Friday, 16 January 2009

Highlights from BETT 09

I spent yesterday in London at the BETT Show, billed as the world's largest educational technology event. It was certainly extremely busy, in terms of both exhibitors and visitors. Goodness knows how busy it will be on Saturday, when teachers who weren't able to spare a weekday from school will attend...

It was impossible to see everything in one day. So here are my inevitably selective personal highlights:

Collaborative interactive Tables
The photo shows my research student Jo Iacovides making music with the just-launched Microsoft Surface. It's multi-touch, orientation-aware and web-connected. It can play video, interact with physical artefacts, and simulate physics beautifully. Some lovely ripple effects on the opening screen. Everything is resizable, and navigating maps is much more intuitive than with mouse or keyboard. "Like a massive ipod" says Jo. Microsoft has finally made something stylish.

We also looked at Smart Table, which looks similar to Microsoft Surface, but the applications so far are more focused on the primary school than on the wow factor. Like Microsoft Surface, Smart Table is multi-touch, Windows-based and relies on upward-pointing cameras embedded in the table, so it's not just an interactive whiteboard placed horizontally.

Neither product is available to buy yet. Smart Table is expected to be available in about six months at £5,500. Microsoft Surface is currently in excess of $10,000 and won't be available in a consumer version for about a year. But the potential for the hospitality, entertainment and military sectors will bring the price down quickly. Robust open source alternatives will follow.

The challenge now for collaborative interactive tables is killer educational applications.

Jo: "want one".

The netbook form-factor, originally introduced by Asus, is much more education-friendly than traditional laptops. A selection of new models were displayed on the "Wall of Cool", which was an actually plausible claim.

Intel chose BETT for the launch of its new Classmate, which can operate as a tablet PC. I shared many of the reservations about the development assumptions underlying both this and the One Laptop Per Child initiative; but I admire the diverse educational usability advances that Intel and OLPC have achieved in recent years.

2Do It Yourself

2simple were demoing software that enables children (and teachers!) to make flash games. It looked good, although couldn't get a proper understanding of its potential because Jo and I kept being accosted by a steady succession of slightly over-enthusiastic
salesfolk from the company!

CapturaTalk v2
I was seriously impressed by this software for Windows Mobiles from Iansyst. You take a photo of some text, and CapturaTalk converts it into speech. Brilliant. I'm going to download the demo to check it out properly, but as a regular screen-reader user myself, I'm very excited by this product.

In the past I've tried several text-to-speech products for my mobile, and of course I use both Optical Character Recognition and speech-output packages on my PC. To go directly from printed text to speech on-the-move would be terrific. CapturaTalk also reads from Word Mobile, emails and Pocket Internet Explorer.

The main limitations at the moment are the price (£350), the small range of supported mobiles, and the fact that the Windows Mobile touch-screen platform is lousy for many varieties of visual impairment. But it looks good for me!

Mantra Lingua RecorderPen

Like similar products, this device reads hotspots in specially-formatted books; but the interesting thing about the RecorderPen is that it allows children to record their own narrations to those books. Lots of potential for language learning. And by using special stickers, children can give voices to physical objects. Lots of potential for the creation of educational games.

All the expected professional associations, government agencies and interest groups were represented at BETT, but I want to single out MirandaNet for mention. Not just because it's an international organisation promoting the use of ICT in education (it's one of many). And not just because they seem like a decent bunch of people promoting practice-based research in educational technology (although that's a pretty good reason, given that H809 can directly help with that agenda). No, it's because amidst all the hustle, bustle and noise of BETT, MirandaNet were managing to record a number of podcast discussions. A lot more interesting than the usual glossy leaflets and free pens!

Kudlian I Can Animate

Kudlian were demoing this good value, easy-to-use animation kit. I can imagine a good many future film directors getting a start with this!

Finally, I want to repeat a thought I raised a while back. Worldwide there's a lot going on relating to ICT in education: products, publications, conferences, seminars, companies, agencies, associations, and so on. They are often a rich source of enthusiasm, case studies, and issues.

But teachers who want to pursue their interests more deeply might want to take a step back and ask questions such as...
  • How strong is the evidence for claims?
  • Are alternative explanations possible?
  • How could the claims be tested more strongly?
  • How can we use theory to help us do things better?
This is where the international accredited online course H809 can help. If you're interested in taking things further, you've got until the end of January to register.