Amplify and The Quest for the Holy (Educational) Grail

It’s a strange coincidence that while I was procrastinating (researching) a piece on tablets and education I run across Amplify on Engadget. Amplify is a new company bringing learning software for tablets aimed at the Kindergarten through 12th grade markets. The software includes tools for monitoring student improvement and tools for teachers and parents. Amplify is working in conjunction with ATT to get these services into classrooms.



Amplify is a subsidiary of News Corps (yes the one owned by Rupert Murdoch). The company is made up of News Corps Scholastic publishing and another eLearning company, Wireless Generation (a maker of education software for mobile and tablets). Amplify’s CEO Joel Kline is the former Chancellor of New York’s Department of Education and a well known thinker in its education. Many of the top heads of Amplify have backgrounds in Education for Profit (Privatized Education), business, and one guy who worked on Barnes and Noble’s Nook and related software. 

It’s strange but looking at the videos showing off Amplify’s software and the testimonials about the effectiveness of its software package, I was remembering my first run-ins with technology in a classroom. For me that was elementary school in the Eighties. I remember it was around 2nd or 3rd grade we saw the technicians bring in the boxes and install 30-40 computers in the room near the councilors office. Now I can’t tell you the model or what OS it ran and we didn’t spend a lot of time in the Computer Room; going there was one of the rewards for being good students and behaving (so we didn’t go often). If you went into the room you did one of two things, you played the Oregon Trail or Super Number Crunchers. Back then and honestly until I was in 12th grade computers were seen and barely used. Depending on your class a teacher might use some educational software but it wasn’t an integral part of the curriculum. And I’m not going to bore you with my High School computer class which wasn’t much better (one of my assignments was learning how to use Paint). Honestly the one class that made great use of computers wasn’t a class, it was the Yearbook.

Now that was a century ago (damn you Father Time) and if I went into a class today it would be different, but only slightly. And it would depend on a lot of factors like whether it was a technical school, AP, Optional, or a Charter.

You get the idea. Technology in a classroom is a mixed bag; depending on teachers, students, and planning it can be asset or a time waster. For all the talk of the world being changed by technology and technology changing how we live; it hasn’t had a clear success in education. The reason is because no one honestly knows how to fit them in.

There are the obvious places for them, what some call STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) courses. These are the courses that define the 21st century workforce or at least that’s what they tell you. These are also the courses that rely on computational power; CAD comes to mind. But what about the social sciences, history, and art? What role does a PC have there? There is no clear answer. And yet if you look at the conversation about education reform one of the solutions is to push Computers (along with smartphones and tablets).

And into that quagmire Amplify and others walk. I will give Amplify credit because it system has ways of monitoring students and measuring results. And from the videos (the site lacks a lot of info) it appears teachers can set the agenda. I do worry that its pushing a model of teaching that maybe too data focused; I think we are in enough trouble with the test based mess now.

As much I would like to see tablets be embraced as educational tools, I worry that educators, politicians, and parents will inflate their importance. That the simple act of having them in the room will make a smarter child.

The reality is that computers and tablets can be distracting. Yes they can sit there and write a report, but they can also sit there and watch videos on YouTube. We need to see smarter uses of technology in classrooms. Technology needs to be a reinforcement for whatever subject the teacher in the room is teaching. I see tablets and computers as extenders; an add on. Teachers need to have a plan on how to integrate them into the lesson plan. I’m sorry but if you don’t need the distraction of a glowing screen, don’t use one. I also question why no one looks at using the stylus to reinforce the seemingly forgotten R which is writing. Writing reinforces memory and honestly I don’t think we need to be living in a world where we have adults who can’t recognize hand writing.

The digital revolution is coming to education, I’m just hoping that it will be smart about it.


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