Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 15 January 2009   Friday, January 30, 2009

ISSN 1748-3603

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Technology and learning – a trade association perspective
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Technology and learning – a trade association perspective
by Dominic Savage OBE

Logo of British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)

Dominic Savage OBE, Director General of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) reflects on the development of ICT and education in the 75th year of the trade association

The British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) is the trade association for the British educational supply industry, founded 75 years ago. BESA’s 300+ members include manufacturers and distributors of equipment, materials, books, consumables, furniture, technology, ICT hardware and digital content-related services to the education market. BESA members supply to UK and international markets, across the curriculum and at all levels from early years to FE and vocational training.

BESA acts as a conduit, between educational suppliers and purchasers, and the supplies industry and policy makers. Its mission is to:

  1. influence national education policy on issues pertinent to education funding and educational resources,
  2. liaise between education and industry to improve available resources for the sector and to create guidance for their effective deployment, and in doing so
  3. promote, inform and enhance the business of its members.

As an Association, we place particular emphasis on standards in order to assist the best possible combination of choice, quality, safety, service and value for money from the industry. This is enshrined in the BESA Code of Practice. All members must adhere to this, and undergo a stringent membership process, assuring buyers of a high standard of quality in both product and customer service.

Over £5 billion has been spent on educational ICT since 1997, so the chance for educators to see, test, and compare ICT products and to meet manufacturers and service providers face to face is still one of the most cost-effective ways to establish sound and effective purchasing practices in schools. Hence the popularity of the UK’s (in fact, the world’s) largest educational ICT show, invented by BESA and organized by EMAP: BETT – The Educational Technology Show, which took place from 14-17 January 2009 at Olympia, London. With its extensive seminar programme, this event has become a focus of ICT professional development, showing educators what really works and how to make the most of what they have to spend. In 2009, BETT is celebrating its 25th anniversary, which essentially means that the UK has been exploring the use of technology in education for over a quarter of a century. While not every school or teacher has been actively using computers and other ICT in lessons over this entire period, technology is now becoming a greater part of our everyday lives and has a real place in the future of education. This has been constantly reflected in BESA's annual research programme which includes the annual ICT in UK Schools report which focuses on both investment and application of ICT in education. This always brings to the fore key issues to be communicated to industry and government departments and agencies.

Photo of the BETT Show
Figure 1: BETT Show (© BESA)

As a part of its 75th anniversary, BESA established a Policy Commission - tasked with conducting an ‘audit of change’ within the school system. The purpose was to determine the impact of change resulting from current policies and the resources demanded by such change. A range of perspectives would enable BESA to scope and analyse challenges and then champion action focused on meeting resource needs now and for the future. Particular issues raised by the Commission’s work and discussed below may be of interest to ALT members.

It is so often said that the tools used to support learning are second in importance only to the teachers who direct and facilitate that learning, yet schools spend only a single figure percentage of their budgets on these products and services. The ‘resources budget’ is traditionally one of the easiest to vary during the year and as such is often the first to come under pressure when finances are under stress, even temporarily. Teachers are very good at ‘making do’ and yet this is hardly a reasonable way to equip effectively the most expensive resource in our education system, the teacher. Equipment, materials and technology resources bring learning alive and are particularly relevant in this century.

It is important to recognise the importance of a diversity of resources. Dry science (science delivered entirely through computer simulation) does not make good scientists: students need the full opportunity to experiment and explore, aided by technologies such as data-logging, to make methods up-to-date, relevant and learning-time efficient. Across other phases of education the need for a variety of teaching aids and books is vital. BESA believes that when it comes to the content, teaching aids and books for an individual class, these should properly be decided upon by the relevant teacher – choosing the right tools for their classes and individual students. By implication, aggregation of these classroom items is neither feasible nor desirable if maximum learning is to be achieved. Importantly, for both the input to aggregated specifications and for the teacher to make best value choices, a degree of expertise is required: the informed purchaser.

Many BESA members recorded to the Commission their offers of free product and related pedagogical training. A few were content with the responses, but most were concerned that schools were reluctant to support such training, often because of the cost of time, though companies see this as false economy when it hinders a school from achieving best value from a purchased product or service.

The Commission recommended that initial teacher training must include a greater emphasis on techniques to address modern product assessment and that the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) syllabus needs expanding to ensure that leaders are open to an understanding of innovative resources and approaches to achieving best value. Being up-to-date with an understanding of the resources that can support teaching in any given subject area should be an aspect of continuous professional development (CPD) for twenty-first century education professionals. Facilitating teacher visits to events such as BETT and the Education Show would support the CPD need in this area. Some professions, e.g. nursing, even use such events to accredit professional development over time.

Technology, whether used in an institution or at home, must play a full and seamless part in supporting personalised learning and the gathering of relevant assessment data. The Home Access agenda and budget underlies the expectation that learning when and wherever it suits the student is crucial, including encouraging greater involvement of parents and carers in the process.

Interoperability of content, software and hardware is key to meeting these goals; standards to guarantee compatibility and interoperability are required. Responses to the Commission agreed on the need but differed on the process. The extremes of options to achieve this are: an entirely free market approach where standards will emerge from strong commercial competition, to an entirely government-directed approach where the appropriate organ of government would interpret government policy and generate standards itself. The former approach will take too long and the latter will guarantee unworkable standards that both alienate industry and frustrate schools. Listening carefully to responses it is possible to tease out a basis for consensus which accepts that it is legitimate for government to set a priority agenda, for example the implementation of learning platforms within a stated timescale. Whilst most head teachers at recent BESA focus groups have confirmed they have learning platforms, response on their effectiveness is so far disappointing and interoperability issues are part of the issue.

The Commission recommended that, as the Department for Children, Schools and Families’ (DCSF) relevant agency, Becta should lead the development of such standards. In particular Becta can bring the dimension of understanding international standards’ development to ensure the widest compatibility and competitiveness. However, this leadership should be in partnership with industry so that there is joint ownership of the outcomes. Becta needs broader support to take this lead and a developed relationship with industry to achieve the mutual confidences to act swiftly. DCSF and its Information Standards Board should charge Becta with this initiative and BESA in turn will commit to drawing industry into necessary developmental processes.

BESA promotes choice and diversity as we think this leads to further innovation and the most professional approach for educators. The most important factor is that ICT resources in the UK are designed to be mediated through teaching professionals who choose the content and the approach they want, in order to increase the teaching and learning opportunities. Teachers know what works in their classrooms, with their pupils in their own unique situations. Devolved funding in the UK ensures that this model encourages competition and therefore innovation in the ICT industry. The opportunities are there; we have to ensure that both industry and end-users make the most of their investment.

For more information on BESA see

Dominic Savage OBE
Director General of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)

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