It’s certainly fair to say that technology does progress at a phenomenal rate, and fortunately for us this surge in development and global communication has led to hundreds of awesome new products all designed to make your life as a teacher more productive and to make learning a more enjoyable experience for those in our care.
So how do we find out about this bounty? Where can we go and shop for these wonderful products and try them out? A picture may tell a thousand words but no picture in any product catalogue can truly depict the joy of seeing a particularly challenged pupil learn a new skill and experience that process of learning how their motor skills can trigger events, or other such magical moments that make teaching so worthwhile.
Well, a great place to start looking is at an Educational Show. Many take place every year, all over the country ranging in size and focus. In January, Olympia plays hosts once again to the world's largest ICT Show, BETT 2012.
This huge event over four days attracts around thirty thousand from all over the world. They come to see 600 exhibitors from all four corners of the globe and no wonder. The great exhibition hall is simply amassed with eager companies proudly showcasing their latest offerings to an equally excited audience of teachers and educationalists from the world over. The show floor at BETT can be described as a mixture of geeky.com, travelling circus and enormous classroom ringed by coffee stands. It is a complete multisensory overload, an awesome experience indeed.
If you're lucky enough to be attending BETT, or another of the many Educations Shows this year then I'd like to share some ideas with you that I hope will help you get the most out of your day and buy the things you want to make your classroom an even more pleasant and productive learning environment. Let's begin by planning your visit.
Pre show planning
1. Know where to go and when to stop!
It may seem glaringly obvious, but find out exactly where the show is! Knowing that the NEC is near Birmingham, or that Olympia is in London is not good enough. The shows generally have a website which will tell you all about transport links, road routes, car parking, places to stay and so on. Be aware that some of the recommended hotels can be very busy and you may miss out on breakfast or be late for the show if you wait it out. Many people stay further away and get a train or carpool to the venue in the morning instead. Consider journey times and budget to make good sensible travel plans. Try to arrive at the show early and well recovered and refreshed.
2. Make the show productive - be objective.
When you order show tickets you usually receive a show pack and or exhibitor listings. These can usually be found on the website too and that often has some funky search features to help you make a list of suppliers that may provide products of interest to you. These tools are there to make your life easier on the day but you need to use them before you go! Make a hit list of company names, product names, and stand numbers that particularly interest you and mark them on a floor plan map. Many shows have a dedicated Special Needs section but do remember that there is a lot of crossover between school type boundaries now. Here's the real tip though, think ahead and have a pupil or group of pupils in mind that would use the product most. You can use these students needs to question the vendor face to face at the show. More on this in tip #5.
3. Plan what you need to take with you
Buy a small reporters notepad and a pencil case sized stapler to take to the show. You will use this to make notes of any questions you have about any products in the run-up to the show and take it for more notes on the day. If your requirements are complex, Eg., a new cashless transaction system for your school, you may consider pre-printing a few copies of your requirements to give to vendors for their responses. Put your things in the pocket of a simple empty bag large enough to take away all the goodies and information you will take on the day otherwise your pockets and arms will be full in no time!
At the show
4. Make the right entrance.
No, we're not talking paparazzi, stretch limousines and red carpets. But hopefully you've made it to the show on time and you're clutching your bag and turning your phone to silent so that you're not disturbed. The queues are generally long but if it seems very slow then it may be worth making sure you're in the right queue. Often there is a fast track entrance for people that have pre-booked tickets over those that register on the day.
Once you're in the hall you will see how big the show is although most have a central focal point to make it easier to navigate. The impulse is often to head for the nearest stand of interest, and to meander through the show following the aisles as though you are shopping for groceries. I would recommend that instead of this you refer to your map and make a beeline for the stand furthest from the entrance. The reason for this is that those guys at the back often have a pretty slow start to the day and are more likely to be available for a better chat and answer your questions.
5. It's good to talk - you can only talk face to face properly at a show so grab the opportunity.
Never be scared of an empty stand. I can guarantee the vendor is more nervous and paranoid about the situation than you - it happens to the best of us at times and there is always a sinking feeling that all your efforts are going unnoticed. Don't forget most of the vendors you see will have paid in the regions of five to ten thousand pounds for their little patch of land. They really want people like you to be interested in what they have to bring to the special needs table.
So, you approach a quieter stand. What now? Well, the best thing is to throw the vendor off his patter. Instead, remember the role model pupils you elected before the show? Well, now is the time to talk about them. Tell them about your pupils personal needs, ask them to show you how this product will address the need better than any other product. This will give you a good feel for the product and the company that produces it.
Also, many new concepts are introduced at these shows so try to be open-minded and listen to the research that goes into some of these weird and wonderful things. It's important not to be dismissive of new technology or be tainted by past experiences. Technology does move very quickly and time does indeed fly so although it may seem like yesterday you found that phonics program ineffective and difficult to use, think. Could it actually be five or six years now? It could just be that the latest version may indeed be the best thing since your proverbial sliced white.
While you're talking to the vendor make notes in your jot book, especially of course, the answers to your own questions. When you have all the information you need collect a pack from the vendor, make sure you have a note of how you left things. Have you got a quote? Is he going to send you answers to a specific query? Or is the product now struck from your list? Staple your notes to the vendors information for safekeeping. If you get as far as talking money make sure you ask for a show discount. Try for money off or free add-ons and don't forget to ask how long these offers are good for after the show as you'll need time to get funding, authorisation, etc.
After the show
6. Return to school like a hunter gatherer and start begging
OK, so your feet are throbbing, your arms ache and you're tired. No rest for the wicked though, you need to get reading with all that information and choose a reasonable number that you'd really like to see in your school. Using your curriculum mapping documents or software you should be able to gather all the facts and figures you need to help justify the purchase. How many people will this resource benefit? I recommend choosing around 3 products for your shortlist and producing an A4 sheet for each one. The sheet should have headings such as "Description, Benefits who and how, Why we should buy this product (5 bullet point list), Cost of solution, budget available, shortfall, Other information available from:"
No matter who you get funding from you can bet they will want to know these things about your planned purchase so you may as well show your keenness and dedication by having it ready! When looking for funding for a special needs acquisition remember to check that you have claimed all government incentives such as curriculum on-line vouchers. Also investigate possibility of juggling money from other pots in the school that should be making a donation to cross curricular special needs. Also, never underestimate the generosity of local or even national businesses. Many companies are very proud to be affiliated with school sponsorship and are often particularly keen to sponsor a piece of equipment for the SEN element. A kind mention of thanks in the school newsletter and a copy of it when it's published will always make companies more approachable in future too!
Well, I hope that gives you some points to ponder and I hope they help you with your next show visit. If you have any particular questions or would like to speak to me about anything to do with special needs schooling and software, please email me or write a comment below.