I managed to make it down to BETT on Saturday, and found that yet again, the golden rule of conferences continued to apply: the bigger your stand, the less likely you are to be cutting edge. Here are a few of the things that caught my attention:

Microsoft Surface

Okay, so I’ve just broken my golden rule, but getting to finally play on the Surface was genuinely cool (I promise not to break it again). The technology has been covered absolutely everywhere so I won’t go over it again (not seen it? this is cheesy but gives a good idea); what was interesting was to see some examples of it helping kids get more engaged with learning.


The kids above are playing a spelling game. Each of those little round tokens scattered on the table has a letter on it, and the aim is to press them in the right order to spell the word in the picture. The trick is that you have to press and *hold* them, so to do it before the time runs out you need a few more pairs of hands than just your own.


Why this matters? It was really fun, and quickly got everyone talking to each other. In this particular example, you have the engagement of a well designed game with the quality control that a computer system can bring, highlighting just how useful these table sized displays may become.

Apart from that, there was 3D virtual heart which you could fly around in, a drawing program where you could smear virtual paste around, and of course the usual table sized google maps (the kids absolutely loved that one, see picture)

This makes me really look forward to the rise of tabletop computing (and bartop, of course…).

Guardian news tools

Also interesting were a pair of projects by the Guardian, a major UK national newspaper, to get pre-teen children engaged in the news whilst at the same time teaching them valuable critical reading and writing skills.

The first project, LearnNewsDesk, was a large database of simplified news articles arranged into easily digestible chunks under each school subject area, with exercises and a glossary attached to each story. Kids can also upload podcasts and articles with their own takes on the news. New articles are added daily so the site is a good approximation of the real news.


Why this matters? It’s a good reminder that to be useful and remembered, information must be aware of its context. If you know that context you can add all kinds of metadata as a hook to help that information stick in the mind. In this case, the system provides a great sandbox which teachers can use to help young kids understand some important issues.

Project number two, Newsmaker was the flipside of the news desk, giving children a very simple collaborative, web based tool to create their own paper (see the solitary picture below). At the heart of it is a fixed template into which kids can put their own articles and picture.


One kid gets to be the editor whilst the others take on the roles of journalists and picture editors, with simple word processing and picture editing tools to insert their work. This is cool as it 1) provides a very simple platform for collaboration and 2) lets groups of pupils easily create a professional looking paper.

Why this matters? Easy. Somewhere along the way of trying to teach desktop publishing to ten year olds, schools have forgotten that just learning to lay something out with Microsoft Office is not enough – you need to have something to say with it too.

Peter Molyneux, maker of legendary and beautiful games, once said about hiring 3D artists (and I paraphrase as I can’t find the actual quote):

“It’s easier to teach a great artist to use a 3D modelling tool than to teach an expert in 3D Studio Max or Maya to be a great artist”

Tools like these which do one thing very well are a great way to get straight to the meat of what you are trying to do. Would you rather spend a lesson bogged down in the technicalities of Microsoft Publisher or actually publishing something?


Autology is a natural language search tool which does three rather interesting things.

  1. “Push” search. It watches what you are typing in Word or equivalent and can suggest relevant information. This is apparently already being used by MI5, the FBI, BBC, Reuters, Merrill Lynch, the Deutsche Bundesbank and IBM, and is yet another step towards computers seamlessly integrating with our processes. Instead of having to go to Google, Google comes to you.
  2. Vertical search. It indexes hundreds of high quality secondary school textbooks to increase the relevance of the results. Search focused on particular verticals is clearly going to be an interesting area if generalised search engines reach an upper limit to their accuracy
  3. Search folders. With this feature, a teacher or student can create a themed folder which gets automatically loaded with documents relevant to a particular search query. This is yet another example of dynamically structuring information to be most useful. If you’ve ever used a smart playlist in iTunes, you’ll know how handy this is, and it’s becoming increasingly  important as information multiplies.

Why this matters? I can’t really comment on the theoretically improved quality of natural language vs keywords as I din’t have long enough to test it, but the push search is fascinating nevertheless. In the words of David Black of Autology:

“It is pattern recognition technology which is able to push relevant information to a user. There is no need to go and search for it. It can be pushed to you conceptually, matched to what you are writing about.

“It is like a student sitting in a library and as they are writing their essay somebody keeps coming up to them saying ‘you are writing about this, have you seen this?'”They are not having to go and get it. It’s as near as you are going to get to artificial intelligence.”

From the Birmingham Post

Computers have gone from filling a room to pocket sized, but still require us to play by their rules to get the most out of them. The next step is technology which knows what you need and discreetly sends it your way. Autology may be another tiny leap in this direction.

More highlights coming soon…

What caught your attention at BETT 2009?

Pink Floyd - We Don't Need No Education

Next Wednesday is the start of BETT 2009, the world’s largest educational technology event. 30,000 teachers will be learning about the best, coolest new ways of helping others learn.

This is a very important event, and not just for teachers.

Of technology’s many contributions to human civilisation, education is where the rubber hits the road. Remote learning, electronic paper, digital note taking, individualised curricula, etc… are just the latest episodes in the series which started with the drawing of shapes in the sand.

What separates us from animals is how good we are at transferring knowhow to our children, which allows each generation’s knowledge to become a foundation for the next to build on. However, we are limited by the length of education – older brains may learn more slowly and, anyway, most of us start work at the end of our teens. In the UK, half of adults stopped at or before 16 (data, key). Slightly higher in the US.

As such, if we can make better use of those 12–15 years we can give a whole population a headstart. Humanity on steroids, if you will.

Knowledge is a performance enhancing drug.

As we get a better handle on the rules of learning we can make better tools to help apply them, and to teach our teachers to apply them. Furthermore, what goes in the classroom is only the beginning. The trend towards more decentralised, personalised learning is exactly what we need after formal education. These same tools and techniques may help us with our lifelong learning – whether training to better do our jobs, learn new skills or pursue our hobbies.

Every designer creating tools to help us visualise, manipulate, remember and use information needs to keep a close eye on teaching and education. With more and more people making a living in the information economy, each new tool is another potential mind hack.

The opportunities are huge.

“Acting white”

One caveat, which will be the subject of another blog post. We must never forget the context in which education takes place. For now, this anecdote is as illustrative as any:

“…black students who study hard are accused of “acting white” and are ostracised by their peers. Teachers have known this for years, at least anecdotally. [Roland] Fryer found a way to measure it. He looked at a large sample of public-school children who were asked to name their friends. To correct for kids exaggerating their own popularity, he counted a friendship as real only if both parties named each other. He found that for white pupils, the higher their grades, the more popular they were. But blacks with good grades had fewer black friends than their mediocre peers. In other words, studiousness is stigmatised among black schoolchildren. It would be hard to imagine a more crippling cultural norm.”

Economist article about black inequality in education

It’s not just the black-white issues. Students of all backgrounds have different motivators to take into account.

Eight ideas

Here are some thought provoking resources and events on education:

  1. Go to the BETT TeachMeet, a pecha kucha style event from 6–9pm in Friday 16th. What is pecha kucha? 20 slides * 20 seconds = six minutes and 40 seconds on whatever, in this case exciting ways people have been using technology to teach.
  2. See what happened at BETT 2008. Podcasts. Summary video.
  3. Read about education in 2018. Stephen Downes wrote a paper called The Future of Online Learning which looked 10 years ahead from 1998. He was mostly right, and has now written a fascinating follow up available here. Most interestingly: we learn better by doing, so how can we use games to engage students with memorable simulations? As interestingly, learning may shift towards overlapping communities centered both around knowledgeable peers and trained teachers.
  4. Attend an unconference. Education2020: “If you want to attend an informal, congenial, stimulating event in an amazing location with brilliant and insightful people (including you, of course), then pop along to the Education2020 UNCONFERENCE wiki and get your name on the list. Not only will you be able to enjoy a great educational debate and discussion, you will also be travelling to one of the most beautiful places in Scotland.”
  5. Listen to some podcasts. EdTechRoundup: “conversations about using technology in education”
  6. More – 2020 and beyond. How about another point of view? In this paperFutureLab looks at the impact of “personal devices, intelligent environments, computing infrastructure, security and interfaces”.
  7. Not enough? See 2025 and beyond. http://www.beyondcurrenthorizons.org.uk/
  8. Informal learning. VISION magazine issue 8, page 9.

More on BETT coming soon.