There were two major events in London last week between 9 and 15 January 2011 concerning learning technology: Learning Without Frontiers Festival(LWF) and the enormous BETT Fair at Olympia.

Learning Without Frontiers

This was a successor to the annual Handheld Learning conferences organised by Graham Brown-Martin since 2005 , and its title this year  was “Disruption, innovation and learning”  with a heady mix of impressive speakers, nearly all of them interesting, and some genuinely disruptive thinkers. Graham Brown-Martin started the conference in describing the “King Canute” attitude towards mobile technologies that are still prevalent in education and the need for disruptive thinking.

Disruptive Innovation

The term comes from the world of business, originally coined by Clayton Christensen to explain how a new innovation can reach a different set of customers previously inaccessible or ignored by existing incumbents in the sector, until suddenly they find their own customers adopting the new product and they then rapidly go out of business.  Christensen applied his ideas to the world of education in his book published in 2008, “Disrupting Class”. David Bott of the Technology Strategy Board felt that “we are hard wired to avoid it [disruption] because it’s painful.” And Saul Nassé, BBC waits for common standards and the day when teachers  say “get out your phones” during a lesson.

Evan Roth offered very entertaining and engaging lessons from the worlds of  graffiti and hacking which he uses to create art.  Some of his ideas were immediately applicable in education, such as how he  assessed his own students by asking them to provide evidence of their ability to build and engage audiences for their art using social media.

Educational policy and planning

Speakers such as David Putnam and Stephen Heppell continued the debate about the role of education and how to improve engagement and success (and what do we mean by these terms?). Karen Cator described how the USA plans a transition from print to digital learning environment by summer 2012 with “learning powered by technology”:

And there was a  very lively debate about the talk by  Katherine Birbalsingh, who spoke controversially at the last Conservative Party conference,   see this discussion on Linked-in and the original presentation:

I wondered  whether the really influential conversations were at LWF or across town at the Educational World Forum for ministers of education at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, where I think some of the LWF speakers also went.  It’s difficult to know as there is no public website for this event which succeeds the Learning and Technology World Forum  previously organized by the soon to be defunct Becta.

Mobile devices used by learners to create content

I was very impressed by examples of students learning by using low cost mobile technologies to create their own content  including films  and immersive worlds in presentations given by Tony Vincent and Tim Rylands There has to be potential for doing similar things for modern language learning.

All the  presentations were recorded and commented on via Twitter, Linked-in and so forth, and the organizers will hopefully upload the session videos very soon. This should include the presentation I gave with Paul Sweeney  when we discussed our review of language learning Apps entitled “Appt for that”.  In the meantime, you can download our Powerpoint  slides Appt for That LWF 2011 You can get  a list of other summaries from Graham Brown-Martin’s  conference Linked-in page.

Fringe Event at Cass Business School: Disruptive innovation, what impact will handheld learning have on language education and publishing?

Paul Sweeney and I also organized a  LWF  Fringe Event  on the Tuesday evening at Cass Business School with the kind support of Cambridge ESOL.  We had an excellent panel of speakers who shared their thoughts about how mobile learning will disrupt the ELT sector.

Reinhard Tenberg, Cambridge ESOL talked about using digital technologies to support Cambridge ESOL candidates prepare for their exams, and they will be launching iPhone Apps for both IELTS and BULATS exams.  Chris McCormick,EF described EF’s experiences of integrating online learning on its well-established and now very large website, Englishtown, with their face-to-face courses, and how they are now introducing mobile learning in the classroom, with iPad trials starting in some centres. Ian Wood from Pearson reminded us of the scale of the growth of mobile devices and the demand for mobile learning, and Maureen McGarvey from International House London discussed how mobile technologies were affecting teacher lives and behaviour, and how teacher training might need to be adapted for new contexts.

BETT Fair 2011 Olympia

This has been running for over 25 years, and I’ve attended these on and off for probably the past twenty years, during which time much has changed. I am always struck each time by the size of the event, its noisiness (size plus acoustics), the challenge of getting to Olympia, and on the range and diversity of exhibitors.  Some are outstanding, others you wonder why there are still companies providing inferior versions of business and information systems, or games with mediocre engagement and production values compared to what is available outside education. I expect there will be some very significant disruption to the market for educational management systems with the arrival of much cheaper, cloud-based solutions, though many existing providers are clearly repositioning themselves for this, with, for instance, Microsoft promoting the use of Cloud-based SharePoint for knowledge management.

Interactive Whiteboards and related tools continue to be popular, with market leaders Smartboard and Promethean very prominent, but others, ranging from electronics giant Panasonic to small Chinese suppliers are also ready to compete.  I was rather taken with a large 42” touchscreen board designed for disabled students called Tap-it though it’s not cheap, around £8000 a board.

There were lots of useful resources for Special Educational Needs (SEN) , and a huge number of administration systems.  There was not a huge amount specifically for modern language learning, though ELT was included on the stands of CUP, Macmillan and Cambridge Assessment, who hoped to reach the delegations of international ministries of education attending the fair.

Although there was a BETT Fair iPhone App, mobile learning wasn’t featured as strongly as I expected it would be.  I hope that future fairs will feature mobile, including tablet computers, and that the ratio of administrative to educational ICT will change in favour of more educational exploitation.  And I expect BETT will remain a very useful place to meet people and develop new business relationships.