By Ben Davies
The trip to the Bett Show has always stirred feelings of both excitement and anxiety and this year's trip was no different. The excitement stems from the chance to spend the day immersed in education technology with other people who feel the same way about it as I do. For a day, I am not the strange teacher who likes things with plugs on and has a box of wires on his desk. At the Bett Show I am, literally, one of the crowd, standing shoulder to shoulder with like-minded souls, entering into conversations that, if started in my staff room, would only elicit a pitiful glance from colleagues.
This year's show, the first since ICT has evolved into Computing in English primary schools, promised to showcase more products to support children becoming digital creators. This year, my main area of interest was any form of robotics suitable for primary school classrooms. I was hopeful that in 2015, the year Marty McFly travelled forward to watch his offspring hoverboard, I would see products that were more than just a Roamer in another guise.
The anxiety arises from the enormity of the event. The sheer size of the exhibition and the number of exhibitors means that for those only visiting for the day, time is precious. We have to make the right choices, see the right products, attend the right seminars and not be seduced by free pens, as I have done previously. This year I was determined to stick to my brief and maximise my visit.
Whilst others appeared to wait patiently on the concourse level for ten o’clock to arrive, I tried to memorise my itinerary for the day and drew possible routes on the map. When we eventually entered, my first impression was the sheer vastness of the hall. Compared to Olympia, which often felt like a quirky labyrinth of staircases, balconies and secret passages, the Excel felt precise, calculated and focused with slick stalls showing their latest in whole-class display technologies.
Once reoriented, I headed towards the main arena for the day's welcoming speech, but I was delayed by stops at several software stands. While I did miss the speech that would have been carefully crafted to inspire me for the day, I arrived in time to see the wonderful iPad band performing a classic rock tune. Here was a group of children using technology to achieve something that might not have been possible without it. Creativity is a word used so often in education that people can often switch off, but I can't believe there was a single person in the arena who wasn't inspired by what they heard and saw.
Putting creativity to one side, or so I thought, my focus shifted to robotics and my first stop was Lego Education to see their WeDo product. I was sceptical as my assumption was that it was Lego with a motor, requiring children to follow the instructions to build the model that the software would control. An individual lesson, an activity, a treat, but not something to base a progressive unit of work on. A quick demonstration changed my mind. Yes the construction requires instructions to be followed but once the product is made users can, through the software, explore the possibilities of the input sensors and adapt the program to meet given requirements. I was already formulating challenges for my class.
The theme of the robotic device being a tool to allow children to test and refine, rather than the means to an end, was evident in the next few products I tracked down.
On the CBiS stand, they showed how a robotic arm had been introduced into a primary classroom by using a cardboard replica and pseudo-code, before progressing to controlling the arm through Scratch and Python.
A demonstration on Flowol 4, which still uses the same interface as earlier versions and has been, by me at least, overlooked as a computing resource, highlighted how logical reasoning can be developed by observing where a robot does the unexpected and predicting where the bug might exist.
The team behind Ohbot Robot, who are using crowd-funder to develop their product, showcased their robotic head and a blank canvas. When I enquired about the product, instead of being shown I was invited to find out for myself. Supported by a few leading questions, I was soon changing the way the robot responded to certain inputs and contemplating how many I would need for my class. I may have thought that robotics was the main focus of my trip but it seemed that it wasn’t. It was pedagogy. There were stands where I was only shown what the robots could do, but at the aforementioned stands I was shown what children could do with the robotic device as their impetus, and the possibilities filled me with excitement.
There had been plenty of online discussions prior to the event about how Bett had changed: it was now a trade show; teachers were a secondary audience. Anyone who was harbouring those thoughts, and at times I did, would have found a perfect antidote to this at the Bett Futures zone. Here start-ups, with stalls smaller than some of the interactive screens on display in the middle of the hall, showcased their labours of love. It was home to the previously mentioned Ohbot Robot and a computational-thinking card game called Bits and Bytes.
For me this is where the real innovation was on show – especially when contrasted with the behemoths of technology whose substantial shadows they were operating in. In addition, Bett Futures hosted talks and workshops led by teachers not selling products, but infecting the audience with enthusiasm and instilling a desire to replicate their successes. During one such session, Carrie Anne Philbin demonstrated the how Sonic Pi can be used (in conjunction with a belching sound) to produce music, and then played compositions programmed by children. The teaching strategies she promoted, allowing children to explore and collaborate to find out what they can do with the software instead of directly teaching them, made such sense and will surely deepen children’s understanding.
Unfortunately I had to leave to catch my train, just as the teacher meet was getting up to pace. A quick twitter hashtag search as my train headed north, informed me of curiosity goggles, twine and expectant parents. At this point it struck me, as much as Bett is about new technologies, it is the people there who make the show what it is. They are the ones who inspired me, who made me eager to get back in the classroom and try something different. Whether it is Miles Berry’s advice on allowing pupils the opportunity to tinker with software or Richard William’s inspiring story of taking his class to Brazil to compete in RoboCup Junior, these will be my lasting memories. Bett may have evolved into a trade show, but if having this range of hardware products being displayed on intricately designed stands means that teachers can receive the quality of CPD that I did, then long may it continue.
About Ben Davies
Ben Davies is an Upper Key Stage 2 teacher, computing subject-leader and Computing At Schools Master Teacher at St Paul’s CE Primary School in Withington, Manchester. He is passionate about using digital technologies and computer science concepts to enhance learning across the curriculum. He tweets as @b3ndavi3s.
This article first appeared in Digital Education, the free newsletter for those with a professional interest in educational ICT and Computing. One of the benefits of subscribing – apart from access to unique content – is articles in a timely manner. For example, this article was published in the April 2015 edition.To sign up, please complete the short form on our newsletter page. We use a double opt-in system, and you won’t get spammed.