It’s January. It’s cold. All of which can mean only one thing… it’s time to pack Steve Ganfield (Faculty Learning Technologist (Humanities)) off to BETT 2019 (the ‘world’s biggest education technology event’) to find out all about the latest technological trends and share practice with colleagues within the sector as to how new hardware and software can be used to enhance learning and teaching and the student experience as a whole
It’s been a year or so since I last visited BETT but every time I come I always leave reinvigorated and eager to experiment and explore the possibilities of enhancing established pedagogy with new tools or using the tools and software we already have in more innovative and engaging ways!
The format of BETT is great. Not only is it set in the massive ExCeL centre in London but it is a heady mix of talks delivered by colleagues from within the HE sector and those from the technology industry but it also presents the opportunity to speak with vendors in order to find out about the latest tools and software.
All for one and one for all
This year accessibility is front and centre. Sarah Herrlinger (Apple’s Director Global Accessibility Policy and Initiatives) gave an interesting talk on how accessibility is at the core of Apple’s device and software production as features are available across the whole product range to ‘foster independence for users’ i.e. if they use such features on the iPhone and iPad they will be able to use similar on Mac desktops and so on. It was also interesting to hear that accessibility is increasingly being viewed as a spectrum catering those who may be profoundly deaf or sight impaired all the way to those who would use similar functionality to enlarge documents as they happen to be spectacle wearers, which then in turn boosts their productivity.
Alistair McNaught (subject specialist (Accessibility) at JiSC) ran a couple of sessions around the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations (2018) (henceforth, ‘The Public Sector Accessibility Regulations’) which are now law in the UK and implement the EU Directive on the accessibility of public sector websites and mobile applications. The sessions also provided practical advice by highlighting good practice such as using heading hierarchies in documents and alternative text for images (all of which I have endeavoured to do in this blogpost) in order to aid the comprehension of documents through the use of screen readers. In response to these regulations we now have the Kent Digital Accessibility Working Group (KDAWG) which will aim to understand the scope of these regulations to ensure consistent, sustainable, timely and meaningful compliance to help Kent meet the requirements of the regulators and improve the experience of all students.
Blackboard Ally – a friend indeed
As an institution Kent has long been focussed on making information more accessible for staff and students alike. During the 2018/19 academic year an exciting opportunity presented itself as the elearning team has been working closely with colleagues in Student Support and Wellbeing (SSW) and those within the schools in the piloting of the Blackboard Ally plugin for Moodle which takes files such as a scanned (image) pdf uploaded by lecturers and converts them into a variety of accessible formats including optical character recognised pdfs (making them accessible to screen readers) and audio .mp3 files. All of which not only benefits those with profound sight impairment but also caters for students’ increasingly diverse learning styles (i.e. listening to .mp3 audio file on the commute to campus). As the first Moodle-based HEI to pilot Blackboard Ally the elearning team and SSW have promoted the pilot widely through various demonstrations and an elearning forum and the response from both staff and students so far has been extremely positive.
Ben Watson from SSW will be exploring use of technology (such as Blackboard Ally) to support inclusive teaching in one of a number of exciting sessions at the TESSA and Technology Showcase on 26th February 2019. For more information on the event, check out the programme and the online booking form to register.
Rise of the machines
Artificial intelligence and AI assistants (such as Alexa) have been used increasingly to aid us in our daily tasks and usage is becoming increasingly prevalent in education. Just the other day I read a story about a 6-year old kid who was using Alexa in order to complete his maths homework. On the one hand you can’t fault his use of initiative in using the tools now at his disposal but it does echo an important point from a talk here at BETT from Alex Beard (Senior Director – Teach for All) and Jared Stein (VP of Higher Education Strategy – Canvas by Infrastructure) that there is an increasing danger that students could become too reliant on AI, apps and other tech doing their thinking for them and harming their own ability and capacity for learning. By all means automate processes that free up time so that educators can focus more on the teaching be it in the face-to-face or virtual setting but don’t impede student’s opportunity to learn things for themselves. Both Beard and Stein suggested that, if anything, artificial intelligence should become more user-unfriendly and be used to prompt, nudge and stretch students, make them struggle so they can learn how to learn. Stein went on to describe Project nudge in Canvas which utilised students’ preferred communication streams in order to nudge those who may not have logged into the VLE or who were due to submit assignments and so forth. The students engaged in the project reported that they found such reminders useful (with 78% of those who received such nudges submitting their assignments on time) and how it was an achievement for them to stop receiving such nudges / interventions thus demonstrating that the technology augmented their learning processes Ias opposed to just doing things for them.
Future inventions will therefore be most effective if they nudge, prod, stretch and extend human learning rather than doing it all for us. Definitely food for thought…
BETT to the Future
Another big area of focus at BETT was the use of Virtual Reality (VR) in education all the way from primary school to higher education as you could not move for demonstrations of use ranging from bringing ancient Egypt to life to driving simulation. Being one of a certain age, one example that really caught my eye was the BETT to the Future stand featuring a DeLorean that utilised the use of VR as opposed to a flux capacitor and the need to hit 88mph (hard to do in an exhibition hall stocked to the gunnels with all-manner of tech kit) to go back in time to bygone ages!
With all this talk of virtual reality it is great to announce that Howard Griffin (School of Architecture) will be demonstrating Oculus Rift in one of a number of exciting sessions at the TESSA and Technology Showcase on 26th February 2019. For more information on the event, check out the programme and the online booking form to register.
And the winner is…
As usual BETT hasn’t disappointed as I left really enthused and full of ideas. However, the cherry on top of this year’s visit has to be winning a prize draw for a fabulous interactive touchscreen courtesy of the fine folks at Interactive Education Solutions and TruTouch! It was a bit big to put under my arm as I made the pilgrimage back to Kent but as of writing it will be delivered shortly and rest assured it will be put to some serious use!
I am looking forward to next’s year’s event already!