The BETT exhibition in London's Olympia this week is stuffed to the gills with companies showcasing how their particular brand of technology can transform education, help students achieve more and relieve pressure on teachers.
Some technology on display is administrative: for example Bromcom is there showing off its wireless pupil registration system, and we saw electronic payment systems for canteens, useful, the company said, to avoid embarrassing kids who have free lunches. Other companies want to get students using laptops to do homework, or teachers to use tablet PCs to run their lessons.
What most of it has in common is that it is about using IT as a replacement for existing systems: where there pencils and paper, now there is a keyboard; where there was a pin board, now there is a web portal; chalk and duster have made way for electronic whiteboards.
While implementing technology to support teaching and learning in these areas is useful, nothing really innovative has been done.
Not so at the Nesta Futurelab stand. Nesta is the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. Its Futurelab division acts as a coordinating point between people with technology expertise, and people with really different and interesting ideas about how technology could be used in teaching and learning.
For example: how would you approach teaching kids about lion behaviour? You'd sit them down with a slide show and a video maybe, get them to do some multiple choice questions, possible a bit of reading comprehension? Or would you give them all PDAs and send them off into the playground to pretend to be lions.
Nesta's project Savannah takes the latter approach. The children's PDAs simulate a virtual savannah mapped onto their school playing grounds. This environment comes complete with charging elephants and other prides competing for the space. As well as the savannah, there is a den, where children can plan their strategies, and think about how they will survive as lions.
A Nesta representative explained: "When the kids are confronted by an elephant, the system asks them what they would like to do. The immediate answer is always that they, as lions, will attack and eat the elephant. They learn very quickly that a lion won't win a fight with an elephant."
Another Nesta project is Moovl, a freeform drawing environment where the artists (primary school kids) can assign physical characteristics, like heaviness and friction, to their drawings. You can play with it online, and read more about it here.
Nesta's role is to get these projects to prototype stage, test out ideas with children and teachers, and put together plans that can be picked up by other companies. "We are not competing with all these guys" Nesta's rep told us, indicating the other exhibitors. "We are just trying to get some really good, innovative and fun ideas together about how technology can change education." ®