Sunday, January 16, 2011

A good BETT

Each year I go to Learning Technologies and see the posters for BETT and curse that I've missed what is billed as "Europe's biggest educational technology event". Given what drags me to Olympia every January, I've always suspected that something at BETT would interest me too, so I swear to myself that I will go and renew that vow a year later, as I walk to LT20xx and respy the next round of forgotten posters...

But this year, reminded of BETT by the somewhat smaller BETTr conference being run by Bristol's Matt Jukes (more on this to follow), I actually got my act together and managed to attend. And wow! Glad I did.

Though the terms learning technology and educational technology may sound like synonyms, the difference is that educational technology means all the technology in schools, so the remit is very much larger. Adobe is the big ticket brand at LT; at BETT it's the likes of Dell and Microsoft. Around this nucleus of very large companies aiming to sell their hardware and software to heads and education chiefs are hundreds of companies competing with their software aimed at K12 and schools management; science education and ABCs; projectors and milling machines - simply if it's got wires or needs wires and it might end in a school, it'll be there.

So this of course means that the vast majority of what is there is of little interest to corporate L&D types. But a fraction of something that big still constitutes a fair amount and in my position, working for a company with a primary focus in ILT, the classroom presentation hardware was a primary draw.

Based on what I saw, here are a couple of observations:

Visualizers - the overblown and fancy brothers of the humble webcam - have dropped in price substantially in the last couple of year - basic models are now comfortably under £300 and even top featured ones are in the region of a grand. This is a lot less than the few I saw a couple of years ago at WOLCE. Interestingly, a lot of the competition seems to be from Chinese companies now looking to sell direct under their own names rather than regionless rebrands as you find with consumer electronics in supermarkets.

If you want to add live product demos to your online seminar or VoIP conference, or to shoot clear video of items for elearning, you'd do a lot worse than to look in to this technology.

  • Example - ELMO helpful bods, established model range and good usability.

Projectors - you might hate the presentation, but I'm sure your company colleagues still love 'em. There has been development here too. "Ultra short throw" projectors are more common, so no more straying in front of the screen only to have your retinas scorched by the 800W bulb shining directly at you. Fixed projectors now need be no more than a foot or two away from the wall, directly above the screen so that there is no risk of your shadow ruining the view - a whole lot easier than having to organise back projection.
  • Example -  Hitachi seemed to the one recommended

Interactive whiteboards - still not sold on these. I've seen two or three of these at companies but never seen them actually used. The principle innovation here is that there are now a couple such devices that do not require an expensive hardware whiteboard - advances with some projectors can use light pens and do what whiteboards do on any old surface. Actually, you can even do this yourself with a regular projector if you are more creatively minded, as this 2008 TED story demonstrates (details here).

Audience participation devices AKA the ask-the-audience gadget have been around for a few years now. Not sure that I saw much development here but I still would like to see these used more often. Never had a chance to develop a course to take advantage, but I do feel that they could offer some of our tutors a boost when trying to gauge understanding on some of our intense courses, especially when dealing with mixed-cultural groups who may not all get stuck in with pushier British students, or where language barriers mean reading a question might be easier than simply hearing it.
  • Example - Quizdom have been doing this longer than most.

Classroom furniture may not be a big issue to you, but we at my company have been thinking about how to make computers available in our learning labs in a way that would not take up space for other activities, and sure enough, BETT threw up a couple in interesting solutions I hadn't seen before. Where, in my experience at least, corporate training often seems to go for a clear elearning or ILT distinction, K-12 education is far more likely to use PCs in an ILT setting for moments of self directed learning, so little PC islands that squeeze a lot of computers in to a small space, or desks that conceal IT equipment within are potentially very useful. We've identified a definite case for something like this when we rebuild our training centre in the next couple of years.

Okay, so probably not a great revelation to you if you are still regularly engaged in ILT, but these were new to me, and I suspect that I would struggle to see anything like the range on display at a purely L&D event as they simply aren't what the majority of the market are interested in.
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