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BETT 2010 at Olympia

Spent the afternoon at BETT yesterday, a trade show for educational technology. One reason for going was to drop in on Andrew Holdsworth’s Percy Parker’s Flying Bathtub, just published by Scholastic, and very nice it looks and sounds too.

But most of BETT I found profoundly worrying. I don’t have figures, but it seemed to be predominantly men touting software packages and ‘solutions’ for schools. Every other stand seemed to be about protecting, preventing, surveillance, policing, managing, storing, and even ‘performance managing’. This program will automatically text all your truants and their parents; this fingerprinting device will register your child (“biometric multilesson registration and cashless catering” was one of the more 1984-ish captions), this will keep your children safe from unsuitable internet sites, this hardware will back up all your data and provide a network for your school. Online assessment, online registration, automatic this, multi-that.

With a very, very few exceptions, I had almost no sense of teaching, learning, teachers and pupils, intellectual curiosity, or  any of the rich human interaction that goes on in learning.  Instead, it seemed I was at a trade fair selling expensive ‘solutions’ that appeared to criminalize an entire generation of children, or treat them as a workforce that needed managing, assessing and controlling. An image began to emerge of a child tightly bound in a technological network of biometric data, they and their families summoned and communicated with by text, every online transaction prescribed or prevented, stored and tracked electronically by an emergent army  of male IT personnel, every academic subject reduced to an onscreen interaction with predigested, generic content.  Media-rich, yes, but piss-poor as human interaction.

I’m not usually prone to technological determinism, the idea that society is helpless in the face of the ‘power’ of technology to shape and control it, but I came away from BETT wondering whether we do all this stuff to kids because we can, not because we must. And in any case,  there were plenty of technological determinists touting their wares at BETT: this software will help you build an online global learning community. Really? Anyone who’s tried to run an online forum knows that it’s people and people alone who build communities, all the software in the world can’t do that for you.  Nobody buys a bassoon thinking it will make music for them, but people seem to fall over themselves to buy into technology that needs staff, time, expertise and commitment, not just a power supply.

My final rant? As I was walking around seeing all this stuff about protection, walled-gardens, security, safety and so-on, I had my barcoded badge scanned aggressively and without my permission by at least two staff on the stands, data-mugging in broad daylight.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist