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Picking the best of the BETT bunch

It was big and jam-packed with educational innovations. George Cole picks out some of the highlights from last month's BETT 2002 show in London

The school of the future will look like a cross between a modern airport and an open plan office. Classrooms will be full of computers, flat-screen displays, interactive whiteboards and other associated high-tech equipment. Little wonder that one delegate attending this year's BETT educational technology show in London earlier this month described the vision as "Lara Croft goes to school". And no surprise that one television news report compared the vision of the future with a school of today that had to cope with leaking roofs and out-of-date books.

The school of the future was a short video clip that preceeded the keynote speech by education secretary Estelle Morris. To be fair to Ms Morris, she did say that showing the video was risky, but added that elements of this future vision were in some schools today. The video did at least show teachers still teaching and computers living alongside books, but what it didn't show was how tomorrow's curriculum and assessment systems had adapted to the widespread use of information and communications technology (ICT) in schools.

In a short press conference after her speech, Ms Morris said little to rebut the view of some teachers that ICT is simply about putting more technology into classrooms. Until we see some fundamental changes in both curriculum and assessment, many teachers will continue to see ICT as little more than a bothersome task that interferes with their teaching. This is a shame because at BETT there were many examples of how ICT is transforming teaching, learning, management and administration in schools, as well as increasing pupil motivation, enhancing creativity, extending research and helping teachers save time.

A good example was the BETT Goes to the Movies stand, co-hosted by Film Education, the British Film Institute, Ultralab, Canon, Promethean and Oracle. In addition to showing students editing digital video clips, the stand also had students from Colbaynes High School in Essex broadcasting live footage produced by schools and arts groups at the show. The students used Apple's iMovie, QTPro and some revolutionary new software, Live Channel, produced by Israeli company Channelstorm. The software opens the way to students using video in new ways and schools being able to broadcast on their internal network and on the Internet.

Estelle Morris commented that now was the time to judge ICT, and one way of doing this is to see how it can help teachers save time on things such as management and administration tasks, research and lesson preparation. Paradigm-ICT's Schoolgrid online service includes CR-Use Plan, which offers a fast and easy way for teaching the literacy hour for Years 2 to 6. Teachers are provided with a variety of resources and short- and medium-term plans, as well as downloadable text files. Essex County Council Learning Services showed Flippi (Folder of Levelled Indicators of Pupil Progress in ICT) a smart flipchart and software system for planning and assessing ICT at key stages 1 and 2. The Skills Factory's Literacy and Numeracy Complete can save teachers lots of time spent on planning and record keeping and has already attracted thousands of users.

The British Education and Communications Technology Agency (Becta) announced a new and expanded National Grid for Learning portal, with a fresh new design. The success of services such as RM's Living Library, Granada Learning's primary-zone and Espresso show that many schools are prepared to pay for commercially-run online services, but there are fears that this could change when the Government's Curriculum Online service is launched this autumn. The pound;50 million DFES project aims to get public and private broadcasters and software companies developing a variety of online resources for schools. But at BETT there was much disquiet over the BBC's plans to provide pound;139 million of free national curriculum online resources for schools, with a broad consensus that the BBC's public service remit should focus on curriculum areas unlikely to be adequately covered by commercial organisations.

The BBC showed some prototype materials for its proposed digital curriculum, including some Year 1 numeracy and Year 5 literacy materials. "We're trying to provide tools that teachers and pupils can use for learning," says Sheilagh Scarborough, BBC's education's primary adviser. Ms Scarborough added that the BBC wanted to work in partnership with commercial companies, even though its content will be free. The concern among commercial companies is that the BBC will eventually become a monopoly supplier for Curriculum Online because most schools will simply opt for free online resources.

John Leighford, RM's chairman, says that the BBC's move "leaves companies like ours to take the risk in investment." Lewis Bronze, Espresso's managing director, is more forthright: "The Government will sell the national curriculum short if one company can decide what content is delivered to schools." At the time of writing, the Government, BBC and commercial companies are in discussions over the future for Curriculum Online. The stark fact is that the government's ambitious plans for a Curriculum Online service that offers schools real choice and diversity, and which encourages competition and innovation, will come to nothing if commercial companies decide it isn't worth supporting Curriculum Online.

On a brighter note, there were many interesting products at this year's BETT, showing that much innovation and development is still being carried out in the education ICT sector. Interactive whiteboards from companies such as Smart Board, Promethean and Hitachi Software Engineering (the latter was shown on the Interactive Whiteboard company's stand) have added a new dimension to teaching and learning, and have spawned software like RM's MathsAlive! and the forthcoming ICTAlive! Companies such as Apple, RM, Sony, Dell and Toshiba had wireless products and solutions, allowing ICT to be used almost anywhere in a school. Netmedia's Interactive Grid for Learning Plus offers lots of tools for developing, managing and distributing online content.

Centerprise had the EZGO, a fully-functional PC little bigger than a paperback book. Microsoft's new XP operating system was featured on many products including, RM's new Window Box XP computers. Toshiba showed a range of laptop PCs with specifications specially designed for schools. including wired and wireless networking and built-in floppy disk and CD-Rom drives. Softease's Textease Branch is a new branching database program that enables pupils to create their own database via a series of yesno questions. The news that Logotron and Widgit have merged was yet another example of the consolidation taking place in educational ICT, but the good news is that there are still many thriving small software houses developing new and exciting educational products. Long may that continue.

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