Tony Parkin reflects on BETT Futures Zone

Tony Parkin

Now those that know me well know that I am not really psychic, nor prone to dropping German bons mots (what’s the German for bons mots, I wonder?) into the conversation. I didn’t foresee BETT Futures, nor anticipated using German to describe it. The lack of German probably because it usually seems pretentious, and because of a Q and A session I once saw with director Mike Leigh at the National Film Theatre. He had to suffer an interminable speech, masquerading as a question, from a rather self-important Hampstead lady. She ended theatrically with, “I do believe that was schadenfreude, don’t you?”. Without batting an eyelid Mike Leigh responded with “I wouldn’t know, I don’t speak German”, and moved onto the next questioner. Collapse of stout party, and the audience into giggles. I took note – keep clear of the German.

But I am quite partial to the concept of the zeitgeist, and I don’t think we have a word for it. And especially fond since I heard about the blue-tits and milk bottle tops. Seems that once one of our feathered friends had worked out how to open the aluminium foil of a milk-bottle top, before we knew we were all of the blighters were dipping their little beaks into our gold-top. Zeitgeist in action. Cosmic awareness and collective consciousness, blue-tit style.

The anti-social robins couldn’t hack it, of course. But I digress. When I wrote that pre-BETT piece I had no idea of the plans for BETT Futures, nor that my expressed wish was about to come true. And that I’d tapped into the zeitgeist.

A packed BETT Futures Zone

BETT Futures was a wonderful green oasis in an obscure corner of the depressing aircraft hangar in Docklands that houses the BETT Show these days. Now you may have struggled to find BETT Futures, as the BETT app was somewhat coy about its location, though the paper map showed its whereabouts pretty clearly. But if you stumbled across it, the buzz of enthusiasm, the grass, the palm trees and the jungle heat really cheered you up. OK, so maybe I exaggerate with the palm trees and jungle heat, but the grass and the buzz were real. Well, actually the grass was artificial, but you get my drift. This place was fun, vibrant, creative and swarming with teachers and developers, interacting like crazy. And the giant plant chandelier definitely helped.

As I strolled the sward past piles of pallets I spotted and spoke to Carrie Gregory-Hood, who I had met earlier at the Ed Developers Meetup mentioned in the previous piece. She was at BETT for the first time to tell visitors about Mr Glue Stories, an innovative, personalised children’s reading iPad app. Children become the hero in their own story, and they can add their own illustrations, and record their own soundtrack using sound effects and music. The really positive face of ‘making up stories’.

Carrie told me, “Charles Wiles, the founder of the Zzish learning hub (and of the Edtech Web Developers Meetup, as it happens), invited us to present at their BETT Futures stand. Mr Glue Stories is actually their first primary school app. Zzish enabled us to integrate their classroom dashboard module to let teachers see in real-time how students in the class are progressing through stories and identify those that are having difficulties. As a BETT first timer, we really enjoyed exhibiting at BETT Futures, and we got invaluable feedback on Mr Glue Stories from UK and international early adopter teachers, publishers and from other professionals in the edtech sector.” Carrie was smiling a lot, as was Charles Wiles, but then, so were most people at BETT Futures for all four days of BETT.

 Carrie Gregory-Hood at the Zzish Learning Hub

Bett Futures, ‘ Accelerating the ideas of tomorrow’, was pulled together by The Education Foundation, working with a number of partners and sponsors. They had challenged ed tech startups to bid for a stand, and then used an expert panel to select the 30 best entries, with 20 new startups alongside 10 that were a little more established. Add some design flair, throw in some well-known speakers such as Miles Berry and Maggie Philbin, add some Teachmeet alumni like @ICTEvangelist, Mark Anderson and @DigitalMaverick Drew Buddie, host a Meetup or two like the wonderful LEGup, and lo, you had a mini-festival that despite its location seemed packed and buzzy throughout BETT. Speakers like Miles and Mark , and Debbie Forster who I saw give an Apps for Good session, had packed and attentive audiences, with lots of interaction. Mark’s photo, taken as he was introduced by Ty Goddard, one of the masterminds at The Education Foundation behind BETT Futures, gives a good feeling of the presentation space. His blog also shows just how much of the soul of Teachmeet was alive and well and in attendance. This space was also used by the LEGup panel session, which was equally well attended and received. So, as I had asked for the week before, Teachmeet met Meetup and guess what, they got on famously. I went back each day to watch the romance blossom further.

Another Ed Developers Meetup and LEGup stalwart that I recognised was Valerie Touze, of Edoki. Edoki is a rebranded startup set up by three Montessori-influenced French mothers, who had also succeeded in pitching for a BETT Futures stand. Though Valerie was so busy it took a few visits to catch up with her. “We were honoured to be amongst the 30 startups selected to participate in the BETT futures, and delighted with the outcome” said Valerie, on the final day. “One cannot talk about the area without mentioning the green grass and the airy space that made people ask all sorts of questions “What is special here?” “Who are you?” “What is this space?”.”

Valerie had been at BETT as a startup in 2014 too. She continued, “The other thing that struck us, compared to last year, was that a lot more people actually stopped by the stand. Was it the location? Was it that we were building on experience? Probably a bit of both but the reality is that last year we were on one of the main rows and we noticed that people were walking by, going towards something and we really had to “grab” them to catch their attention. This year, the BETT futures space was a destination in itself (thank you wifi!) which made it a place where people wandered and came to speak with us.”

“We had a wonderful four days, Wednesday and Friday were particularly busy, we got to demo our apps to teachers and school leaders from all over the world. To us this is what these events are all about: actually speaking with people who buy/use our apps”. And that was the point. The enthusiastic developers staffing the stands were really enjoying getting a chance to interact with teachers and their potential customers. They were proud of what they had achieved, but were keen to hear what the visiting teachers and others thought, to learn from their observations, their praise and their criticisms. A win-win, a virtuous circle, and everyone had a great time, just as I had anticipated and hoped would happen when Teachmeet met Meetup.

As I left one evening I joked with Ty Goddard, who looked happy and relieved that his experiment had been so successful, “I have seen the BETT future, and it worked”. When I got home I looked up the original quote. It was apparently made by Lincoln Steffens (1866-1936) who was said to be a “muckraking journalist and social activist”. Seemed appropriate coming from me, somehow. Though tapping the zeitgeist had turned out to be much more fun than raking the muck.

Oh, and it turns out the German for bon mot is, wait for it, bonmot. Seems they don’t always have a word for it, any more than we do.