We look back on Bett 2017, the world’s largest education technology event.
Every year some 35,000 people from around 140 countries working in the education sector gather to experience and observe ideas, practices and technologies that allow educators and learners to fulfil their potential. This year, as to be expected, it did not disappoint, with some very exciting talks and lots of great new products and technologies.
The best of Bett, by Martin Hamilton
Where else can you listen to Heston Blumenthal discuss how food and cooking can unleash creativity in the classroom, and see Sir Tony Robinson share stories about his love of history and his personal quest for learning, not before enjoying a talk by Sir Ken Robinson about his views on the necessity for new approaches in the education system.
At this year’s event, Microsoft vice-president of worldwide education said: ‘We’ve got to make technology available, but to bring it all together we have to raise the bar for how we can drive innovation and transformation’, a statement that we at Jisc fully support.
Alongside the excitement of trying out new tech, chatting with peers and chairing the higher education leaders summit, I gave a talk from the Learn Live HE stage: ‘Deep Dreaming of AI in Education’.
We’ve all seen the generative art produced by Google’s Deep Dream project. What would a curriculum generated by an AI look like? Could we use the digital exhaust of learner and institutional data to improve teaching and learning outcomes, and what new ethical issues would this raise?
Alexa, what phase of the moon is it?
Artificial intelligence and machine learning is all around us now, and we increasingly take it for granted. It powers tools that we use every day like Google Photos, but we’ve not even begun to scratch the surface of what it can do for us. I’m particularly interested in how it could help in teaching and learning, for example by coaching and mentoring learners in a way that is difficult for lecturers and teachers to do with today’s large class sizes.
Even now, we are probably making more use of AI in education than we realise. For example, my daughter recently came home from school with a homework assignment to observe the phases of the moon. We’ve had a lot of cloudy nights lately, and the moon was often nowhere to be seen, so we found ourselves asking Amazon Echo: "Alexa, what phase of the moon is it?" and getting a full and comprehensive response.
Learning analytics, improving the student experience
AI techniques like machine learning can play a key role in learning analytics systems, which take their cues from the digital exhaust of student and institutional data.
For example, a learning analytics system might flag a student who hasn’t attended a lecture or signed in to IT systems for a while as being at risk, and recommend that their personal tutor gets in touch. When we add AI into the mix it becomes possible to make predictions about learning outcomes, retention and attainment.
At Jisc we're working on a learning analytics service for the sector that will give learners and institutions alike some insights into ‘what works’ and help them to adapt their approaches to teaching and learning. There are over 50 universities and colleges signed up to the initial phases, and we’re even working on an app for students to use in order to maximise their learning potential. More from Phil on this later...
AI-powered humanoid robots, no longer a fantasy
Pepper is a working robot described by Aldebaran as a ‘humanoid companion created to communicate with humans through his voice, touch, and the expression of his emotions’. He’s even already being used in schools and features in this recent BBC article: Robots and drones take over classrooms.
You can meet Pepper at our annual Digifest, which takes place on 14-15 March 2017.
Pepper isn’t the only robot out there, Amazon already uses over 30,000 robots in its warehouses and distribution centres, and 90,000+ Telsa cars with AI powered autopilot are already on the road. Google DeepMind AI, has even learned to play the game Breakout, and its self-driving car division (Waymo) is now partnering with multiple car manufacturers to bring its technology to market.
Taught by robots?
AI might seem quite alien, but it will have a huge impact on work and society, and it’s already clear that we will need to keep upskilling in order to understand and exploit this new technology.
It’s easy to conjure up dystopian images of robots and AI taking over even quite highly-skilled jobs but, at the same time, these new technologies also open up all sorts of new opportunities. Just as, for example, today's smart homes need plumbers and electricians with new or updated skillsets. And AI could actually play a key role in helping people to both learn and upskill.
In my talk I asked the audience to consider how AIs might help support a population and workforce that is increasingly adopting portfolio careers and using bite-sized learning to top up their skills.
Following up what I said earlier about Alexa and learning analytics, does this mean that our children will end up being taught by robots? When we consider everything from Alexa to search engine recommendations powered by AI, perhaps to some extent they already are…
Bett and learning analytics, an update from Phil Richards
This year’s Bett coincided with our announcement that we are extending our learning analytics vendor partnership to include DTP Solutionpath and Excelsoft. Tying in with this, I presented the talk: Can data help improve the way we teach?
DTP Solutionpath provide the system used by one of the UK pioneers of learning analytics, Nottingham Trent University (NTU), helping establish for example that 27% of NTU students changed their learning behaviour in response to being exposed to data on a learning analytics dashboard.
In my presentation, I was pleased to reference this and other firm evidence that learning analytics can give an early alert for students experiencing difficulties, with targeted interventions improving success.
The end of the lecture theatre?
I also chaired a talk by David Hill, faculty outreach coordinator, University of Portsmouth, and Tilly Harrison, principal teaching fellow, University of Warwick: Bid farewell to the lecture theatre? The evolution of learning spaces in higher education.
We had an interesting and lively discussion that looked at various approaches to moving away from the traditional lecture, and barriers to effecting those, both from academic and professional services staff, while a number of questions and points were raised from the audience using the Glisser online platform.
Looking ahead from Bett to Jisc's Digifest
While at Bett, I took every opportunity network with my peers, and the learning analytics vendor community. I feel it will be an exciting couple of years in the edtech space; or, as the Bett website puts it: ‘Bett 2017 is over but the education revolution is just beginning.’
At this year’s Digifest, we’ll be celebrating the power of digital, its potential to transform and its capacity to revolutionise learning and teaching. Tickets are free to Jisc-supported organisations and are still available to book.