UPDATED on 14 February 2018
I spent some time at the Bett 2018 show looking at various products and services. In the notes which follow I briefly describe what I saw, and give my first impressions. I looked at the products from the point of view of leadership/management. It’s important to state that in advance because some of the products in themselves may be really good -- but if you have to log into them separately from other things you’re using, then to me that’s a workload issue because it is going to use up valuable time. The question is (and this would be for you to decide rather than me), is the increased benefit (however measured or defined) worth the increased cost?
I looked at several product categories, these being:
Programs and apps
Coding and robotics
A debate to launch Educate.
What I didn’t see.
Coding and robotics
I’ve lumped ‘coding’ and ‘robotics’ together because several products use robotics to teach coding. I saw quite a few robots or robot-related products. Some didn’t look much different from lots of others I’ve seen, and others, designed to teach coding, seemed to me to add an unnecessary layer of complexity.
But I did see a couple of products that impressed me. These are the ones I looked at:
This robot is from an Oslo-based start-up, No Isolation. It’s what they call a ‘telepresence robot’, designed to enable children with long term illness stay connected with their friends and studies, and attend school remotely. It has cameras and a microphone built in so that the child can see and hear what’s going on, and seems to be light enough for a small child to carry around with them. It’s a way of ensuring that children stuck at home or in hospital are not completely cut off from school and their friends. If the child wishes to be a passive observer rather than a participant in a lesson, they can indicate that with a light on the robot’s head. Also, as the robot doesn’t have a screen, the child at home can see and hear the lesson without being seen, an important consideration if they are ill in bed in their night clothes.
This is an interesting product which is intended to get across coding concepts. It consists of blocks that fit together -- which sounds a bit like Lego, except that different blocks have different functions.
I can see how for younger children this would be fun and exciting and tactile. A couple of other people I spoke to about it were very enthusiastic, and the product is attractive and functional enough to lower the barriers to entry into the world of coding. A glance at the website reveals several exciting-sounding projects, such as the spy kit.
So, if you teach elementary (primary) school children up to, I think, around 8 years old, you should definitely investigate Logiblocs.
The Miro is an emotionally intelligent robot which responds to people and the environment. Stroke it, for example, and it lights up green, and wags its tail. (Anger it and it turns red!)
I was doubtful about it at first, because unlike a live animal it isn’t soft to the touch. But I have to admit that because it gives you instant feedback, like a cat purring, it is strangely satisfying.
You build the Miro yourself, and the kit costs £2000. I understand, however, that they are looking for institutions in which to trial the product.
The Miro was designed according to neurological principles. There is plenty of information on the website about that, should you wish to explore the subject.
I looked at a product called Taco Playbits. To quote from the blurb on the Bett website:
“Welcome to the magic world of TACO Playbits : children can make music, solve number games, learn ABC’s and much more, simply by tapping on the coding Chips with the Smart Wand.”
I have to say, I couldn't see the point of this product at all. Still, I have never taught very young children, so maybe there’s more to it than I realise. The company also produces robots that can be programmed without using a computer. Unfortunately, I wasn’t shown any of these, but they look more promising for teaching coding than the Playbits. Anyway, why not check it out for yourself?
Interactive whiteboards is a product category that seems never to die. I don’t want to say too much about them here, because I’ve been asked to write about touchscreens for a magazine called Teach Secondary. Just to make an observation though: they seem to be getting bigger and have more functionality, in terms of the number of touch points, i.e. the number of hands or pens that can write on the board at the same time. This has now reached 20. So my question is this: how can you get 20 kids on a whiteboard all at the same time? Years ago the UK and the USA entered into an unofficial contest in which each tried to outdo the other in terms of the number of people that could fit into a Mini. I think the record was 16, which was as amazing as it was pointless. Could we be about to enter the 21st century version of that contest: to find out how many kids can write on a whiteboard at the same time?
I saw the following products at the show:
● i3 Technologies
● Genee World
A bit of a mixed bunch here. The screen I looked at is a 20-touch model, which can even cope with children writing on the same side of the board above/below each other. The response time seemed very fast, and the software that comes with the board enables the pupils to collaborate using any hardware, or to all work together on the board. The screen can be split into three, so in theory you could have different pupils or groups working in each section.
A very useful feature of the software is that you can send different work to different kids. You can even put them into groups, without the kids’ knowledge. So for example, you could have a ‘needs help’ group without the stigma attached to being placed on a special table or given different coloured worksheets from the rest of the group. When a pupil makes sufficient progress, the teacher can quietly move him or her to the next group up.
All very good, but here’s where the first example of the ‘mixed bunchness’ comes in. I asked if a record was kept of which groups pupils were in, and when they were moved into a different group. “It would be good to be able to prove that progress had been made”, I said.
The answer was “Oh, that’s a good idea.” They said they would incorporate that feature, but really that should have been there from the start in my opinion, not as an afterthought. Still, better late than never I suppose.
Then I was shown these stools which you can sit on but also use to indicate the right answer in a quiz on the screen. Maybe the people who developed them worked in very small groups, or with incredibly well-behaved kids. And with a huge amount of space at their disposal. I can’t imagine having the room to have 30 kids sitting on these things, or of being able to store them easily. Even if you said you could have five or six stools with the children taking turns, I can imagine cries of “Miss, it’s my turn today!”. But more than any of that, I don’t see why turning a stool over till you get the right answer is better than saying or tapping the answer.
Still, you can investigate for yourself on the company’s website: https://www.i3-technologies.com
I first reviewed Clevertouch whiteboards a few years ago, for a magazine called PC Reviews. They were very good for the time, but now everyone else seems to have caught up. One useful feature is that each teacher can have their own profile, which I think means that if you share a classroom with someone else you don’t have to spend time before the lesson making sure your favourite layout and set of apps is available. Presumably you just log in to your profile.
The software is built in to the screen, and the price of the board includes free upgrades. You can use the apps found on the Clevertouch apps store, which is locked down, or any other apps you like.
As far as the hardware is concerned, you can choose between a 10-touch or a 20-touch board.
Choose between a 4k resolution screen or a High Definition one. Thoughtfully, the company ensures that its software runs on 4K, for which there is a shortage at present. The screens are 10-touch.
Their ProjectFlow software was impressive. You can share the screen to students’ devices, and differentiate between different pupils or groups.
The Nureva product is quite different from the others because you can use their projectors to convert an area into a virtual wall. In principle, you could convert all the walls in a classroom, in effect, to an interactive whiteboard.
The interesting thing is that you may have an area 7 meters wide, but the actual area, via horizontal scrolling, is 60 metres wide. I’ve no idea how you find something in this situation, or how one would cope with different pupils scrolling in opposite directions at the same time. Still, it’s different, and for me brings back the excitement I felt on first seeing an interactive whiteboard 20 years ago.
Sony Vision Exchange
I was impressed by this. The product makes it dead easy to whiz content from one screen to another. I know other products do this too, but the speed at which it worked was noteworthy. You don’t need students to have Sony devices either. Definitely a product to explore.
See a video of Vision Exchange in operation: https://youtu.be/AkmzEK__Mso
The whiteboards from Specktron come as a 75 inch touchscreen or in the form of a projector with a standard whiteboard. That may sound a bit retro, but the point is that you can write on the whiteboard with marker pens -- not an advisable thing to do on a touchscreen! As for bulb life, the projector uses a laser and gives, I was told, around 20 years of use.
You can have two pens being used at once, and it’s a 10-point set-up.
I quite liked the kiosk version. This is basically a display screen, which you can plonk in a communal area of the school as part of its digital signage. I’m not sure why this might be better than having a large TV screen in the communal area, except that I suppose the kiosk could more easily be locked away at night.
Programs and apps
This section is a bit of mixed bag. Here are the products I looked at:
2Simple, who have been producing really innovative and attractive products for young children for years.
Agree Online, which is great for helping kids to become good digital citizens.
Annoto, for annotating YouTube videos and making them accessible within a safe environment.
EasyCorrect, a Microsoft Word plugin for making on-screen marking easier and quicker.
EdWord. A browser-based student marking and feedback environment.
Immersive Interactive, which turns a room into another environment entirely, like Virtual Reality but on steroids.
Matific, an online mathematical games platform based on education research.
Microsoft’s speech to text, which does what it sounds like it does.
Mrs Wordsmith, which is designed help kids learn an essential selection of 10,000 words.
Piota, an app for sending information to parents.
Pobble, an online writing and writing assessment environment.
I love 2Simple's products -- I've been a fan of theirs for years. They have the knack of making even the most abstruse concepts easy to understand and to implement in the primary (elementary) school classroom. Unfortunately, I didn't have a great deal of time when I visited the stand, and I'm not sure whether the few apps I looked at are the latest ones. It doesn't matter: they are all great. I'll outline the ones I saw in a second, but just to say that another good thing is that for a long time now the company has dispensed with CDs etc and now everything (as far as I know) is online in their 'Purple Mash' environment. Anyway, here are the programs I looked at, plus one I'm definitely going to be looking at:
2Blog: This is a good tool to help get kids blogging, and in a safe environment. David Warlick's Class Blogmeister served this purpose well from 2004 and 2016, but is sadly defunct, apart from the fact that you can still find archived blogs there. 2Blog is not free to use (you need a subscription to Purple Mash), but has good functionality. For example, blogs and comments are invisible to the outside world unless the teacher decrees otherwise.
2Chart: A program for creating flowcharts. Easy to use, and a good accompaniment to 2Code, 2Go (a simple Logo programming app) or Logo.
2DIY: This is the one I'll be trying out soon. It's a tool for creating puzzles and quizzes although not, as far as I can see, crosswords or word searches. Still, there's plenty there to be getting on with, like making a jigsaw puzzle from your own pictures. Very nice!
This aims to teach children how to be digital citizens in an enclosed social media environment. If someone makes a nasty comment (which could either be for real, or as part of a made-up activity), the program will intervene with comments along “the word ‘loser’ can be very insulting; are you sure you want to say this?”
There are three roles involved, parties to a conflict, moderators and advisors. The advisors can make suggestions about how an issue might be resolved, and other people in the class can help to choose what they think is the best one.
The aim of the program is to educate rather than control. A future planned development is having the product embedded in products like What’s App.
It looked very good to me, and is quite timely given that, at the time of writing this, Safer Internet Day is just a few days away.
They are also looking for pilot schools, who will get the program, and a bundle of teaching resources, for no cost.
One of the problems associated with directing kids to videos is that we have no control over the comments, some of which can be quite vile. Annoto enables you to embed a video in a walled-off environment, see which parts of the video are most popular, and insert comments linked to a particular instance of the video’s timeline. You can even insert quizzes.
The price is $25 per user per year.
I have also been informed that the product reviewed here is not yet available. It is to be launched in March, and is based on the company's main product, which is described below (but please note that I saw only the not-yet-launched product). Please visit their website (below) for more information.
Annoto widget and Annoto’s interactive timeline is added as an overlay on your current video player, it integrates natively on the website not as an iframe (SEO Friendly). Different user reactions are linked to video moments and create visual representation of those reactions on the Annoto’s interactive timeline.
Annoto widget allows having meaningful discussions on specific moments in the video, and users can have conversations on specific moments and share their ideas, making it social and collaborative. The widget allows users to keep eye contact both on the video and the conversation, to better follow the conversation and better understand context when watched, making it easier to stay engaged.
Annoto’s interactive timeline shows visual representation of user-generated content on the video timeline, so that users can easily see points of interest, encouraging them to interact with the video and get involved. Users can click on specific moments in the timeline and see only the relevant discussion created in that moment.
This is a plug-in that makes it very easy to correct or comment on students’ written work. It looks easy to use, and once you’ve set up with the comments you want to use it would almost certainly save time. It works with Microsoft Word and Google Docs.
Although the product is good, there are three things against it I think, especially if you use Word.
First, it’s not that hard to insert comments. If you use the same ones over and over again it’s not that hard to assign them to keyboard shortcuts.
Secondly, it would only be worthwhile if you mark quite a lot of essays or other written work, submitted electronically.
Even so, although EasyCorrect would probably save time, a much easier approach is to identify five or six things that students are getting wrong, assign a letter or number to them, and write those numbers on their work rather than detailed comments. As long as you provide the students with a key so they know what the letters or numbers stand for, of course. That would free up time that you can use to write comments that address the unique aspects of a student’s work.
Thirdly, the price. I was told that the introductory course on how to use it would cost £500 for a primary school. Plus, for a school with 20 teachers, £100 per teacher per year. I don’t know of many primary schools that would be happy to spend £2000 a year on such a product, but I may be wrong.
It’s a good product, but you would need to weigh up the value of the time saved (potentially) against the ongoing cost.
This is a browser-based feedback system from the company that produces EasyCorrect. As well as being able to insert comments very easily into a student’s work, the program also measures the amount of time a student spends reading the feedback. According to its creator, it is not possible to ‘game’ this. Hmm. I’d like to verify this for myself. It seems to me that a student could load up their work and teacher’s comments, and then do something else. How would the system know?
Comments, which can include videos (as in “to understand this watch this video…”) are presented to the student in didactical rather than chronological order, i.e. the most important comments appear first. The student is also required to give feedback on how useful the comments were. It also includes a quick link to Google so that the teacher can check whether or not the student has merely copied and pasted a chunk of text from the internet.
According to the product’s creator, it takes just 15 seconds to mark a student’s work. Well, maybe it takes just that length of time to enter a few comments -- but presumably it would take longer than that to find and load a student’s work, read it, and then think about what to say?
The product is being trialled at the moment by a few large institutions. The target audience is well-off schools, at least for now: the cost is £15 per student per year.
Also, it does assume you’ll be marking a lot of essays.
So, a program that does one basic thing really well, though at a price.
If interactive whiteboards are so last century as far as you're concerned, how about a fully immersive and interactive room? You can have not only a fully visual environment (so you can have a school trip to, say, Leicester Square in London without the safety or cost nightmares), but one with touch, smells, wind and sound.
The person showing me around (literally) assured me that it’s easy to set up your own lessons and effects with the software provided.
So what’s not to like? Well, the £15k ($21k) price tag for a start. That will get you a 4 metres by 4 metres classroom. I suppose it's doable if you can have a room in the school that can be converted to a fully immersive environment and that is bookable by teachers.
But there’s another thing. I’d like to do some digging around and see if there is any independent research that says that this sort of environment is more beneficial than other approaches, such as using Google’s cardboard virtual reality glasses or Microsoft's Hololens. I imagine it may well be brilliant for children with special educational needs, but I am simply not sure. As I said right at the beginning of this article, I’m just reporting my first impressions felt at the time.
This is an online maths suite, a repository of more than a 1,500 interactive games, worksheets, and problem sets, designed to support the teaching and learning of elementary school mathematics (kindergarten through grade 6).
The key principles underlying the Matific approach to mathematics education are, according to their literature, “...rooted in our vision that mathematics is best learned through guided activities, hands-on interaction, and learning by discovery.”
I was impressed by this statement, in a white paper sent to me by Professor Shimon Schocken, a co-founder of Matific:
“Teaching algebraic competence is not terribly interesting. Worksheets and problem sets carry the day. Teaching children to understand mathematics is far more challenging, since it requires a deep understanding of the subject matter.”
Although the language used is American (“grades K1-6”), the activities are aligned to the UK’s curriculum, though not to Scotland’s yet.
Each activity has very specific objectives, and all apparently based on sound pedagogy and verified by research. Here’s another extract form a white paper:
“Episodes re the unique feature that sets the Matific pedagogy apart. A typical episode presents a visual and hands-on environment, and challenges the student to answer questions or perform tasks within [a] simulated environment.”
The program includes analytics, and apparently works out which essential building blocks the child is missing. You can also differentiate an personalise the assignments.
I’m not a mathematician myself, but I asked someone who used to teach maths what she thought of it, and she was impressed by the claim that it’s based on pedagogical principles, as was I -- although it should be noted (again) that these are pretty much first impressions, bolstered by some reading of white papers, but that we haven’t tried the program out for ourselves.
Microsoft’s speech to text
This transcribes your speech into text, and can even instantly translate it into other languages. I was impressed by the complete absence of mistakes in the result (in English, at any rate: I didn’t see any of the translations).
Microsoft also has a range of inexpensive devices (under $200), and loads of built-in inclusion-friendly options into its standard Office products. I’m a little late to the party, but I was so impressed that I’m going to give Office 365 a whirl. I’ll let you know what I think in due course.
This is a product designed to help children learn 10,000 words by the time they are 17. The ‘correct’ words have been selected -- not too easy or too arcane -- and made learnable through the process of pairing words up in context. According to the blurb, data analysis has been used to find the most frequent pairs of words. Thus the word ‘crave’ is placed in a sentence like ‘I crave coffee’.
The materials look very attractive and engaging, and the ones I looked at are designed to help a child learn 1500 words over six months, e.g. Month 1 character, Month 2 weather.
The product appears to be aimed at parents rather than schools, though I daresay it could be used in school. Certainly if a child is using this to learn words at home it should support what the school is doing.
Given the importance, in terms of attainment, of understanding words (see, for example, Vocabulary: 8 ways to raise attainment) this looks like a worthwhile product to explore.
This is an app for parental engagement. Interestingly, the app isn’t Piota branded, rather allowing schools to use it with their logos. You can use it to push out news, reminders, surveys, or requests for feedback about, say, a recent school event. You can also include the school’s timetable, this term’s curriculum and this week’s homework.
Usefully, it integrates with the school’s Management Information System. Actually, they told me it integrates with SIMS, but hopefully it will work with other such products too.
This was in the Bett Futures area, and even won a Bett Award. It’s an online environment that makes it easy for children to write. It is in effect a private blogging arrangement. It also makes it easy for teachers to mark kids’ writing and to moderate marks by collaborating with other teachers.
There’s no doubt that it’s a great product, which does one thing really well. If you struggle to get kids to enjoy writing, maybe this is the answer.
I cannot leave the products section without a mention of the Teach Company’s stable of magazines and resources. (Disclosure: I write for a few of them, but I’m not being paid to write this.) There are publications for Early Years, Primary, Secondary, and Special Educational Needs, and lots of useful resources. Go to Teachwire to find out more.
Perhaps my distinction between ‘Products’ and ‘Services’ is somewhat arbitrary, but I’ve regarded a product as something a school buys and then uses without reference to the provider, while a service is something that involves an ongoing interaction with the provider.
Here are the ones I looked at:
EdLounge, a VLE that is especially pertinent for the inclusion of pupils who are not at school.
Like to be, which connects schools and employers.
Groupcall's new data analytics program and GDPR compliance module.
London Grid for Learning, which supplies broadband, an online resources portal and other services to schools.
Think-IT, which aims to take the pain out or procuring.
This is a virtual online platform. It has helped students who are unable to access mainstream education whether due to mental health issues, SEN, or due to being in inclusion. Sam Warnes, the founder, also mentioned updates to the virtual classroom product in the suite, EDVirtual, and the launch of EDExams, which gives students the chance to revise for and sit exams away from a mainstream environment.
It has some interesting features. For example, EdLounge can tailor its provision to a school’s curriculum rather than providing just a one-size-fits-all solution. Lessons can be pre-recorded, or live. If the latter, schools can use their own teachers if they wish.
They’ve forged some impressive partnerships, such as Oxford University Press (all their ebooks are available in the online environment) and Edexcel for examinations.
I saw a couple of great products on the Groupcall stand, One is data analytics on steroids, the other is a GDPR compliance tool that takes much of the headache out of the process. I've written about them here: Bett, analytics and GDPR.
Like to be
One of the things that schools are encouraged to do is to bring real world expertise into the classroom. But that can be quite difficult, and costly. Like To Be gives schools access to business professionals in large organisations, who can offer insights into what it’s like to work in that field, and careers advice.
Similar ideas have been around for a while. The Tech Partnership, for example, has very useful resources but (a) not live chats as far as I know, and (b) they’re closing down in September 2018 anyway. Also, Apps for Good provides access to mentors, but you have to be registered in their competition to take advantage of that. Like To Be looks like a good idea. What’s more, it’s free for schools to register with it -- it’s the companies and other organisations that have to pay.
London Grid for Learning
The LGfL has always provided pretty good services, such as broadband, curriculum resources and others. It seems to be going national too. A couple of things were interesting to me. One was the Reading Zone, in which a group of schools can have a live video conference with an author.
There is also an e-safety conference in March, a partnership with Microsoft for the improvement of digital skills and SmartBuy, which exists to get great products into schools at a highly discounted price, and sometimes for free.
The aim of Think-IT is to help schools procure wisely. It doesn’t provide any services or products itself, but helps the school, Local Authority or Multi-Academy Trust get the best deals through the use of a procurement framework.
Before that can happen, of course, the institution in question must know what it wants and, crucially, what it already has. Thus Think-IT will carry out an inventory audit, speak to the senior leadership team and the person in charge of finance and run workshops for teachers. They will even look into things you may not have considered, such as power consumption.
Once a school knows what it wants and how much it can spend, they can use an online portal to procure what they need. They can do so without having to go through a costly procurement service themselves because Think-IT will provide access only to providers who meet their requirements.
Schools don’t pay for the service, apart from the audit. The company makes its money by talking a small commission from the suppliers.
The audit will result in a report that may be 40 or 50 pages long. It will cost around £3k to £5k, which sounds a lot until you consider the potential time-savings (I’ve had to undertake procurement processes and they eat up money and time), not to mention the fact that you probably won’t have the time (or possibly the expertise) to carry out a thorough audit yourself.
Given what my views are on the need for a strategic approach to purchasing (see, for example, my report on the Bett show, as well as comments made here), Think-IT seems to me to be definitely worth investigating.
A debate to launch Educate
Educate is a new organisation involving the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) and the University College London (UCL), and aiming to help ed tech start-ups develop research-based products. In the words of blurb on the website:
“EDUCATE is a unique project bringing together entrepreneurs and innovators, with academics, researchers and educators, to deliver world-class EdTech products and services….
The rigorous and comprehensive training programme is designed to help start-ups, SMEs, entrepreneurs and educators to develop, evaluate and improve their products and services with the use of research evidence.”
What better way to officially launch such an initiative than with a debate? Run by DebateMate, the discussion was based on the proposal: This house believes that education technology is the key to social mobility.
It was interesting: the proposers suggested that education technology equalises opportunity by increasing access to resources, or to experts they would otherwise not be able to reach. Also, AI gives us the chance to reinvent education, by helping us to find out what kids are good at, and basically crunch a load of numbers, leaving teachers to do the human stuff.
Nothing to disagree with there, except that the motion was that ed tech is the key to social mobility.
The opposers made relevant points too, such as higher income households have more access to better resources, the ones that cost money.
For my own part, I disagreed with the motion because research has shown that the way teachers use ed tech is governed by their views of how kids learn and their views of the efficacy of ed tech.
So while I’m prepared to accept that ed tech is a key component, I believe that the key is a good education per se, not specifically involving ed tech.
The motion was defeated.
What I Didn't see
Most of it. If the show had been a week or more long, I might have been able to. Most disappointing of all for me was not getting along to Russell Prue’s live radio station, always a great feature of the Bett Show. You can listen to his Bett 2018 broadcasts by going here: Anderton Radio at Bett.
Read my quick report on Bett.
Download my guide to Bett if you haven’t already done so.
Read numerous companies’ ed tech predictions for 2018.
My thanks to the following people who made it possible for me to see so many people: Livewire PR, Mango Marketing, Marlin PR, and my feet (which I know aren't people, but they stood me in good stead, literally, so I thought they deserved a mention).