Global media conglomerate News Corporation jump-started its fledgling—and mostly quiet—education division today, unveiling Amplify, a new brand for its education business that will include education software products and, in a surprising move, curriculum development.
The re-branded division will include three initial focuses, beginning with pilot programs during the upcoming school year:
- assessment and data analysis, mostly through Wireless Generation, the software company News Corp. purchased a majority stake of in 2010;
- a tablet-based digital learning platform that will customize content, assessments, and course materials to each student using performance data and will be delivered, at least initially, through a partnership with AT&T;
- English language arts, science, and math curriculum, adapted to the Common Core State Standards. The content will be licensed from other publishers or written by Amplify in-house and combine text, interactive elements, and assessments to adapt to individual students.
"It's both a branding exercise, but beyond that it's an introduction to our vision and where we're going," Joel I. Klein, the head of the education division whose new title is Chief Executive Officer of Amplify, said in an interview.
While the assessment tools have been Wireless Generation's bread-and-butter for several years, the tablet platform and curriculum development marks a new direction for News Corp., one that places it in competition with giant education companies such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill, rather than just education-software providers.
While Klein wouldn't mention any competitors by name, it's clear that Amplify, like those larger companies, intends to offer a complete range of services: curriculum content, the technology platforms through which it is distributed, and the tools that allow students and teachers to get more out of it.
For its move into curriculum, Amplify will partner with publishers such as Lapham's Quarterly and Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California-Berkeley, and develop its own content through Wireless Generation. The content will be digital and interactive, but Klein suggested some would be distributed digitally in the early going.
Amplify's tablet platform will be made available on devices powered by AT&T broadband and wireless networks. The Associated Press reports the schools won't have to pay to participate in the pilot program but more information on school selection and how the product will end up in classrooms will be released soon, according to Amplify's website.
Larry Berger, co-founder and executive chairman of Wireless Generation, said in an intervierw that News Corp.'s investment in curriculum is among the largest he's seen during his 20-year career, though Berger would not disclose the monetary value of that investment. Klein told the Wall Street Journal that News Corp.'s education division made $70 million in investments last year.
(Berger serves on the board of trustees of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week.)
Since being purchased by News Corp., Wireless Generation, which says it serves 3 million students in the United States, has grown from about 400 employees to 830 employees. There hasn't been much news out of the education division during that time. Last year, Klein, the former New York City Schools Chancellor, was immediately thrust into a close advisory role to News Corp. chief executive Rupert Murdoch during the phone-hacking scandal that rocked News Corp.'s British newspaper division and the company.
When asked if Amplify would have been unveiled much earlier if not for the phone-hacking scandal, Klein scoffed. He said the company looked "thoroughly" into additional acquisitions in education but decided instead to develop products through, and invest in, Wireless Generation, which fueled its growth.
"There's a difference between being in incubation mode and being in hiatus mode," Berger said.
Since Klein re-focused all of his energy on education in mid-June, there have been major changes at the company. News Corp. recently decided to split into two companies, one for its lucrative film and television operations and another for its publishing business. Education will be part of the latter. Over the weekend, News Corp. chief executive Rupert Murdoch resigned his directorships of several British newspapers, setting off speculation that those assets may be sold.
In talking with schools, News Corp.'s name rarely comes up, Berger said, owing to the distance between education and the phone-hacking scandal. Though Wireless Generation did lose a $27 million contract in 2011 with New York State, and in a May interview with The New York Times Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, asked "What parent would want personal information about themselves and their children in the hands of Rupert Murdoch, given the current circumstances?"
Regardless of the real stink on the News Corp. name, Amplify should help further the education division's distance.
Klein and Berger hinted at additional education deals in the future, but wouldn't disclose more details. Both were adamant that the current education market isn't serving schools' digital learning needs and that Amplify's products will "transform" and "reimagine" learning. This, of course, will require teachers, administrators, and most importantly, students to get on board, Klein acknowledged.
"If students don't find it engaging, exciting and inspiring, it has very little value," he said.