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Looking for the future

George Cole reports back on what he discovered at this year's BETT show

Someone once said that the future has a nasty habit of sneaking up behind you and catching you unawares. And it's true. What we can learn from the history of ICT in schools is that it's very easy to follow a trend only to end up in a blind alley. Conversely, a technology that wasn't even on the radar can end up taking centre-stage, as was the case with the internet.

History has also shown that predicting the imminent demise of technologies is fraught with danger - Jmany thought that the arrival of the internet and DVD-Roms would kill off the CD-Rom for example, but the format is still going strong.

I had these thoughts in mind as I toured this year's BETT education technology show in search of signs for the next big step in educational technology. There were many interesting things to see, but most were simply enhancements or refinements of existing products or technologies, such as interactive whiteboards. But now and again, something would catch my eye.

On RM's stand, for example, the company was showing a prototype smartcard that could be used as an automatic registration or payment system. It contained a chip that could be used to store personal information, including biometric data like a fingerprint pattern. It could also store electronic payments, which could be debited every time we made a purchase with the card. Staff and students could use a smartcard like this for paying for school lunch or buying something from a vending machine.

RM also showed how biometric systems could be used for logging on to a computer, which could be equipped with a mouse that had a built-in fingerprint reader or a retinal scanner - impressive stuff. However, as RM explained, the current system could only be used on standalone machines and not on a network, suggesting that it would probably be used by staff needing to access workstations.

Meanwhile, Vericool was demonstrating its fingertip registration system, which is being piloted by Impington Village College in Cambridgeshire. It uses a miniature scanner which reads the pupil's fingertip. If a child misses a registration, a text message or email can be automatically sent to the parents. It's a sign of the times how little noise is made about the use of biometrics and civil liberties these days and it seems likely that this technology will find its way into schools over the coming years.

Quite a few companies are offering systems that exploit mobile phone technology, but sadly, almost all seem to be designed to simply text messages to parents warning them that their children are absent or for children to report bullying to someone in authority. These are all laudable uses, but as educational consultant Russell Prue noted in a presentation at BETT, few schools are taking advantage of the powerful computing and communication technology that most children now routinely carry around in their pockets or bags.

RM also showed the future for Tablet PCs, which are getting smaller, sleeker, faster and can now have wide-view screens (known at RM as StudyBuddy). The new RM Discovery Tablet has a 12-inch screen, 40Gb hard drive and, naturally, uses wireless technology (review in next Online, May 6). It also comes with a snazzy stand memorable of Apple's smart designs.

Speaking of which, Apple's stand generated a lot of interest with its new iPod Shuffle (left), 512Mb and 1Gb USB-based music players. If you don't want to use all the storage capacity for music, you can use the iPod Shuffle to store documents or other files. The Mac Mini is basically a very small, but perfectly formed Mac that can be connected to any standard keyboard, mouse and monitor. It also contains the iLife suite of multimedia tools, like iTunes and iMovie. Neither of Apple's products is particularly futuristic, but they do reflect a trend towards smaller ICT hardware - and a possible revival of Apple's fortunes.

One of the best places to see the possible future of ICT in education was at Nesta Futurelab's stand, which displayed a number of working prototypes.

I particularly liked Moovl, an interactive drawing tool that allows pupils to create animated drawings, with objects moving as they would in the real world. The potential for Moovl as a teaching and learning tool is immense and points the way for the next big leap in interactive multimedia in the classroom.

Another exciting development is Augmented Reality. The BBC has been testing this technology with a system that uses a whiteboard, webcam and special 3D software to create holographic-like images. The BBC's system was used to describe the relationship between the sun, moon and earth, which appear as "solid" objects on the whiteboard. As someone who remembers teaching eclipses with a torch, football and tennis ball, I can instantly see the attractions of using augmented reality in the classroom. It's definitely a technology to watch out for.

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