Amplify CEO Joel Klein on how tablets and games will revolutionize education

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by Doug Drinkwater,
September 11th 2013

When News Corp split in two over a year ago, there was one surprise in the restructuring chaos – news of a recently-launched company division tasked with revolutionizing K-12 education.

CEO Rupert Murdoch had spoken passionately about the topic in the past, even meeting with the late Steve Jobs on numerous occasions to discuss the matter, and contacted a trusted confidante to turn that dream into a reality.

Joel Klein, the former New York City schools chief and no stranger to tough leadership himself having being the lead prosecutor in the anti-trust case against Microsoft at the start of the century, was charged with leading the new division.

“He said ‘do you want to leave the school system and come and work with me?’ It is an area with enormous promise and it has a big impact on the rest of our lives,” Klein told TabTimes.

Although with limited teaching experience on his resume, Klein had seen enough of education to know that things needed changing, and sought inspiration from his home city before embarking on the Amplify project.

“It goes back a couple of years looking at the Innovation Zone [a plan introduced by New York City Schools to push one-to-one learning]. We were seeing lots of distance learning and some schools were even teaching children different modalities.”

Despite this drive for innovation, both Klein and Murdoch were adamant on one thing – technology hadn’t yet been able to fulfil the needs of teachers and students.

“There is nothing for 1-to-1 computing optimized for education. There are lots of laptops and other consumer products [in schools] but they’re not educational.

“I’ve literally seen laptops and desktops in the basements of schools. They weren’t learning devices -- they were used for accessing internet so they had some value -- but they weren’t’ critical to the user experience.”

Klein even deems Apple’s iPad, arguably the hottest tablet in education right now, to be of limited functionality.

“As good as the iPad is, it’s really not optimized for the education space.”

As such, Amplify – which has 1,200 employees (most of whom come from News Corp’s acquisition of Wireless Generation) spread across three divisions – started work on an Android tablet with its own digital curriculum to boot.

“We thought it would be compelling to see what a tablet for teaching and learning would look like, with tools, content and enterprise mobility management,” said Klein.

The tablet is a 'a vehicle' for learning

The group’s subsequent creation was a 10-inch tablet with a quad-core Tegra 3 system-on-chip and the Android 4.1 Jelly Bean operating system (the company hasn't yet detailed when the slate will update to Android 4.2 or 4.3).

The battery life is quoted at 8.5 hours and the tablet is made by the Nexus 7 maker Asus, even though Klein admits that the company may not stay with the Taiwanese vendor forever.

However, Klein is adamant that the tablet is just one piece of the puzzle.

“The tablet is simply a vehicle for what’s on the tablet,” said Klein, who added that the Amplify tablet is organized so that students first see what they need for their school day, such as notebooks, subjects and textbooks.

“The tablet is such an incredibly intuitive device, but our chief product guy found that when students brought these devices to school, they would shut them off. We wanted to see what happened when you turned them on.”

As Klein mentioned, everything is a little bit different on the Amplify tablet and that owes largely to the content, which costs $99 per year on subscription in addition to the tablet’s starting price of $299.

With content organized by subject, the tablet also boasts a feature where teachers can push out an “eyes on teacher” message when they want students to focus on the board.

Emoji smileys are also used so teachers can check if a student understands a lesson, while teachers can also see if a student is using their tablet to look at email, block apps or even shut down digital access altogether.

Reinforcing curriculum with games

While these features are likely to be welcomed by teachers, Klein explains that it is the game-based learning which is really catching on with children.

“We reinforce our curriculum with games and, having done some modelling and experimental studies, we found that the kids that respond learn more.

“Every now and then something [a game] wouldn’t catch on, but some did big time,” said Klein, who added that a trial run at a school in Connecticut saw children return the Amplify tablets back to school with no battery life.

“We talked to a lot of kids. The other thing we learned is that if you assign it as homework, it won’t work because it’s not a game.”

Teachers too have been briefed and are being trained on the Amplify tablet, and Klein believes that these folks will ultimately determine how these tablets fare in education.

“If teachers find the experience to be a positive one, they will become the drivers of this. We’ve had a positive response from most teachers and that’s the difference between us and our competitors – we have a team who spend several weeks in the school. Teachers now feel supported, rather than ‘I don’t know how to use this’.”

Deployments range from 1,000 to 23,000

Amplify’s deployments have ranged from 1,000 and 2,000 and up since forming one year ago, with Guilford County Schools having just started deploying an impressive 23,000 units.

And while Klein states that schools vary from the aggressively-implemented one-to-one plans in K-12 or middle schools to just some light piloting, the chief exec believes that the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend – which is currently a hotbed of activity in the enterprise – is a short-term solution in the classroom environment.

“Some schools are talking about BYOD but there are equity and data issues. It’s not a big piece in the long-term puzzle.”

Looking ahead, Klein sees a bright future for Amplify, and is adamant that the company is in the market both in the long term and – potentially – overseas too.

“This is not going to be a boutique business. There will be substantial growth over the next five years,” said Klein, who also hinted at the possibility of Amplify making a smaller tablet, which would tap into school demand for Apple’s iPad mini.

Amplify has previously predicted that tablets will contribute to 40% of the division’s revenue, with another 40% coming from Amplify’s tablet-based curriculum. No wonder then that Klein is confident of the company's profitability in years to come.

He also believes tablets will continue to demonstrate value.

“This is going to be a powerful force. Three years ago no-one was talking about MOOCs (long-distance learning) and now people are being given online degrees. So this really is the earliest innings and it’s really encouraging to me.