Today I visited BETT 2013 at the ExCel Centre in London. The yearly event showcases the current developments and market for ICT in education. In addition to many exhibitors, there are numerous talks by practitioners explaining how they use ICT to support learning in their schools. Professor Brian Cox was the headline guest speaker this year.
There were clear trends in education ICT on show with the buzz being about tablets, ebooks, 3D projectors and cloud technologies. There was also plenty of hardware on show including technological advancements in Interactive Whiteboard technology. Here are the products that grabbed my attention including the clear star of the show, the new RM Unify:
Bringing visual aids to life. Samsung were showing an app they had developed that pupils can download on their phones and tablets. The pupils then point the camera of their phone at a special card and the app overlays an image of a 3D object onto the image coming from the camera. As the phone is moved, the virtual image does too so you can see the virtual object from all angles. Pupils can see artefacts of ancient Greece or Rome, or a beating heart etc as though they were right there in front of them.
Short Range Projectors- SMART
Projectors of the last few years traditionally have needed to be situated quite a distance from the IWB. This means as you stand next to the board to teach you get blinded by the lamp. Short range projectors were on show in abundance. SMART showed their latest offering that is mounted less than 50cm from the board, thus eliminating the problem of the light shining in your eyes and also significantly reducing the amount of shadows that are projected on the screen.
Any Surface IWB- GloView
To have an interactive whiteboard experience you need projector and an interactive board with a special pen, right? Wrong! GloView have developed a projector that you can point at any wall and it turns the wall into a touch sensitive interactive whiteboard! Self-calibrating, the projector contains 3D motion capture technology, similar to Microsoft Kinect, that is clever enough to track your finger in 3D space and work out when it is touching the wall. I had a go and was very impressed with the implementation. There was no lag and the accuracy with which it followed my finger was impressive. The projector was also one of the new breed of short range models too. Coupled with a laptop, this technology enables you to take an IWB experience with you into any room.
3D Visualisation- Reach Out Interactives Ltd
We can buy 3D TVs, now we can buy 3D projectors.. Seeing the pulsating heart throbbing on the IWB whilst wearing some 3D glasses was engaging. However, whilst I loved the experience, I have doubts about this technology as all the exhibitors who demonstrated it had a very limited collection of resources. To convince schools to invest in expensive 3D projectors, the resource collections will have to become much more comprehensive. One to watch over the next few years.
Cloud Apps- Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365
Both Google and Microsoft put on impressive displays and demonstrations of their cloud based applications. With Microsoft Office 365 you can run all of the familiar Office applications like Word, PowerPoint and Excel within your web browser. Launching the program is done by logging into a website rather than needing to have it installed on your computer harddrive. If you give pupils access to this service they can login on any computer at home or at school and access Office programs. The SkyDrive cloud storage solution from Microsoft is also integrated into Office 365 meaning pupils’ work is stored in the cloud so they can access their files from any computer. No more lost USB memory sticks!
Google Apps is a similar suite of free Office-style programs from the Cupertino giant. These have been made available to schools for free for a few years now with excellent administrator software that allows managing student accounts, security and privacy controls straightforward. I personally am a big fan of Google Apps which is clearly maturing as a product now. Google also presented their Chromebooks, an affordable laptop computer solution that they say is ideal for schools wishing to give pupils their own computing devices. I’ve personally not used Chromebooks before but have spoken with schools who do use them and the feedback has been positive.
E Books Everywhere- RM Books
There was no shortage of companies offering to support you moving away from hardcopy textbooks and towards e book versions. If your pupils have their own mobile computing devices, e books are an attractive technology as it puts the textbook in their pockets 24/7.
RM Books was a platform that particularly caught my eye with a decent collection of digital textbooks from the main publishers. Furthermore, they had two purchase options, buy outright or rent, which means you can decide which option is most cost effective for your school. From the pupils’ perspective, they just visit the RM Books website, and after logging in see a digital bookshelf of their textbooks. The user interface from the pupil point of view was the thing that particularly impressed me about this product, being simple, intuitive and clean.
The Star of the Show- Life After VLEs- RM Unify
RM surprised me today. I have never had much respect for them as my previous experiences with their products have been perpetually frustrating and disappointing. I have always thought that they had the right ideas, just not the skill to implement them. Today they were showing off their post-VLE era product that launches in March this year and it was an absolute stunner: RM Unify.
Before Apple got too big and corporate they used to design products that exuded quality. Their products just worked, were intuitive and had longevity. The way they integrated everything so that different programs all interacted together in harmony created a magical experience. The disappointing iPhone 5, or as my pupils call it “the iPhone 4 that’s been put under a rolling pin”, and the terrible Apple Maps wouldn’t have happened in the Steve Jobs era. The thing that used to make Apple products so special was the design and thought that went into the end-user experience. You never knew what complex computing was happening under the bonnet as you the user just saw a simple, intuitive interface that worked. Whilst Apple have made a few slip ups recently, the fact that the iPad doesn’t come with an instruction manual, because it is so intuitive, says a lot.
RM Unify has the design flair of an Apple product in the good old days. They have taken the time to sit down and create something that is beautifully simple to use, takes the best parts of the cloud revolution, is flexible, future proof and are going to sell it at a price that is quite frankly, unbelievable. Their strategy is just so right and it’s clear in the product.
Their strategy is simple: the cloud apps that are out there are brilliant, so rather than trying to create something better and failing, lets be a curator of the best that the internet has to offer. Speaking with one of the RM exhibitors, I learned that during their design process they thought about problems with this model and then designed around them including:
If you use lots of different cloud services (Prezi, Office 365, Google Apps etc) you currently need to set up logins for each pupil on each different website. In RM Unify the pupils have a single login and password and from that point on they never need to login again. They go to the RM Unify site, enter their login details once and then see a collection of tile icons that directs them to different web apps or websites. RM Unify creates logins and passwords for the pupils on all the different cloud apps and automatically logs the pupils in when they launch it. The pupils never even need to know their logins for all the different sites! For example, they just launch the Prezi app by clicking on the tile in the RM Unify launchpad window and it automatically logs them into Prezi where they can access all the Prezis they’ve made before! If they launch Office 365 Word, it automatically logs them into SkyDrive so they can access all their previous Word files. They just login to RM Unify then from that point on they are logged in to everything!
Cloud based web apps are growing quickly. How can you keep pace with knowing which are the best? In RM Unify there is an App Library. This is constantly updated and so when a great new web app comes out in the future, the pupils will be able to get it right from their launchpad window. It’s future proof.
How do you deal with the many different computing devices pupils have and their limitations? Make it device agnostic! Today I saw RM Unify running on a Windows PC, a Mac, an Android tablet and an iPad simultaneously. I saw Microsoft Office running in the web browsers on all the devices. Finally, this is a product that truly works if you adopt a ‘bring a browser’ approach where pupils can bring any type of mobile computing device and connect to what you want them to.
If your school is using Google Apps, rather than Microsoft Office 365 with your pupils, RM Unify can integrate with that instead.
RM Unify is free to schools for all the functionality, except the integration with Microsoft Office 365 or Google Apps. If you want that integration they are going to charge just £495 per year for any school with more than 500 pupils. Compare that to your old VLE cost!
RM are calling this a ‘single sign-on revolution’. Never did I think I’d come away today saying that I think I’ve seen the future of IT software in schools in a post-VLE era from RM, but I think I have. They’ve managed to create a beautiful, simple to use product that combines the best that web developers around the world have created. I haven’t seen anything so well polished in quite some time.
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