Mobile Learning | Q&A

Amplify's Joel Klein Talks Tablets, Big Data, and Disappearing Textbooks

Joel Klein holds the ambitious goal of remaking K-12 education in America (and bring profits to Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in the process). Before Klein joined News Corp. in 2010 to head up its education division, Amplify, he served as chancellor of the roughly 1-million student New York Public Schools system and, before that, as a lawyer. Now building on Amplify’s 2010 acquisition of Wireless Generation--and its mobile assessment software--he’s in the process of introducing schools to customized, digital tablets loaded with curriculum and apps. We recently spoke with Klein about the importance of 1-to-1, learning analytics, and shifting the MOOC phenomenon to K-12. 

Paul Glader: Are you recommending a 1-to-1 model to schools, where every student has their own tablet? Can tablets work in the non-1-to-1 classroom?

Joel Klein: Yes... This whole notion of carts of computers and tablets hasn’t worked. One-to-one is more personalized. The tablet gets smarter with the student. And a teacher can drive content appropriate for a given student. The tablet is a way to extend the school day and school year outside the classroom. [Regarding] non-1-to-1, you can do it. Like anything else, it is less impactful. I have seen models where students take turns throughout the day. If you want a more impactful experince, you go with 1-to-1. We have students use this from home and participate when they are sick. Teachers have also dialed in and taught from home.

Glader: Educators have been aware of the advantages of Android tablets for a while, but it’s still been a hard sell. What makes an education-focused tablet like yours different from a consumer one adopted for education?

Klein: It’s the difference between day and night. Giving kids a consumer tablet or computer. Sure it’s a cool thing. It’s not about the hardware. It’s about the learning implications of a device. Everything we are about at Amplify is we lead with the learning and teaching function. What we are designing is not a tablet for social networking with your friends. We are designing a tablet that is for the school. The front page doesn’t look like a series of apps. It is geared around your subject matter.

Glader: I see that Amplify is designing educational games for the tablets. What is your company’s approach to gaming in the classroom? Are the games you’re designing meant to be integrated into the curriculum or played supplementally? 

Klein: They are meant to be played supplementally. One of the things we learned from kids is games are not games if they are meant to be mandatory. We have Lexica, which is learning words under siege. It’s aligned with the curriculum of kids reading authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, and Frederick Douglas. The games are supplementary... but integrated and aligned with curriculum.           

Glader: What does tablet use look like today in US K-12 schools and what do you predict it will look like in 5 or 10 years?

Klein: Today, I think we are in the early innings. You are beginning to see 1-to-1 implementations. You are seeing bring your own device (BYOD). People are using tablets in lab methodology. In five years, I think you will see huge numbers of 1-to-1 implementation in the United States. Making predictions, as Yogi Berra said, is perilous in that it involves the future. In 10 years, though, I think it will be ubiquitous. 

Glader: What happens to the printed book in the 1-to-1 classroom?

Klein: I think the printed textbook should be given a respectful and decent burial. I think it should be gone... There is no reason you can’t give kids a digitized version of the textbook. I actually think the textbook itself is going to become anachronistic. The teaching experience that has curriculum and textbook elements integrated is the way of the future.

Glader: At what age (or grade level) do you think students should start primarily using tablets?

Klein: I think we are still in a learning curve on that. I think you can use them at every grade level. Kids in the upper grades clearly can use tablets in their experience completely. With one click on our tablet, it says, “eyes on teacher.” The whole tablet shuts down and the children are engaged in discussion with the teacher. That will be a big part of blended learning... In the early grades, you use tablets but not as frequently.

Glader: How should parents or teachers create some balance so that students can disconnect every once in a while from these studying, reading, communication devices?

Klein: We can enable parents to shut down apps at home so students are doing certain work and not others. So they can say you can use Facebook after they do their homework. It’s not a tablet from the consumer market sold into the education space. It is an education tablet so all these controls are built in for parents and teachers. We don’t want kids in the middle of the classroom playing Angry Birds. We want them focused on the work at the time... We are the first people to go out there with a commercial license with Sal Khan and the Khan Academy... We look at this through the prism of the educator, not through the prism of the technologist or consumer.

Glader: How do you see a more competitive education tablet marketplace affecting the industry, and what is the net effect for schools? 

Klein: I both welcome competitors and need to make sure I have products and services that distinguish our offerings from theirs. I’m sure others will be competing for school contracts. All of which will stimulate the development of a marketplace.

Glader: How do data and analytics fit into Amplify’s business?

Klein: It’s the foundation of everything we do. Amplify grew out of Wireless Generation. It is the leading company in K-12 education for data and analytics. You can find out how kids really enjoy learning. You can start to customize and tailor the learning experience. You can put students on our tablet in four groups of six or six groups of four or whatever. You begin to get smarter and smarter. You begin to do an assessment of a kid. A teacher can see who of her 16 kids are getting it and can move along. She can see the four who are not getting it. She can send them a chapter to read, a Sal Khan lecture to watch or other learning materials. You can see how getting smart enables a teacher to customize material.

Glader: We see your company is also getting into the MOOC phenomenon with an AP computer science prep course. Tell us more about that.

Klein: Our thought was, for a whole bunch of reasons, the more our kids are learning computer science, the better it will be. Just like math and science in other countries, computer science is something kids just have to learn... For AP computer science, where there are so few teachers in America, and so many kids want to take it, this seems like a perfect area to produce a course.

If this MOOC works, we can think of ways to expand and support it.

Glader: The first year is free to schools to use, your press release said. But how much will it cost schools after that?

Klein: The business model is something along the following lines. We will provide the MOOC for free but we will provide other services the school can buy: Assessment services that are ancillary to the MOOC itself. The school will want to assure high quality and passage rates. Data, assessment, and information on how students are doing.