7 Days of Education Conference Fever Across the Pond

Opinion | Events

7 Days of Education Conference Fever Across the Pond

By Richard Taylor     Feb 8, 2019

7 Days of Education Conference Fever Across the Pond

The last week in January is action-packed, with four education events in London for people across the whole spectrum of education—from those who run the ministries to those who supply the tools, from those who teach to those who want to reform the system.

With so many education stakeholders in one city, there should have been opportunities for ideas to cross-pollinate, for people with different hats to forge connections. In terms of their programming and target audience, the series of consecutive events covers the entirety of the education spectrum:

  • Education World Forum (Jan. 20-23): the people who run education politically;
  • BETT (Jan. 23-26): the companies who supply the tools, and the educators who use them;
  • The Education Show (Jan. 23-26, co-hosted with BETT): the educators focused on pedagogy and implementation;
  • Learnit.World (Jan. 24-25): the “thought leaders” who want to revolutionize education.

Perhaps one of the few areas of overlap was that three of the four conferences featured a similar talk by Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s education lead, who shared snippets from his team’s latest “Trends Shaping Education” report. Beyond that though, each show catered more or less to its own niche audience.

It starts with the Education World Forum, an event that brings together over 170 ministers of education and their delegations from more than 90 countries. Now in its 11th year, the EWF provides a forum for those who run most of the world’s governmental education systems. This year’s agenda spanned a broad range of topics, from education policy development and implementation, to models of collaboration and results-based approaches for financing education.

How closely the conversations held true to the agenda, however, has always been a bit of mystery. EWF is a closed shop to the public and to most of the press, offering few opportunities for coverage or outside participation. Many of the ministers hop over to Davos’ annual meeting afterward. Perhaps the only outsiders who participate are vendors with large sponsorship budgets. (The lowest sponsorship tier still runs $118,000 for a two-year deal.)

Next up was BETT, Europe’s biggest education trade show with 40,000 visitors from over 100 countries and 900 exhibitors, all squeezed into a conference venue on the outskirts of London. At 34 years old, BETT is younger than ISTE (considered its U.S. counterpart), but attracts more visitors and a different audience. BETT is primarily about the business of education; this means that outside the keynotes, presentations and seminars (of which there are many), most of what goes on are meetings and events for vendors and their distribution partner ecosystems.

Teachers have always been part of BETT’s target audience, but it’s not been easy to strike the right balance between educators and entrepreneurs. In the past, the show has skewed roughly 60-40 in favor of teachers, but their attendance has fallen in recent years. To try to bring educators back into the mix, ITE Group, BETT’s current owners, moved another of their events, The Education Show, into the same venue. The Education Show started in 1991 and once attracted upwards of 7,000 teachers.

Twinkl booth at Bett
Vendor booth at Bett. (Photo credit: Richard Taylor)

Moving this established, educator-focused event that emphasizes professional development and exhibits from smaller traditional classroom materials suppliers from Birmingham to London (about the same distance between Philadelphia to New York) was a risky move. Teachers from the British Midlands who supported the event over the past 28 years were unlikely to travel to London; those from London would probably spend most of their time at the far larger Bett.

Did it succeed? One teacher described The Education Show as “a ghost town for companies who can’t afford BETT.” (A vendor booth at BETT cost roughly twice as much.) The event maintained its spirit, featuring teachers’ classroom practices, professional development and where to find free digital tools. However, by trying to fold a regional show into an already-packed expo, the organizers risked alienating the audience who built The Education Show. It would not be surprising to see competitors try to build smaller, localized education events in the future.

Back at BETT: U.S. companies have always had a strong presence and this year was no exception with Microsoft and Google hosting the largest stands. Others range from emerging corporate giants like Instructure to startups like BrainCo. Export opportunities to other markets was also a major theme, as countries from Egypt to Russia and Singapore sported pavilions.

BETT’s show floor includes a “Futures Zone” spot, typically reserved for early-stage edtech companies (although older ones like Manga High, founded in 2008, were also there.) Created in 2015, the Futures Zone was initially run by a third-party partner that curated a series of debates and panel discussions that attracted educators and students to policymakers, incubators and investors. But since BETT took the programming organization in-house last year, those conversations have been gone slack.

Still, there was plenty to admire, including:

  • BETT’s new after-hours “Lates” program, which started with an “unconference,” where educators from across the world shared 2- and 7-minute presentations about practices, practical innovations and personal insights in teaching. No product or commercial pitches were allowed. There was also an “edtech surgery” where startups could seek advice from experienced educators.
  • Pi-Top’s launch of its pi-top4 device, a small, rugged “go-anywhere” modular computer that can power contraptions including a photo booth, weather balloon, humanoid robot, quadcopter drone and even a hydroponic farming tool—all of which were on display.
  • A “Streaming Zone” where exhausted visitors could watch presentations on big screens while sitting in comfortable seats with headphones supplied. Like an edtech silent disco, this was a simple but genius idea for giving visitors a break from BETT's noise and crowds.

Bookending the busy week was Learnit.World, the newest of these conferences, which came together in just 18 months. With around 600 attendees, the event was the brainchild of Katy Fryatt, who previously held a senior role at BETT. Curiously enough, ITE Group (the owners of BETT and The Education Show) invested $1 million in the event, whose website pitches itself as “the catalyst for the education revolution.”

Learnit panel on AI in language learning
Learnit panel on AI in language learning. (Photo credit: Richard Taylor)

Compared to the earlier shows, this conference was much more future-looking. A good number of conversations covered research in learning sciences, and many were framed around the preparing students for future jobs. (That debunked statistic that “85 percent of future jobs don’t exist yet” was referenced multiple times.)

The discussions veered toward the esoteric at times, especially when exploring trends like educating “Generation Alpha” and envisioning learning spaces in 2025. But other presentations, such as Busuu CEO Bernhard Niesner's explanation of how the 3 billion data points in his company's artificial intelligence programs are transforming language learning, brought fresh insights that connected abstract ideas to practical solutions. And AJ Crabill, the deputy commissioner at the Texas Education Agency, challenged the audience with his mantra: “Student outcomes don’t change until adult behaviors change.”

AJ Crabill at Learnit
AJ Crabill (Photo Credit: Richard Taylor)

A common refrain in education (or any industry) is a plea to break down silos. While these four events each catered to separate education groups—political leaders, business leaders, teachers and futurists—the opportunities for cross-pollination were present. Together these events cover a huge swath of education stakeholders who could be better linked, to create something where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. With three of the week’s four events controlled by ITE Group, this is a possibility.

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