It's not too fanciful to describe visitors to the British Educational and Training Technology Show (BETT 96) as pilgrims. From January 10 to 13 more than 18,000 of them will converge on that most unlikely of holy shrines, the National Hall at Olympia, to have their faith reaffirmed and to witness miracles, albeit of the technological kind.
The 300 or so exhibitors will be ready to oblige: a packed programme of seminars and keynote speeches will underline the funda-mental role information technology now has in education; and, in his opening speech, Robin Squire, Under Secretary of State in the Department for Education and Employment, will doubtless hope to grab a headline or two with an announcement as important as Gillian Shephard's undertaking at last year's show to provide "superhighways for education".
Education's information technology evangelists have always been a curiously optimistic crowd, and those at BETT 96 will have particular reason to be so. A faith which might have seemed eccentric at the first BETT show 12 long years ago is now readily being embraced by all and sundry.
Not only is the Government pledged to support the expansion of IT in schools, but Tony Blair wowed the Labour party conference with visions of the nation's young folk clutching laptops as they roared down the fast lane of the superhighway - new Labour, new technology and a new Jerusalem.
A string of surveys reveals that parents anxious about their children's education are placing an almost child-like faith in the power of the computer. It accounts for the proliferation of educational CD-Roms aimed not at schools but at parents who increasingly appreciate that it isn't only schools which can deliver the curriculum. Indeed, many of the sophisticated multimedia packages on show at BETT 96 could actually be of more value in the home where children can work on their own, undisturbed by bells or pals.
It's significant that this year will be the first occasion that parents are invited to BETT. It will be the first time, too, for Learning for Life with Technology (LIFT), an independent organisation set up specifically to address the opportunities and problems that will arise as a result of this new partnership between home and school.
Problems there undoubtedly will be as schools struggle to meet parents' high, and perhaps unrealistic, expectations. As the Office for Standards in Education will surely report in its seminar on Thursday, only 34 per cent of secondary teachers and 56 per cent of those in primary schools use computers regularly in their lessons. The others won't unless there are enough resources - and resources that don't appear to require a PhD in gobbledygook to operate. More than ever, school managers at this year's BETT are going to demand equipment that is genuinely easy to use and which offers value for money.
It would have seemed risible even a year or two ago to suggest that the intimidating world of the Internet met either criterion. But now user-friendly software brings it within reach of even the technically challenged. Phone bills and subscription fees are hefty but they do offer access to a virtually limitless range of resources which don't cost a penny.
Rumours of Apple and Acorn joining with Research Machines to provide what would be a uniquely attractive Internet service for schools might be confirmed at the show.
RM, of course, has already established itself as a leading Internet provider and it is fitting that the company should be hosting a feature new to this year's show - the Net@Bett. Here visitors will be able to explore the Internet for themselves, and put a plethora of new products through their paces.
Almost as important as the software are those free World Wide Web sites that offer teachers short cuts to relevant materials. RM offers one of the best, but among others Topologika, QM and Norfolk's Inspection, Advice and Training Services will be at the show to introduce visitors to their schools-oriented Web sites.
BT's CampusWorld will hope to recruit subscribers by reminding them of the wealth of experience that it built up over the years when its precursor, Campus 2000, was the only e-mail service tailored for schools. DIALnet, too, has a special status in almost half of the secondary schools in the United Kingdom who already use the company's communication systems to transfer examination data.
DIALnet is using the show to announce a new Internet service that is inexpensive, and, like RM, offers subscribers the opportunity to have their very own pages on the World Wide Web for no extra cost. Authoring the pages - writing "HTML", to use the jargon - need not be a problem. Acorn is launching a product that makes it easy to do so on its machines. More significantly, the industry giant, Adobe, will be attending BETT for the first time to present Pagemill, a package which promises to make html authoring for Mac and Windows as easy as knocking out a page on a word processor.
The Net@Bett heralds a world in which the network will be supreme and the idiosyncrasies of a particular operating system will be less important. The differences are already being eroded. Apple and Acorn both offer machines that can run PC software.
Acorn and RM will, of course, slog it out at BETT 96, but, then, BETT wouldn't be BETT without the clash of these two titans, with Mac users watching from the sidelines, puzzled over how they could both have got it so wrong.
All three promise that no one need feel irrevocably committed to any one platform. Furthermore, they all offer a networking system that can accommodate the others' machines. Different products will help to blur the differences. Schools Direct, for instance, will launch a clever little program that enables Acorn machines to read a range of Windows CD-Roms.
TAG Developments will be showing off Hyperstudio, an ingenious package which allows multimedia "essays" authored on one platform to be played on any other regardless of whether it has HyperStudio software installed. So the National Council for Educational Technology, for example, can use it to publish the winning entries in its schools' multimedia competition, although the material will originally have been authored in a variety of formats. This welcome trend towards greater cross-platform compatibility dramatically increases the range of choices open to teachers - and the difficulty of ever coming to a decision.
Should they go for Apple or a PC from RM, Novell, IBM, ICL or the long list of other suppliers touting their wares at the show? Should they remain faithful to Acorn's Risc OS, when the almighty Microsoft will be at BETT, demonstrating the wonders of Windows 95, its new Internet link, and some outstanding CD-Roms, and introducing teachers to the Road Ahead Foundation.
This charity, set up by Microsoft's founder, Bill Gates, has ambitious plans to digitise libraries, create virtual field trips, forge international networks of schools and dish out prizes for successful educational projects.
For many teachers the determining factor could well be the quality of support on offer; they will want a "one-stop solution", a single supplier who will provide everything from hardware to training.
Acorn promises nothing less. After a traumatic restructuring, it will come to BETT with a new name, Acorn Education, and a new marketing strategy.
It will now sell directly to schools, not only its machines, but also the enviable list of educational titles created by the clutch of small software houses whose fate is inextricably linked with that of Acorn. In a remarkable about-turn, Acorn will also supply what it coyly describes as "industry standard solutions": it still can't quite bring itself to say the "W" word. RM, too, claims to be able to meet all a school's IT requirements. It has a range of products which successfully tailor the sophistications of the modern office to the quite different demands of the classroom.
The company will be featuring the award-winning Window Box software and the latest additions to the awesome SuccessMaker. This is the American "integrated learning system" (ILS) which could ultimately prove to have as much impact on British schools as the long-awaited superhighway. Much will depend on the findings of the NCET's pilot study into ILS in selected British schools. The final report will be available at BETT.
If the report is favourable and catches the imagination of the teaching profession, parents and politicians, it might not be long before a generation of children will be learning the basics at school as well as at home, using ILS, and fashioning a curriculum of their own from their forays on the Internet.
For now, it's business as usual at Olympia with enough products being launched to make the pilgrimage worthwhile. Of course, finding the money to buy any of them is another matter. For many teachers that will require a miracle every bit as remarkable as those they will have come to see at BETT 96.
* BETT 96 is organised by EMAP Education and sponsored by Educational Computing Technology magazine and the British Educational Suppliers Association, in associationwith The TES