BETT is unashamedly loud and proud and this year’s event is no exception. Sal McKeown previews Europe’s largest education and technology showEach January around 35,000 visitors descend on a London exhibition hall for four days of product launches, seminars and show-stopping talks by big names such as former film producer Lord David Puttnam (now chair of Atticus Education) and legendary explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Visitors also get plenty of time to examine the wares of over 700 exhibitors and sponsors as they fight their way through the crowds on those long carpeted aisles.
A lucky few might even score an invitation to the BETT Awards dinner – a best-bib-and-tucker event with a comedian compere. Overseas exhibitors have a strong presence at BETT. Scandinavia@Bett has long been of interest to special education practitioners since Dr Chris Abbott of Kings College London started organising tours of BETT for the Swedish Handicap Institute in the 90s. This year there are Spanish and Norwegian Pavilions and over 30 exhibitors from China.
BETT is a show built on hyperbole – the biggest, the latest, ‘the entire education spectrum’. While colleagues in other countries may be accustomed to this kind of language in Britain we are a little bit snitty about all this chest puffing. We are used to companies that say, ‘Well, this might work in your setting; it’s worth a try.’ We like human interactions, quality solutions and nice people who know what we are talking about.
Nowhere is this more true than in the Special Needs Village. This is at the heart of the somewhat fraught relationship that sometimes appears between those who run BETT and that little band of exhibitors who make their living from small scale ventures – and sometimes one-off solutions – that really do change one person’s life. The Special Needs Village used to house many small startups, which would bring their goods to market and attract interest from visitors via radio, television and print coverage.
These days it is more corporate and subdued as BETT now tries to process a large number of visitors in the most efficient way possible. This is why the show moved from the characterful but antiquated Olympia with its wealth of neighbourhood bars, restaurants and cheap hotels to Excel in London’s Docklands. The new venue has all the charm of a shopping mall and the usual range of fast food franchises but it does benefit from a very simple layout.
With BETT, what you get is a whirlwind tour of all that is best and most current (apologies for the superlatives) in educational technology and a chance to listen to some grassroots speakers who are doing clever things in their classroom using an increasingly varied range of software, apps, gadgets and gizmos. Where does that leave the special education professional? Is it worth a footsore day of collecting brochures and fliers and the huge carrier bags that strain shoulder sockets? I think it is, so long as you plan your day carefully.
Set yourself some objectives for the day:
- Decide what the key issue is for your school/college right now. It might be funding or recording and reporting achievement, exam results or raising standards. Look to see if there are any seminars that fit the bill. Of course it is wonderful to see some of the big names in the flesh but their agenda might not be yours and you can’t afford to be distracted.
- Think about your hardware and infrastructure. Look at the online list of exhibitors before your visit and pick out those who might have resources you can use. If you have just invested in all school sets of tablets, find companies that are doing great things with apps. Write their stand number down and a brief description. When you get a floor plan mark them so you do not waste time criss-crossing the exhibition hall.
- Look at your learners, especially the most difficult ones. While BETT does not guarantee miracles, there are often very knowledgeable teachers who help out on stands and can help make the match between product and learner or talk you through new ways of doing things so you will see better progress.
- And remember: don’t wait to register on the day. You can do it online and spend more time at seminars or with exhibitors. So with all those caveats in mind, here are my picks for BETT 2015. Stand numbers are given in brackets. Have a browse. You never know, some of them might prove quite useful.
Let’s begin with access and communication support. I want to see Forbrain (C470) in action. It has been shortlisted in the Special Needs Solutions (SNS) category for the BETT Awards. It is a headset with an audio filter that transmits amplified sound through bone conduction. Research suggests that it can help children and adults who suffer from speech and language difficulties and improve attention and memory. It is also having an impact on children with autism.
Therapy Box (SN67) is showcasing Predictable 4.0, also on the BETT Award’s SNS shortlist. A seemingly intuitive communication aid that works on the iPad, it learns a new word after three repetitions. One of its most striking features is ModelTalker, an engine which can sample recordings of a person’s voice and create a synthesised version. This means that those who struggle with speech through multiple sclerosis or Motor Neurone Disease can now get their own voice back.
I recently came across Augmented Reality provider New Ways to Learn (C116). They are promoting their Paper Portal for parents, a BETT Awards finalist last year. Schools send out a newsletter which parents stick on the fridge. Each week the family can point a smartphone at the printed page and pictures will appear as animations or videos. New applications for special needs mean that young people with poor memory can see instructions come to life.
Clicker Books (D210 ) have also been shortlisted on the SNS category of the BETT Awards but what I really want to see is Crick’s new SuperKeys Assistive Keyboard app, which breaks up the QWERTY keyboard into manageable chunks for those who have problems with scanning or accurately hitting a very small target. Also worth a visit is AssistiveWare (SN52). They have Proloquo2Go, a symbol-supported communication app for iPads and iPhone that provides a voice to over 100,000 users around the world who are unable to speak.
For maths, I am keen to see DoodleMaths (BFG4) for Apple, Android and Kindle which seems to go beyond assessment. It identifies the strengths and weaknesses of each child and creates an individual learning programme. The Teacher Dashboard lets teachers monitor, set tasks and send messages of encouragement.
Jelly James (SN65) Dynamo Profiler, another shortlisted product, is a dyscalculia assessment tool for ages six to nine that can be used for Education, Health and Care (EHC) assessments in the UK. Flurrish numeracy app (UK67) offers times table and number bond practice, while NumberShark (C310) is a highly structured program for pupils with dyscalculia and Numbergym (B555) is especially useful for EAL learners as well as those who need individual learning programmes.
On the literacy front there are phonics programs aplenty including Monster Phonics (BFS4) with its colour coding system, flashcards, songs, PowerPoints and animations. It seems to be very popular in international schools. ReadingWise English (SN62) is a literacy program which started in 2006 in India and was developed by Victor Lyons, an entrepreneur with a background in e-learning and mental health therapy.
He has a seminar on 21 January at 11.00 am in the Learn Live: SEN Support for Everyone area. At £5,000 per annum you need to make sure you have detailed discussions before you buy. It’s another on the BETT Award’s SNS shortlist. I am definitely going to catch up with Claro (SN61) to see ClaroRead Cloud which has been used extensively in Sweden and is now heading to the UK.
Take a picture on a mobile phone, use Optical Character Recognition to decipher text and then have it read aloud. It has a starting cost of just £30 a month paid annually for schools and colleges so it seems to be an economical solution, helping learners to access text when they are out and about.
Another useful product for learners out of the classroom is available from Sonocent (C501). Sonocent Recorder, a FREE app for iOS that will work on iPod Touch, iPhone and iPads, will run for five hours on most devices. Lisa Spence from Shapwick School in Somerset said: ‘This new app lets students record vital conversations in lessons or whilst out and about, to review in their own time and pace. The ability to add images and notes on the fly whilst recording gives a new dimension to using audio.’
BETT also gives visitors the chance to see technology which lets users be creative. I recently wrote about music therapy for a magazine so I want to catch up on new developments. I am looking forward to seeing Beamz (SN4). Pupils move their hands through the Beamz lasers to trigger instrument clips, sound effects and songs. You might use it to teach cause and effect, sequencing, fine and gross motor skills, but it would also help learners compose, arrange and make MP3 recordings of their own original mixes. I have seen some wonderful professional performances using Soundbeam and it has now gone wireless so I am thinking open air performances might now be a possibility. I will find out at their stand (SN102).
I will also catch up with one of my favourite products, Skoog (SN69). It is a tactile musical instrument which lets people with complex needs make music. It is a way into music, speech and language therapy, and occupational therapy and has now gone multilingual with versions available in several European languages.
There are 21 Learn Live seminars in the Special Needs Theatre. More than a third are about new SEN reforms and the National Curriculum in the UK so are not necessarily particularly relevant to overseas visitors. My top three seminar choices are:
- Wednesday 21 January, 15:30 – 16:00, Mobile Technology and the Sensory Learner This promises to be a fun session from Carol Allen, School Improvement Advisor (ICT and SEN), North Tyneside City Learning Centre.
- Wednesday 21 January, 16:50 – 17:20, Use of game design in SEN by two teachers from Denmark: Christian Nielsen and Morten Lindelof.
- Friday 23 January, 15:30 – 16:00, Gestures of Hope – James Winchester from Oak Grove College will be talking about how a group of schools in the UK are using emerging technology such as the Kinect, Leap Motion, Virtual Reality and Eyegaze with pupils with complex needs.
Most visitors to BETT try to do the whole show in a day; others stay for longer. The secret of a successful BETT is careful planning and a lot of stamina. Enjoy the show!
BETT Awards 2015: ICT Special Educational Needs Solutions – The Finalists
IdeasWise Ltd – ReadingWise English.
Inclusive Technology Ltd – Inclusive EyeGaze Foundations.
JellyJames Publishing Ltd – Dynamo Profiler.
Sound For Life – Forbrain.
Texthelp Ltd – Read&Write family of software products.
Therapy Box – Predictable.
WizCom Tech Ltd – Exam Pen.