demonstrating systems that alert parents by email or text messaging when their child has an unexplained absence, and Sony's stand will be showing how its robotic dog Aibo is helping children develop their programming skills.
This year's BETT will certainly provide teachers with plenty of food for thought, and Alastair Wells has a piece of advice for anyone planning to attend. "BETT is massive and it covers the whole curriculum and all age ranges. So try and plan for more than a day's visit - it's well worth the time."
4Learning D42 www.channel4.comlearning
Crick Software SN14
Digital Brain H61
Granada Learning E40
Indigo Learning M35 www.indigolearning.com
Interactive Technologies Q43 www.displaymate.co.uk
Interactive Whiteboard Co Q40 www.iwb.co.uk
Langtree Skills Centre Z30 www.alerts-sch.co.uk
Microsoft D34 www.microsoft.comukeducation
NetMedia Education E11
Sunflower Learning Q34 www.sunflowerlearning.com
The Skills Factory (see Granada Learning)
Topologika Software B40 www.topologika.co.uk
Truancy Call G71