In the second week in January I always seem to find myself at the very remarkable BETT. This UK trade show in London has become a world class venue for information technology for education, and while it sometimes lacks the just invented feel of Educa Online in Berlin each December, it has the glitz and polish that reminds you that whatever the ICT  “deny-ers” may say, schools now run on networks and software just like the rest of our society, and that the suppliers of these goods and services make up a very considerable industry, with huge export  implications, and an already globalized marketplace. Only the British Secretary of State for Education is forced into the humiliating position of saying that the curriculum must be revised to ensure that British kids learn more “facts” by heart through approved “traditional” education methods. But then, the British Conservative Party always had a schizophrenic view of education: it was always OK to go to Eton and its ilk, because they did not take education too far, but it was dangerous to expose the working classes to very much of it…

I digress. The thing that kept going through my mind as I trailed around the thronged halls behind Japanese delegations and Brazilian headteachers and parties of ICT teachers from Rochdale and Worksop on a day out in the Big City was the sameness of our messages about the benefits of IT in schools. We are making the same claims now as we made 30 years ago, yet now we have the experience and the timelines over which some real proofs can be offered. Remembering the things we said when the Beatles were around, we seem to have spoken about a greater degree of productivity, about allowing unattainable degrees of personalized learning, and escaping from the rigidity of “chalk and talk” to a world where we could make the child’s experience of learning more consistent. And we still are.

I listened with rapt attention while a nice man from Dell told me that 90% of what we stored was never recalled in any context. As little as that, I thought, remembering the dire forecasts of the ’60s and ’70s when IT was going to so radically change our working practises that half the workforce would lose their jobs and that the end result was greater employment. We always need more people to mind the machines. Mostly we re-invent the old processes inside the new ones, so only now is the whiteboard in the classroom beginning to do new things. And the VLE, which like the whiteboard sits in every school in the UK? Are we using the technology residue of a decade of catch-up funding in UK schools to really do anything different?

I found myself getting gloomy, so went to sit down in a lecture space. When I woke up, the Man from Newent was on the stage, and I found him hugely impressive. He runs IT in Newent Community School in my native Gloucestershire, and seems to be making an excellent job of it. He said that if your VLE is not delivering on the promises made, then Tomorrow will really sound just like Today. He told us that to be valuable the VLE must be central, so a good place to start was to survey all of the devices used by pupils and make sure they were connected to the hub. He taught us to accept small and not revolutionary advances, as long as the advances were sustainable. He wanted us to coax the VLE into the centre of performance management and measurement in our schools, so it was professionally as well as didactically important. He wanted to use the students as his shock troops and he wanted a sold-in teacher representative in each department of the school. And above all he wanted to see the VLE populated with bought-in, SCORM-compliant resources which could be used as starting points for lesson-planning. He showed us Nelephone and Nelevision, his branding of output and services from Nele – the Newent eLearning Environment. He showed his Bluetooth hub squirting out homework assignments on demand, he pointed out the revenue stream from feeder primary schools in his area to whom he could sell transitional content, he talked about virtualizing his server capacity, and when at length, after an hour of this excellent (though front of class, non-experiential) teaching I wandered out into the aisles – and renewed disappointment.

Let me, I said, now notionally stock the NeleVLE with wonderful resources, all SCORM compliant. After an age of wandering around blended learning solutions until I felt my head had been through a blender, I at length encountered Global Grid for Learning on the Cambridge University Press stand (http://www.globalgridforlearning.com). At last: huge files of copyright-cleared or free content to sit adjacent to the VLE and allow teachers to download under subscription or on-demand terms – and allow pupils to find content within a closed environment that is not the Wild West Open pornoWeb that teachers and Conservative ministers fear so much. This has been described elsewhere by a far better education analyst than I (https://clients.outsellinc.com/insights/index.php?p=11374) And then, not on any stand at all, I bumped into my friend Davd Gardner, founder of DDL (http://www.ddluk.com/), whose ePortfolio technology at last makes sense of much of the rubbish talked about personalized learning. And since Mr Gardner’s exhibition area was in the Hand and Flowers pub over the road, I came away from BETT in a very much happier frame of mind.

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