The Amplify Tablet: News Corp.’s tablet for the classroom

Yesterday, Amplify, the education unit of News Corp., released a tablet that promises to enhance the classroom experience for students and teachers alike. For students, the Amplify Tablet features a personal interface as well as search tools, applications, and content made specifically for educational purposes. For teachers, it offers a centralized place for accessing and sharing teaching materials that fit with Common Core standards as well as teaching and administrative tools such as the ability to run quick surveys of whether students understood a lesson. As the Amplify Tablet garners adopters, teachers could share their “lesson playlists” with each other. Finally, it would allow district administrators to manage thousands of devices remotely.

Much like the attraction of e-books to those who begrudge a heavy backpack, using a single device for accessing and sharing content for all school subjects is an attractive one. Making the platform open to other applications and content makes the Amplify Tablet better still. From this view, the Amplify Tablet could be seen as just another competitor alongside the iPad in the tablets-for-education market. Yet the Amplify Tablet is the first such device created specifically for K-12 education, one that could replace the book bag for good.

Are we ready to jump from the print book and pen and paper to the tablet in the classroom? Amplify itself highlights a report on the digital divide in internet access among rich and poor students. Is the introduction of a tablet with educational content at $299 per device plus a $99 annual subscription fee the best answer for students already underserved?

Even for those in graduate schools with multitudes of electronic resources at our fingertips, the shift from working with textbooks and paper to a tablet is not necessarily a simple jump. The experience of reading an e-book is different from reading a print book, as are the reader’s abilities to highlight and annotate the text. There is a certain learning curve for digital devices that must be overcome before users can take advantage of their full functionality. The question becomes whether it is worth the investment in money and training to introduce the Amplify Tablet into the classroom. In the end, the Amplify Tablet with all its apps and content will not replace a good teacher.

Coverage from NPR and The New York Times has expressed skepticism that Amplify is truly interested in helping teachers. Joel Klein, the head of Amplify and former chancellor of the New York City school system, is not exactly beloved of teachers unions. Last November, the United Federation of Teachers sued Klein for lack of compliance with the Freedom of Information Act, specifically in regard to access to potentially revealing emails about charter schools.

Yet Klein purports the goal of improving education, and many believe him. NPR’s David Folkenflik quotes Klein suggesting that his work at Amplify is not just about creating new devices:

“Critics and others have said, ‘You know … technology has been around a long time, but it hasn’t changed the learning experience’,” Klein told NPR. “It’s not about hardware, it’s not about devices, it’s really about learning. (paragraph 8.)

Whether the greater goals of Amplify go beyond working toward the success of the Amplify Tablet, the release of the Amplify Tablet this week does seem to be about the device. Whether it becomes a truly transformational technology in the classroom is very much likely up to a number of factors, not the least of which is the teacher in the classroom.