Love it or hate it, if you’re going to the 2020 BETT show, Cat Scutt has some tips to make sure you get the most out of it

I have something of a love-hate relationship with the BETT show. On a practical level, its scale is such that after just a couple of hours wandering up and down the seemingly endless halls, I’ve usually forgotten my own name, let alone what I’ve seen. On a conceptual level, the oversized exhibition stands are testament to the amount of money spent every year on edtech – an investment from which the impact is often not clear.

And yet, I always leave full of ideas, challenge and inspiration. This year will be my 6th at the show (including as an exhibitor, a speaker and a BETT awards judge) – so here’s my advice for making the most of the day.

It’s not all about the exhibitors.

In fact, it’s mostly not about them. The most valuable part is the high-quality presentations. And don’t just go to the ‘big names’ on the main stages; I’ve seen some fascinating smaller presentations that have led to changes in my thinking and practice, as well as collaboration opportunities.

Talking to people is important, too. It’s worth chatting to other teachers and school leaders. Attendee badges are helpful for this when you’re queuing for a much-needed coffee or sandwich! ‘Fringe’ events like the annual teachmeet provide more formal opportunities for meeting and sharing.

Also visit stands that aren’t selling anything. From charities offering free resources to the DfE’s edtech strategy team, these can be a great source of information! You’ll also see commercial providers offering free tools – but it’s always worth asking questions about how their product is funded, and in particular about how data is being used or shared, because there’s a chance that instead of being the customer, you’re the product…

Be clear about what you want to achieve with technology.

It’s easy to be bombarded with so much exciting, innovative-looking tech that you end up being persuaded that you have a problem that it will solve – or that everyone else is doing amazing things and you’re being left behind.

But if you’re going to make a significant investment – of money and your teachers’ and pupils’ time and energies – it needs to be doing something genuinely useful. And technology is far from always a positive influence on education. Reflect on your school’s aims and the challenges you’re facing and develop a strategy. Identify products you actually want to see, and what you want to find out.

Ask for evidence.

Whilst not all exhibitors will have robust empirical research demonstrating the effectiveness of their products, you can start with simple pedagogical principles. So, if a product’s main selling point is that it allows you to easily differentiate your lessons based on pupils’ learning styles… I’d suggest heading rapidly in the opposite direction!

You’ll also likely see a host of tools that claim they are built on cognitive science or neuroscience. Some of them actually are, but many others are just jumping on a bandwagon – probe their claims a little further when they start to talk about retrieval practice, spaced learning and interleaving. (Caveat: sales staff may not be able to answer this kind of question live on the stand, and that’s fine – share contact details and ask for a follow-up!). Of course, how tools are used is critical too –  many of the examples in the Chartered College’s edtech journal and free FutureLearn MOOC look at how edtech tools can be used to support cognitive-science based approaches.

If a product HAS been subject to some research, and they say it’s trebled pupils’ exam results or similar, they’re likely either being somewhat generous in their reporting – or their research methods need serious work.

Finally, do talk to other users about the impact they’ve seen – but be aware of sunk cost bias, which can mean we’re more inclined to believe that something we’ve invested time, money and energy in has been effective.

Think about the impact on teachers.

It’s no exaggeration to say that teaching is in the midst of a workload crisis. Whilst technology has the potential to ease this in some areas, it also risks making it significantly worse if not used well. Will the new solution you’re exploring make your colleagues’ lives easier? Does it connect to other systems, or is it going to require a huge amount of setup and data-entry?

And how will staff learn how to use it – is high-quality training included? If so, great – but make sure you have a plan for how you will give teachers the time for it – we can’t expect them to do more and more without taking anything away.

Finally, I’m sceptical about anything that claims it will ‘transform’ teaching and learning in your school – not just because technology is only a tool, but because I firmly believe our teachers are already doing an excellent job, and their teaching doesn’t need ‘transforming’ – let’s recognise that expertise.