The teacher dashboard of the Amplify tablet, which debuts Weds. March 6, 2013. It gives teachers greater control over how students use their tablets and enables them to monitor their usage in real-time. (Handout from Amplify)
By Greg Toppo
Can a tablet computer replace the contents of a student's backpack?
A New York-based educational technology startup on Wednesday releases the first device that could answer that question, introducing an Android-powered touchscreen tablet designed for kids both to take to school and bring home.
For sale only to schools for now, the Amplify tablet comes pre-loaded with virtually everything a student will encounter during the school day, including all the textbooks, lessons, tests and e-books she might be assigned.
What's perhaps more significant, Amplify will give teachers the ability to both monitor and control what students do with the device. Teachers can conduct lessons with an entire class or small group and can instantly see what websites or lesson areas students are visiting. A teacher dashboard allows them to take instant polls, ask kids to "raise their hands" virtually and, if things get out of hand, redirect the entire class with an "Eyes on Teacher" button that instantly pushes the message out to every screen.
Debuting Wednesday at the South x Southwest Edu conference in Austin, the tablet will cost $299 for a Wi-Fi-only model or $349 for a 4G model. Each device requires a two-year service and materials bundle, which will run $99-a-year for the Wi-Fi tablet or $179-a-year for the 4G model.
It's the first foray into mobile computing by Amplify Education Inc., a New York-based tech firm created last year when Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. bought the education startup Wireless Generation. The new company's CEO is former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who for years has been a magnet for both innovation and controversy.
Klein, a former head of the U.S. Justice Department's antitrust division, became schools chancellor shortly after New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg gained control over the system. He served from 2002 to 2010, making him one of the longest-serving urban superintendents in recent history. He pushed to improve schools with greater scrutiny of test results, and he shook up the system by creating hundreds of small schools. Graduation rates improved, but Klein antagonized teachers' unions by undermining seniority rules and proposing bonuses based on test-score gains.
Klein said educational technology in general, and tablets specifically, hold the possibility of making school a more efficient, friendly and personalized place for kids. "If you have a tablet-based approach, you can get a whole lot smarter a whole lot quicker," he said.
Education technology blogger Michael Gorman, who also trains teachers for Fort Wayne, Ind., schools, said he has been following the educational tablet market for years and is "really excited to see this one."
The Amplify tablet's 4G capabilities, which would allow students to access the Internet without home Wi-Fi, could be crucial, he said. "If you can get funding, it takes away that Digital Divide. It equals that playing field."
His school district has handed out 4,100 laptop computers in the past year - a potentially smart investment for students, he said, because tablets are generally more limited tools, focusing more on allowing users to consume information than produce it.
"If you sit down and want to write a story and multitask ... I wouldn't be surprised if you still prefer to grab the old laptop first," he said.
If the new tablet allows students to produce original work, Gorman said, it could be a game-changer. "We want something that allows our kids to go beyond that consumption," he said.