Data, Analytics and Analogue Teaching, a view from the 2016 BETT exhibition

Fresh from the world’s largest exhibition of educational technology at BETT, Jon Williamson shares his thoughts on the show…

BETT is the largest shows of the year in the educational technology sector, and always a fantastic barometer for the state of the industry. I have a particular interest in Data Analytics and Assessment so I’m always on the lookout for new developments in that sphere. And it’s good to catch up on the general trends in this space, as well as meet with old friends and new contacts.

This year, there was a lot of talk about adaptive learning, both in the conference sessions and on stands. And a fair amount of discussion about publishers as data providers.

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I went to a number of sessions about how analytics can be better used in education. There’s a lot of data languishing in educational institutions, in schools and at university level. Data you’d expect to be useful, such as attainment, marks, test results, through to demographic and attendance data. And this data about students, can be just as important as the data about learning, because it’s here that advances can be made that will help organisations to identify students at risk, and to support students better.  However, at the moment, ambition outstrips possibility in a lot of areas.

The problem is the data is kept in siloes.  There’s a lot of data, all over the place. Many initiatives are looking at how to get past this. In the higher education space there is the LACE initiative; Learning, Analytics Community Exchange, a European project to explore the possibilities of data mining in HE. But, as with a lot of activity in this area, it’s more about looking at the future than achieving in the present.

Interestingly, Nicky Morgan, Minister for Education, said in her keynote address at the conference that the government is going to push for more interoperability across systems in education. She hasn’t revealed any detail yet, but it’ll be interesting when she does.

The show was busy, there was a lot going on. The really big stands, (Microsoft et al) were smaller than in previous years, (I’ve been attending for the last fifteen). And there seemed to be more hardware than previously – with a focus on such as whiteboards and touch screen display devices.  Interestingly, a couple of years ago there were plenty of 3D printers, but not so much this year, so that seems to have hit the bottom of the hype cycle. The big talk of the show was the BBC micro:bit, a tiny computer with a tiny screen. Next September the BBC is going to give one to every year seven child in the country.

The Education World Forum ( takes place before the show, and education ministers from all over the world received a micro:bit. Nicky Morgan, among others, wore one on her wrist.  They were discussed at a lot of the stands, there were books supporting them, and there was much excitement about them as a learning tool – along with concerns about the BBC dabbling in the education space and the projects’ sustainability. We’ll have to see what happens when they’re released on unsuspecting eleven and twelve year olds!

BETT is the biggest show of its kind in the world, and has a really international feel. One interesting thing is that each year, about half the exhibitors seem to be new. There are an awful lot of tiny innovators with one table and a lot of enthusiasm. It would be interesting to track their progress- do they get bought out by larger companies who can take advantage of their ideas? Or do many never get to the stage of proving, not only their technological concept, but its business value?  There is a lot of investment money around in this space. And investors can sometimes find it difficult to invest because the tiny innovators can’t get to the stage where large funds find them attractive.

We’re never going to entirely move away from analogue – teachers will still “teach” students, but teaching and learning will transform over the coming years with the help of technology. My feeling is that a lot of institutions will begin to harness learning content as a tool to generate data. Within that data lies really amazing opportunities for identifying why students don’t achieve to the best of their abilities.  And, when we can release it from the siloes, there’ll be an increasingly important role for data and analytics.

Author: Jon Williamson