The educational division of the media conglomerate News Corp., called Amplify, unveiled a new digital tablet this week at the SXSW tech conference in Austin, Texas, intended to serve millions of schoolchildren and their teachers across the country.
Amplify promises the tablet will simplify administrative chores for teachers, enable shy children to participate more readily in discussions, and allow students to complete coursework at their own pace while drawing upon carefully selected online research resources.
News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch views the digital tablet as part of a push to modernize the educational system. But he has another goal in mind as well. The media mogul is counting on future revenues from his educational branch to help shore up the finances of his newspaper and publishing division as it is split off later this year from the conglomerate's vast holdings in television and entertainment.
And as a result, News Corp.'s initiative is stirring both interest and controversy.
In the past few years, Murdoch has described education as a market worth hundreds of billions of dollars. At a May 2011 event in Paris, Murdoch noted that the fields of medicine, finance and media have all accelerated their adoption of technology. But schools have failed to share such advances, he said.
"Today's classroom looks almost exactly the same as it did in the Victorian age: a teacher standing in front of a roomful of kids with only a textbook, a blackboard and a piece of chalk," Murdoch said.
The person Murdoch hired to lead his charge, Joel Klein, is familiar in education circles. Klein is a Democrat and served as assistant attorney general under President Clinton. He was chancellor of the New York City school system for more than eight years for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He's easy to pick out at Amplify's offices in midtown Manhattan. He's the only person dressed in a suit and tie in a workspace that more closely resembles a startup — replete with people confidently volleying at a pingpong table and piloting miniature helicopters overhead as their CEO walks by.
"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.
"And if this does what I believe it will do — which is enhance the teaching and learning processes — then it's going to be a home run."
A sneak peak revealed an Android tablet with a firm silicone jacket (designers say they have to expect pupils to be as careless with the tablets as they are with traditional textbooks). It is customized with apps for teachers to help them run quizzes and determine pupils' progress with ease while containing all of their coursework in a single, 10-inch device. It comes loaded with Amplify's curricular materials that satisfy so-called "Common Core" requirements mandated in all but five U.S. states. If Amplify wins the rights to carry most texts electronically — admittedly a tough nut to crack, given how warily publishers view e-books — the tablet can truly serve as a digital backpack.
Other companies, including such giants as Apple, are trying to sell school districts on the value of their tablets, too. Stephen Smyth, president of Amplify's Access division that creates the digital platforms on which its curricular material is delivered, argues that his company's tablet is distinctive because it is designed to allow students to interact with teachers instantaneously.
"These devices are connected," Smyth said recently. "If you go to Best Buy or a retailer and buy a tablet off the shelf, it can't do this. Really, what we're trying to solve here is actually how to have teachers use tablets in the classroom environment."
But some critics question what problem the tablets from Amplify — and its competitors — are solving. Some teachers union officials argue that Amplify's efforts are part of a disturbing effort to lure politicians with technology that promises to enable teachers to handle more students per class — and thus reduce how many teachers school districts will need to employ.
Leonie Haimson, executive director of the nonprofit Class Size Matters in New York City, said Klein and Murdoch "believe that public school kids should have larger classes, and instead of getting personalized instruction via their teachers, should do it via a computer."
The tablet may well function perfectly well on its own terms, Haimson said, but she contends that Amplify's goal is less about helping schoolchildren than about turning a profit.
"It's all part of the same vision they have for transforming education by privatizing it," Haimson said. "And we have seen not just in New York City but nationwide an avid pillaging going on of public resources for private ends."
Klein's record in New York, a selling point in Murdoch's decision to hire him, is political baggage among some of his foes in the battles over education policy. Diane Ravitch, a former assistant education secretary under President George H.W. Bush who now criticizes some of her earlier allies, wrote last year that Klein and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had manufactured a schools crisis in a report for the Council on Foreign Relations. Klein and Rice wrote a report that carried this stark warning: "Educational failure puts the United States' future economic prosperity, global position and physical safety at risk."
She wrote that Klein and Rice offered prescriptions that were unproven — especially the reliance on technology proffered by private corporations.
Just days after leaving city government in 2010, Klein joined News Corp. in order to invigorate Murdoch's efforts in education. The company swiftly paid $360 million for an educational tech venture called Wireless Generation, which had been a contractor for the city schools on two high-profile projects. That firm was used as the basis for what they rechristened "Amplify."
But before they could get very far, Murdoch's tabloids in London became embroiled in the bribery and criminal phone hacking scandal. New York state revoked a $27 million contract for an education database with Amplify, citing concerns about the integrity of its parent company.
And Klein was pulled away to help Murdoch clean up the legal mess. He led an effort to collaborate with law enforcement authorities in both the U.K. and the U.S., thus limiting the company's likely liability in both countries and enabling it to avoid any criminal prosecutions or major civil sanctions for bribery in the U.S., at least so far.
"The good news was, while we had a problem in the U.K., that problem wasn't a global problem," Klein said.
Yet Klein, now back at Amplify, conceded there is some suspicion of his boss's politics and motives, too.
In this country, Murdoch has pushed for greater reliance on charter schools, criticized teachers unions and given money to aid select politicians sharing his agenda. For example, records show News America, an arm of News Corp., gave $250,000 toward a group that helped to fund like-minded candidates running for the Los Angeles Board of Education. And Murdoch's primary American news organizations — Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post — have high-profile conservative pundits who have often been skeptical to the point of hostile toward teachers groups.
But Klein said Amplify should not be confused with its corporate siblings that often serve as a platform for political stands.
"Rupert realized this from the beginning: This is a division that's going to be focused on education," Klein said. "We don't have a political mission — none whatsoever. What we're doing is developing materials in math and science and the English language arts — designed by leading experts.
"Our commitment," Klein said, "is education only. We have no subsidiary agenda."