Few would disagree with Heather Rabbats, managing director of 4Learning, who says: "The education landscape is very complicated." Since the last BETT educational technology show, Charles Clarke (expected at BETT on Thursday) has become the new education secretary and it remains to be seen how his vision will shape the future of ICT in schools. In the past five years, ICT in education has been racing off in all directions.
In some cases, schools have been led up a blind alley, but other routes are changing teaching and learning profoundly. Ray Fleming, RM's customer manager, says: "BETT is at a crossing point. In the last five years we've seen a massive investment in infrastructure. This year, there has been a big leap in the use of interactive whiteboards and laptops. It's a different way of using ICT." According to a survey by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), some 40 per cent of schools now use interactive whiteboards, so it's no surprise that companies such as RM, Hitachi and Interactive Whiteboards will be busily promoting these products.
The biggest trends in ICT in education can be summarised in four words: content, connectivity, communities and creativity. The Curriculum Online (COL) portal, designed to be a showcase for educational digital content, has put the focus on content development and the pound;50 million of electronic learning credits ring-fenced for COL has had a galvanising effect on the content and publishing industries. David Eccles, director of strategic development at Softease, says: "We'll see more impact from publishers, who are investing even more in educational content thanks to Curriculum Online." Companies such as Pearson, Longman, Heinemann and Nelson Thornes are showing many CD-Rom and online resources at BETT and broadcasters like the BBC, Granada and Channel 4 will also have a high profile.
Curriculum Online's launch was postponed and it is to be hoped that schools will have a clearer idea of when it will arrive by the time BETT opens. Likewise, the government's decision on whether the BBC can go ahead with its planned Digital Curriculum of free online resources may also be known by then. The education software industry is consolidating as smaller companies are taken over by larger ones, but there is still a thriving community of smaller companies, many of which will be at BETT. We are also seeing greater co-operation between software companies, as witnessed by the joint venture between Softease and Sherston to develop Infant Toolbox, a new software package aimed at 4 to 7-year-olds.
A lot of noise has been made about wireless networking, but according to BESA's survey, only 18 per of secondary and 9 per cent of primary schools have wireless networks. But Marvin Douglas, education sales manager for Portable Communications, says that more and more schools are discovering the benefits of going wireless. And to prove the point, Portable Communications' stand will consist of a mock-up of Thistley Meadow primary school in Leicester, which is using a wireless network, even in its temporary classrooms. "It allows teachers to remain connected to the network anywhere in the school," says Marvin Douglas.
The move to wireless could be accelerated by the arrival of the tablet PC (pictured left at Millennium Primary School, Greenwich) being demonstrated by companies such as RM, Microsoft and Compaq. Tablet PC supporters say it will usher in a new generation of computing, bringing pen-based computing and wireless connectivity to the fore. Time will tell. BESA says there are now 180,000 laptop PCs in schools, representing around one in eight of all school computers. "There's been a huge increase in teachers using laptops and, what's more, they're using them in so many ways, from lesson preparation to classroom presentation," says Ray Barker, director of BESA Almost all primary and secondary schools are now connected to the internet, although BESA's survey shows that only around 17 per cent of schools have broadband connections. Last November, Tony Blair pledged that all schools would have broadband connections by 2006, and for schools still waiting to make the move up to a faster internet connection, there are some alternative solutions. One of these is caching, or storing bandwidth-hungry content (like video) on a local server and distributing it over the school network.
Pearson is launching Knowledge Box, a server that contains 1,500 digital resources. Espresso Education already delivers multimedia content to more than 1,000 schools via satellite and broadband connections. Lewis Bronze, managing director of Espresso Education, says the time is right for rich multimedia content: "Schools and LEAs have invested in broadband and now they're looking for content that will see them getting a return on investment." Netcradle is launching Juniors, 80 interactive e-lessons for key stage 2, which include downloadable worksheets and assessment and reporting facilities.
CD-Roms and DVD-Roms also allow schools to use video on a network without resorting to broadband. 4Learning's TV-Roms, for example, are CD-Roms that include video footage from TV programmes: "While there's a confusing picture over broadband, a disc that allows you to show rich content on an interactive whiteboard or across a school network will have lots of appeal to schools," says Heather Rabbats.
Greater connectivity is boosting the creation of online communities. BT Education's Learning Stream service is designed to help schools, libraries and other institutions to forge high-speed links with each other. Intuitive Media will be showcasing some of its online products including GridClub and Schoolnet Global. Managed learning environments and virtual learning environments are electronic and online systems for delivering multimedia content, student tracking and assessment systems. MLEs and VLEs have taken off in higher education and many believe that schools will also start using them soon. One of the first to look out for at BETT is Granada Learning's LearnWise.
Stephen Heppell, director of Anglia Polytechnic University's Ultralab centre, says: "Kids are putting down their office tools and picking up tools like Macromedia Flash" (Macromedia is offering schools an MX School Site Licence, which involves paying a single fee to use its Studio MX software package). There has also been an upsurge in schools using digital cameras and digital video. At BETT, Apple, Film Education and the Ultralab will be repeating last year's highly successful workshops, which allow students to experiment and create with digital video.
ICT is also being used to make life easier for teachers. David Burrows, head of Microsoft's education group, says this year his company will "take teachers on a journey that will show how ICT can help in learning, administration, planning, teacher training and more". The Skills Factory, will be unveiling Early Years, a plug-in to the company's Curriculum Complete planning and recording keeping software designed to save teachers time.
Several major issues remain, including the cost of investing in ICT. Owen Lynch, chief executive of BECTA (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency), says: "There's a difference between sustainability and total cost of ownership. You can sustain something at a ridiculous price."
The e-Learning Foundation will be publishing a disturbing report, Access Denied, which shows that while 40 per cent of pupils don't have a computer at home, only 5 per cent of schools make their ICT resources available outside school hours. Valerie Thompson, chief executive of the e-Learning Foundation, says: "We have to realise that learning is a 24-7 process and schools will need to greatly improve access."
Many will be wondering what happens after NOF training and Microsoft plans to launch a training programme at BETT. Aston Swann will also be launching the European Computer Driving Licence package for teachers.
With so many issues to be resolved, it's easy to forget how far ICT in education has come during the past few years. As Nigel Ward, managing director of Granada Learning, points out: "When you look at what other countries are doing in this area, we are ahead of the pack." This isn't to be complacent, but simply to point out that there are many great things being done in classrooms today with ICT. And at this year's BETT, we'll all have a chance to see many of them.
George Cole is a freelance writer and former science teacher