Exploring the potential of technology in education

Highlights from BETTshow 2015

On January 2015, TISP partners visited the BETTshow in London, the world’s largest learning technology event. Spread across 4 days, the event was quite impressive, featuring about 100 seminars per day and almost 800 exhibitors – among which were most of the major ICT companies (Google, Microsoft, HP, Samsung, Acer to name a few) and a number of publishers (Gyldendal Education, Harper Collins, Macmillan Education, Pearson, Oxford University Press among others). The focus was of course on technology in education, at all levels, and several sessions were devoted to exploring its role, while many others promoted specific solutions, services and products; a specific area and several presentations were dedicated to special education needs. The general impression was that there is a lot of interest – and possibly potential – in the application of technology to education, but there is still a long way to go, even in evaluating the effects of digital learning thus far and in devising strategies to reap the potential benefits; perhaps not surprisingly given the theme of the show, tools seemed to be given prominence over content, but many speakers underlined that technology was a mean, not a goal, and stressed the essential aim of improving learning outcomes.

So what is the role of technology and how it is changing the education landscape? Here’ a recap of sessions and workshops attended by Enrico Turrin (FEP), Giulia Marangoni (AIE) and Nicola Swann (PA).

The New Paradigm of Open Access to Information  – Jimmy Wales

In his keynote presentation, the Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales went through the roles played by Wikipedia in formal and informal education settings, going through a number of relevant projects.

Wales opened his speech by reporting the story of a teacher who recently asked a team of students whether they had used an Encyclopedia for their projects and got the response: ”What’s that? Is it like Wikipedia?”. Indeed – Wales pointed out – for 18 years old students today Wikipedia exists since they learned how to read and is perceived as a knowledge source for daily consultation.

Jimmy WalesWales therefore observed that as all students use Wikipedia, a key issue for educators is to teach them how to use it: for example, students should be taught about going further Wikipedia single entries, checking the sources of information referenced and developing their own learning path. In other terms, helping students to achieve media competences means to help them to understand the sources of information, and Wikipedia can greatly contribute to this process.

Someone might also be surprised to hear that in the developing world Wikipedia is in the top five websites, that is exactly the same that happens in the developed countries. Actually Wikipedia is consulted at global level, and its importance as information source is even higher in those countries or geographical areas where there are few or no opportunity to access to libraries or other research information centers.

Moving from this consideration, Wales introduced two projects by the Wikipedia foundation addressing specific educational and information needs in the developing world.

The Medical Translation Project, a task force of translators committed in making available every Wikipedia entry on medicine in as many languages as possible (including African, Indian, South-East Asian and South American languages) with the objective to bring medical and health information accessible to an increasing number of developing countries. So far, over 600 articles have been translated into nearly 100 languages.

Wikipedia Zero project started in 2012 and currently implemented in around 20 African and Indian countries, with the objective to negotiate with producers of mobile phones for free access to Wikipedia, thus reducing the barriers in access to free knowledge. Thanks to the increasing usage of mobile phones (that are cheaper than computers) and the bandwidth growth in developing countries, the project enables people who don’t have access to libraries or other research material to easy access to online medical information and education resources.

Education in the 21 century and the role of technology – Sir Bob Geldof

One of the keynote speeches at the show focused on the role of education in the 21st century and of technology within it, and was given by Sir Bob Geldof, musician, political activist and businessman. Sir Geldof mentioned his company Groupcall (which specialises in providing communication software and data extraction tools to the education, public and business sectors) to explain his involvement in education, an idea he defined as constantly revolutionary. He recalled how he used his school library a lot as a kid and argued that despite the seemingly huge difference between education then and now, it had the same proposition, to make people viable human beings. Since he had witnessed the revolutionary aspect of education, he had become involved in Groupcall out of concern for the security of children’s data in digital education. As an example, he spoke about the schools he had helped to build in Africa through Band Aid to uphold the truth in the cliché that our future lies in education, ascribing the development of Africa in the last 30 years to strong advances in education, as the key to make the world work is to animate individuals with knowledge.

Sir Geldof argued that the essence of most terrorist groups around the world was ignorance, and the fear of allowing women in particular to be free through knowledge; he stated that only by letting girls be educated could the world move forward and, regretting that two thirds of girls in poor countries did not go to school, he maintained that when they did the benefits could be seen quickly. He said that intelligence was a universal language that allowed us to talk to each other and that education was key to economic growth among other developments. He called for engaging people’s minds and being constantly alert, by trying to understand the many worlds that need to coexists, for turning on minds in order to dampen the sparks of violence, for giving children the basic tools to develop their minds. He acknowledged that all of this meant a horrendous workload for teachers, bringing about intolerable pressures, but maintained that it was central to avoid the repetition of the horrors of the 20th century, and called for cooperation, consensus and compromise to be used as tools to negotiate that terrible, possible future.

Managing the MOOC classroom

The British Council presented its first MOOCExploring English: language and culture”, a successful initiative attracting over 110,000 learner registrations in 90 countries, launched in partnership with FutureLearn, a UK-based social learning platform and provider of MOOCs in the global higher education sector.

The seminar, held by Chris Cavey (Product Development Consultant) and Eleanor Clements, (Learning Content Development Manager) focused on the ways course design and classroom management have been planned to engage and retain students for the duration of the course, being the intensity of online interactions a key factor of this MOOC success story.

To engage with learners, this six week course for intermediate-level English speakers uses a mixture of videos, short interactive quizzes (with immediate feedback and scoring) and discussions to introduce learners not just to the English language, but also British culture, bringing examples of people speaking English in every-day settings, focusing on one topic (music, food, literature etc.) per week.

Moreover, thanks to the social features of Futurelearn delivery platform, learners from all over the world (top countries included Russia, Spain, Brasil) have been engaged in ongoing conversations around the learning materials as well as their cultural identity and every-day interests, such as music and literature. The platform also allowed teachers and course moderators to regularly interact with students in occasion of questions and answers sessions and within online discussion on course topics, where students are invited to share pictures, music recommendations, books recommendations.

The online course has been optimized to work on smartphones and tablets, as well as desktop computers, so that learners can enjoy the same high quality user experience, regardless of their screen size.

Indeed, as reported by users feedback, learners appreciated the freedom to decide when and where to take lessons, granted by the multi-device access and no expiring date of course items.

The transformative classroom: guiding the mobile learning evolution

This session – sponsored by AirWatch, a company specialised in mobile device management systems for schools (configuring, ensuring safety, etc.) – focused on the possibilities of mobile technology to revolutionise classrooms and discussed the advantages of educational mobile management which can ensure children have the same (licensed) apps, and save time checking disk space and clearing passwords.

Preston Winn, Director of Business Development-Education at AirWatch introduced the discussion asking how outcomes from the use of technology in schools could be measured, since giving out devices was not enough per se. Ole Lindegran (CIO, Larande Sverige Group – a group of private schools) highlighted in general the potentialities of mobile technology, while David Burns (Network Services Manager, Harrogate Grammer School) acknowledged that it was hard to measure the impact of technology, explaining that in his school the main difference was the increased level of interaction with children and the easier access to the internet, which made for a way of learning in the 21st century; he illustrated his school’s experience with an iPad scheme, which allowed teachers to have direct contact with children and make them feel more confident in communicating with teachers as well as to give enhanced lessons. Natalia Kucirkova (Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, Open University) stressed the potential of mobile technology to provide applications that allow personalising content for students and pointed at how this affected their sense of identity and to the importance of the balance between managed and self-regulated learning. This idea was embraced as well by Karen Littleton (Independent consultant, Open University) who said that mobile technology could enrich dialogue, empower children and help share and build ideas.

Mr Winn next asked the panelists how their mobile initiatives had begun and developed and what drove them. According to Mr Lindegran his group was looking into moving from desktop to laptop to mobile, as everyone uses it anyway, and parents also demanded more use of technology in the classroom. Mr Burns explained that his school thought about mobile 4 years ago, when looking into how to update their ageing ICT infrastructure, and considered it an effective way to provide children with access to the internet, knowledge, textbooks (as well as to eliminate the excuse of forgetting their homework at home); after extensive consultation with teachers, parents and students, they piloted the initiative 3 years ago, then after a few months assessed it and scaled it up. He pointed out the advantage of freeing teachers to teach instead of just providing information that children can find by themselves. Mrs Kucirkova made examples of how mobile technology enabled children to create their own content – the OU developed a platform to share it. Mrs Littleton stressed the interest of the OU in sharing knowledge, collaborating with teachers and technology developers and expanding into community learning.

As for the use of EMM (Education Mobility Management) in classrooms, Mr Burns said they used it to ensure kids had all the applications they needed and accessed the same resources; it made them save a lot of time (in dealing with issues like forgotten passcodes, memory space in devices and so on) and allowed them to monitor the use of devices by kids, to flag out any issues, to send email instructions and warnings and also to save on licences through bulk purchases. Mr Lindegran focused on the possibility to distribute apps centrally so that teachers and students could do what they do best in classroom, as well as on the capacity to monitor the devices. For Mrs Kucirkova and Mrs Littleton, EMM was mostly useful as a secure content locker allowing teachers to populate selected iPads with selected content, to synchronise devices and folders and to involve community members.

Apps aren’t quite there yet to make the most of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), but they probably will be in three to five years. On BYOD (, Mr Lindegran said it was an interesting possibility, which could be handled via EMM without problems; he pointed out that it had prompted a debate in Sweden about possible inequalities in students’ device availability. Mr Burns said it was a solution increasingly adopted by schools, but expressed doubts about it for the time being as for a teacher it would be easier to provide students with given uniform instructions rather than dealing with different systems and devices; in addition, he argued that not all apps were available across all types of devices, but added that he thought eventually most problems would be overcome. Mrs Kucirkova said that BYOD worked in some contexts and that the OU had surveyed the technology situation at the homes of students in order to assess what policy to adopt. Mr Winn illustrated some basic difficulties with digitising education, such as the fact that in many cases the device students get at school is the only one in the house so it gets commandeered by older siblings.

Asked about roadblocks encountered in the mobile technology deployment process, Mr Lindegran referred first and foremost to the need to upgrade the Wi-Fi infrastructure due to the much higher use of bandwidth, and also mentioned that they had students install all the apps on the devices as a summer job, since downloading everything at the same time would have crashed their systems. Mr Burned also highlighted the need for good infrastructure, wireless and broadband (his school handles 250 Gb of traffic a day now) and recommended getting the fundamentals right first.

What should educators and students demand from education technology?

This session, chaired by Amar Kumar (Senior Vice President, Pearson) explored the requirements of both educators and students for education technology products to deliver their potential benefits.

Mr Kumar first asked the panel whether technology had been really education’s savior. Alex Beard (Director of System Change, Teachfor All) argued that technology hadn’t met its potential; stressing that educational outcomes were the goal, he explained that while there were classes where students were making progress thanks to it, on the whole technology so far had had very little impact, even if it has  it has potential in the long run.. Harry Edmonds (student at Pearson College) also replied negatively, acknowledging that technology could help in some cases but arguing that there was a gap between technology and educational technology, the latter lagging behind and developing more slowly, and called for it to take a leaner approach and bring value to students. Professor Don Passey (Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University) explained that a lot of research had been conducted on how technology is involved in education for over 25 years and was still going on, and that for the vast majority it highlighted positive results, but added that this had to be qualified: while qualitative research (on individual children, teachers, schools) was mostly positive, quantitative research (on whole populations) was mainly undecided; he explained this through the notion of average, as with any technological system there were people gaining and others not gaining, and argued that it was time to start looking into how technology is used, what is achieved and how, why there are gains and why, what makes the difference, why failures occur – and he acknowledged that for this there was not enough evidence at the moment.

Mr Kumar then asked what students and teachers should demand from technology. Mr Beard said he identified technology’s potential mostly with being online, thus arguing that demands should focus on connectivity and access, good interfaces and platforms, quality content, teachers’ skills and students’ engagement, and stressed the goal of achieving better outcomes for society. Professor Passey suggested focusing on what individuals want, and in particular on understanding how people learn, as the fundamental question to understand how technology can help you to learn; he made the example of how technology is a lot about gathering information and argued that it should also focus on how we think about the information; as teachers mediate and enable people to think, technology, too, should be an enabler of learning. Mr Edmonds agreed on the importance of learning how we learn but argued that students should not need to think about it but rather technology should help with it seamlessly – students should thus demand effortlessness; he denounced a gap between technology and experience and argued that students should demand from educators to be considered as clients and be more involved in giving feedback on technology.

Mr Kumar summarized the main gaps identified – connectivity and availability of technology, user experience and effectiveness – and asked whether current technology was addressing the whole spectrum. Mr Edmonds replied that technology focused mainly on functionality, missing out on user experience and engagement, and that the technology industry did not really focus on education, hence the gap between educational technology and technology in general. Professor Passey said that technology enabled a lot that was not possible before (like working online, remotely, etc.) and argued that mobile technology would bring about more changes, but denounced the lack of integration of all technological pieces to build one big picture. Mr Beard said that technology provided potential for efficiency and scale (he made the example of MOOCs in developing countries) but lamented that it had not made much progress in becoming integral to the way we learn – it sure did not have yet the role that writing has; he argued that we needed to demand something different from technology and to try and use it for the right purposes rather than making it a flashy way to do what we’d always done.

On changes to the role of teachers brought about by technology, Mr Edmonds said that teachers retained their core role: technology could enrich learning but teachers could provide tailored responses that technology couldn’t so far. Mr Beard claimed that the view of the teacher as a totem of knowledge was old-fashioned, whereas technology now allows teachers to become mediators of learning, selecting among a huge corpus of information what is beneficial at a certain time. Professor Passey said technology offered variety – of teaching modes, pedagogies, etc.

To conclude, Mr Kumar asked the panelists for one bold prediction about technology in 5 years’ time. Professor Passey predicted that technology would enable us to some extent to shift back to an oral tradition, changing the current balance between textual and verbal communication. Mr Edmonds said he expected all educational technologies to merge and interact seamlessly, improving the user experience dramatically. Mr Bearder predicted a globalisation and harmonisation of education, standards and assessments.

Innovation Showcase: start-ups demonstrate their products

In the BETT Futures area,  start-ups selected by a expert panel of educators  showcased their innovations and demonstrated their products.

– Zzish presented a learning hub made to connect all of a person’s learning apps; the exhibitor explained that he wanted to create something that could transform education in an environment where everyone was creating educational apps from scratch and leading to an overcrowding, often with dubious quality. His idea resulted in a dashboard giving teachers in particular a series of benefits: a single hub for all apps, a simple fast log in for students, a real-time insight into the classroom and the possibility to turn any app into a multiplayer classroom game. It is available for free.

– Memrise is a learning help based on enhancing memory techniques. The presenter said that memory had a bad reputation in education (often seen as opposed to creativity and understanding), which he denounced as a false assumption on how memory actually works: it is not a filing system, but it is based on connections. This is how the company’s product works; used mainly for language learning, it relies on motivation and is used now by 3 million students and increasingly by teachers – which prompted the company to develop specific tools for them. It is available for free (with a premium option).

– DoodleMaths is an adaptive system for learning maths created by a group of teachers who were somehow frustrated with technology, as it hadn’t seemingly provided resources for parents and teachers that improved achievements in maths, delivered visible and measurable improvements, fit into families’ and classrooms’ busy schedules and were affordable. The solution devised enhances and supplements a child’s regular maths classes – it’s not meant to replace teachers. It has proven a success with users, with 300,000 free trial downloads and 10,000 paying users; it is based on tailoring to individual needs of children. The creators decided to put a price, albeit small, as they thought people perceive stuff available for free as trivial; there is also a subscription model for schools, cheaper per single user.

– Primo is a programming interface designed to help children become creators of digital technology, based on the fact that children learn by playing and are motivated by challenges.

– Parents hub is a smartphone app developed by teachers to effectively manage communications with students’ parents, thus improving their engagement in school activities. It can be integrated in schools’ information management systems and features instant messaging tools for teachers to update parents on student attendance, homework assignments, timetable and progress. It is designed to increase teachers efficiency, reducing at the same time school administrative costs.

– Word bucket is an adaptive, game based app to learn languages, to be used in and out of the class. The idea behind this app, that was developed by a teacher, is simple: when you learn a language you take note about the word Then you miss the paper. So what about an app to find, save and learn new words? Word bucket is powered by a selection of commercial and open source dictionaries and translation services. It allows students to save new words discovered in formal and informal learning practices, add audio records, and play tests and games designed to practice and remember the new words.

– Sparkjar an iPad app developed to optimize teachers workflow, thus saving time when performing administrative tasks and giving more space to teaching activities. The app, whose design followed a mobile-first approach, allows teachers to plan lessons calendar and assign home works, while students can keep track of tasks set and submit assignments. For parents, a web portal allows them to know what lessons their children have, what homework is outstanding, and view marks and comments on completed homework.

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