Can video-game companies revolutionise teaching in the 21st century?

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The Independent Online

If you still associate school education with dog-eared textbooks, chalky blackboards and 1970s geography videos, you're living in the past that will be the message at the annual BETT educational technology fair in London this January. BETT is the world's leading information and communications technology event. It's been around since 1985, the same year that Microsoft launched the first version of Windows, and last year it attracted 30,000 visitors.

"BETT presents an opportunity for teachers to explore technology that they might not be using from day to day," says Briony Mansell-Lewis, director of exhibitions at Emap Public Sector, which organises BETT in partnership with the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA). "Every teacher will have their own agenda and priorities, but it's also a perfect place for them to take a range of ideas with them back into the classroom."

At this year's show, 600 exhibitors will be hoping to attract interest from headteachers looking to meet the Government's target to create a "personalised online learning space" for every pupil by the end of 2008.

The RM Asus miniBook is tipped to do well. Its makers call it an "access device" rather than a PC, but pupils can still log on to the internet, send emails and type up assignments on it. It costs 169, and it is hoped this will enable schools to buy one for all of their pupils.

"The theme this year is personalised learning and one-to-one computing," says Nick Stacey, marketing director at RM, the leading supplier of new computing technology to the education sector. "The products we're showcasing are reflecting that. The devices are the key to better engagement with pupils."

The miniBook will also allow pupils to access Kaleidos, RM's version of a "virtual learning environment", which has blogging and chat facilities. This is a password-protected website accessible to pupils and teachers. Pupils can personalise their homepage, submit essays and download lesson plans or teachers' notes.

"It's about engaging with students and motivating them," says Stacey. "If you can provide them with something that's centred on fun, you can break down the divide between home and school, which has the potential to raise standards. It also gives greater freedom to the users as well as the teachers."

Another nifty handheld device set to make waves is Activexpression, a "personal response system" created by Promethean, one of the biggest producers of interactive whiteboards, which allow teachers to project websites and videos from their laptops to the front of the classroom. It looks like a mobile phone, and allows pupils to type in their responses to a teacher's question and transmit them straight to the whiteboard, like sending a text message. The idea is that no student gets left out, and everyone's voice is heard.

"The interaction has usually been between the teacher and the blackboard, but this way the students get more involved," says Graham Cooper, head of product management at Promethean. "Teachers can spot what's been understood and what hasn't, so nobody gets left behind."

Even Sony, the firm famous for its video-game consoles, is getting involved. The PlayStation Portable (PSP) was launched some years ago to allow children to play games on the move; now it's being developed for educational purposes. The latest models can be used to download videos created by teachers, so pupils can keep up to date with classes wherever and whenever they like.

"Why not give children something they already know how to use?" says Mark Stimpfig, one of the directors of ConnectED, the UK educational distributors of the Sony PSP. "It's very video-based, which contrasts greatly with virtual learning environments, which are very static. If there are two and a half million children out there using their PSPs to play games, then there's no reason why teachers shouldn't use them for teaching purposes."

The BETT technology fair will take place at Kensington Olympia in London from 9 to 12 January