March 8, 2013 at 2:49 PM ET
A new effort from Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. plans to provide not just content for education, but the hardware with which to view it. The company's Android-based Amplify tablet will take on the iPad, aiming to provide both classroom management and interactive lessons, for students and teachers alike.
News Corp. got into the education business in mid-2012 with a new division called Amplify, which has been developing content and tools to help bring technology to K-12 classrooms. Yet the decision to launch a tablet was a bit of a risk, as other well-heeled companies, from Apple to Amazon, are also eyeing the education space.
Amplify's approach is to provide an end-to-end solution. The team claims that a class equipped with Amplify tablets will not only have access to rich content and lessons, but will be easier to manage, thanks to built-in tools for tracking students and personalizing content.
Direct communication between teacher and student can make it easier to catch up with faltering kids, and a variety of games and Internet-era interactions (buttons and emoticons) make the platform engaging for students.
"Technology has been around a long time, but it hasn't changed the learning experience," the project's leader, former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein, told NPR. "And if this does what I believe it will do — which is enhance the teaching and learning process — then it's going to be a home run."
The video below shows it in action, and it's clear that they've taken many of the common needs for teachers and students alike into account:
But it's not just an uphill battle for News Corp. to compete with larger hardware-focused challengers. Amplify also must deal with the same headwinds that those larger firms now face.
Cost, for instance. At $299 each, or $349 with a built-in 4G connection, these aren't the cheapest tablets on the market. Add on a $99-per-year content subscription fee (with a two-year contract required), and you end up at about $500 per device. With 30 kids in a classroom and a dozen or two classrooms in a school, those costs start adding up fast. Few school districts have half a million dollars burning a hole in their pocket, and not all can seek outside help in the form of grants or extra student fees.
In case you're wondering, News Corp. didn't go and design its own tablet from the ground up. In fact, it's a decent piece of hardware based on the Asus Transformer TF300TL.
The only foreseeable downside is a so-so screen: Considering how much reading one would expect to be done on this device, a high-resolution "Retina" screen like the iPad's or Nexus 10's would be far better.
But Amplify's Stephen Smyth points out that their own tablet does things iPads and others won't: for instance, automatically connect with others in the classroom, allowing instant feedback, questions to the teacher, and other critical functions.
"If you go to Best Buy or a retailer and buy a tablet off the shelf, it can't do this," he told NPR. "Really, what we're trying to solve here is actually how to have teachers use tablets in the classroom environment."
And as Apple and Google have perhaps foreseen, a smaller, cheaper device like the Nexus 7 or iPad Mini might serve better for small hands. But no single approach is perfect, and Amplify's is certainly valid.
It's clear that Amplify's heart is in the right place, though. Klein told the New York Times that having administrated the system for so long taught him that "if we didn't see a dramatic technological change, we were not going to be able to move this country forward." And he didn't see schools inventing new tech themselves — they had enough on their plate already.
In-classroom tests of the system began in November, but the tablet is not yet available for purchase. Curious teachers, administrators, and students can sign up for updates at Amplify's website.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.