Ahead by Bett 2022

After an enforced two-year break thanks to COVID, we sent Steve Ganfield back to Bett ‘the world’s biggest education technology event’ at ExCeL in London to explore the latest developments in EdTech and practice across the HE sector.

Picture of the blue and purple entrance way to the Ahead by Bett event in one of the ExCeL exhibition halls
Gateway to all things HE at the inaugural Ahead by Bett event

This year in addition to the usual technology showcase there was a new Ahead by Bett event particularly tailored to the higher education sector boasting an Auditorium for talks, a Sandbox for case studies and the sharing of practice and a Collaboration space for roundtable discussion, so join us as we explore this exciting inaugural event!

Grasping the thistle 

Picture of a spiky thistle boasting a pink flower
HE needs to ‘grasp the thistle’ and further embrace digital (“Scottish Thistle at Loch Tarff – South Loch Ness – Inverness Scotland” by conner395 is marked with CC BY 2.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/?)

While the past two years have been phenomenally challenging, one positive thing to come out of it all has been that, with simply no other choice, it forced many of us in education to really look at processes, course delivery and assessment, and our own practice and truly assess whether it continued to be fit for purpose. Something we may not have ever truly gotten around to were it not for these exceptional circumstances.

As a Learning Technologist at the University of Kent I can safely say I have never been busier supporting academic colleagues during this period to, in many cases, leave their comfort zone and evolve their practice to embrace online and blended delivery methodologies in a very short space of time. Much of this change has been very reactive, borne out of pure necessity and perhaps not as good as many of us would have liked in an ‘ideal world’ but now, as we emerge from the COVID nightmare, we have, perhaps, a unique opportunity to reflect on the experience and the lessons learned. As Tom Duff (Associate Director LTA, City of Glasgow College) stated in a presentation on supporting hybrid learning, we need to be brave and ‘grasp the thistle’ and take forward and hone our practice further while being mindful not to retreat back to what was familiar and comfy pre-COVID.

Opportunity knocks through Digital Transformation  

Picture of a white robot
Digital transformation is here to stay

This sentiment of pushing forward and taking the time to consider the opportunities afforded by going digital encompassing everything from administrative processes right through to course delivery and assessment was echoed by Heidi Fraser-Krauss (Chief Executive Officer, Jisc) whose presentation was very thought provoking. It is becoming increasingly clear that HEIs need to now recognise digital more readily as a strategic asset and digital innovation as now a core element of the student experience at all levels. What is also clear is that digital transformation will not happen overnight and staff will need to be given the time and support to make the transition as evidenced in the presentation by Dr Ann Thanaraj (Assistant Academic Registrar – Digital Transformation) and Paul Durston (Digital Learning Manager) where they are a year into a 4-year plan at Teesside University.

Does online delivery dilute the impact and reach of academic teaching and research? 

Many have expressed concerns over online delivery diluting the impact and reach of academic teaching and research. However, in a interesting panel discussion Professor Perry Hobson (Director – Breda University), Dr Meike Vogel (Head of Centre for Teaching and Learning – Bielefeld University) and Renata Tomaskova (Teacher and Vice-Rector for International Relations – University of Ostrava) discussed that with students now seeking more of a blend of ‘virtual’ and ‘face-to-face’ delivery there is more opportunity than ever before for academic staff to move away from being based at a particular campus and to become more digital, more easily accessed by students around the world and potentially even shared between institutions. Thus actually increasing the impact and reach of academic teaching and research. It was also argued that going more digital also opens up greater possibilities for HEIs to enter into partnerships and networks and share practice. The rise of the Digital Professor may well be upon us!

Similarly, Diana Laurillard (Professor of Learning with Digital Technologies at (University College London (UCL) Knowledge Lab) suggested in her session that online delivery by way of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)  or collaborations (CoMOOCs) informed by research rather than diluting actually presents opportunities to use educational technologies to scale up the value, reach and impact of said research. Particularly, to enhance continuous professional development (CPD)  activities for teachers and lecturers such as the Blended and Online Learning Design MOOC UCL run on the Future Learn platform. This 3-week MOOC gives academic staff the opportunity to reflect on their existing course design and through use of the Learning Designer tool identify online alternatives they may wish to explore to achieve either a fully online or blended delivery before having their course designs peer reviewed and potentially shared with the sector.

A new willingness to share and discuss practice

In terms of facilitating the sharing of research, teaching and practice with colleagues across the sector, technologies such as Zoom and MS Teams came into their own during the pandemic as they made the world as a whole a much smaller place and connected colleagues around the world in a way many of us wouldn’t have previously considered had it not been for COVID.

Indeed, our very own Dr Phil Anthony SFHEA (Learning Technologist for Natural Sciences and Kent Business School (KBS)) saw the opportunity to expand a digitally enhanced education module (created by the e-learning team here at the University of Kent to support Kent colleagues in the transition to online delivery in response to the pandemic) using MS Teams into what is now a thriving global community of practice across the sector. As of writing, the Digitally Enhanced Education Webinar series has seen presentations from HEIs across the globe in addition to vendors such as Microsoft, while the community boasts a membership of 3500 (including 100 NHS staff and 60 from the London Metropolitan Police). All of which again showcases the innovation and resilience of those across the HE sector to come together to support one another and share their research and practice not only with each other but also those from other professions.

However, I have to say having had the opportunity to wander the vast exhibition halls here at ExCeL this year it has been great to actually physically ‘feel’ the buzz and enthusiasm and network with colleagues and vendors alike and remember that they do actually have legs and don’t live inside a box on my desk!

It is in this space of sharing practice and discussion that my time at Ahead by Bett and the wider show came to an end as I joined colleagues and vendors alike in the Collaboration space for what was a first for me – a roundtable discussion on Ethical Approaches to Digital Leadership and the Association for Learning Technology’s (ALT) Framework for Ethical Learning Technology (FELT) moderated by David White (ALT President and Head of Digital Education, University of the Arts London) and colleagues. I have to admit it was really refreshing having the conversation in person without the pressure and embarrassment at having to ‘unmute’ or explain whether it was actually ‘a new hand’ or an ‘old one’! The discussion itself proved very insightful and I look forward to seeing how this develops in the months ahead.

Steve Ganfield stood next to a blue robot company mascot
It wouldn’t be a visit to Bett without the obligatory company mascot photo!

A safe Bett

As we look to embracing a more digital, and potentially more blended learning-oriented future post-COVID, I would urge colleagues be they academic or IT focussed to check out this event, and in particular the HE specific Ahead by Bett event, in the future as it provides a great mix of insight into developments in educational technology in addition to opportunities to hear and share practice and discussion on the big challenges facing the sector. As of writing, the next event is scheduled for 29-31 March 2023 at ExCeL in London so, global pandemics allowing, you never know I might see you there!


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