By Sean Cavanagh and Benjamin Herold
For the second year in a row, ed-tech company Amplify is hoping to upend the crowded digital education marketplace by aggressively pushing a new product at the South by Southwest education conference, a gathering of industry leaders, entrepreneurs, and educators that kicks off today in Austin, Texas.
The New York-based company unveiled Monday a new, year-long digital curriculum for middle school English language/arts that combines an array of multimedia tools and educational games with a sophisticated, algorithm-based analytics system meant to provide customized instruction to students.
In a conference call with reporters, company CEO Joel Klein, formerly the chancellor of New York City schools, called the new curriculum a potential "game-changer" and "unlike anything anyone has ever seen in public education."
Such hyperbole, however, comes just one year after a similarly high-profile announcement was followed by big problems: After using last spring's SXSWedu event to push a new tablet computer that came with a preloaded curriculum and supplemental education resources, the company's first major rollout of the new devices, in the Guilford County, N.C., school system, was plagued by hardware problems, including hundreds of reports of broken screens and a handful of reports of overheated battery chargers. The company says those problems have been fixed, and the district recently said it was putting its use of the tablets on hold until next school year.
Amplify was launched in 2012 as the re-branded education division of News Corp., of which it is a subsidiary. (Larry Berger, the president of Amplify Learning, a division of Amplify, serves on the board of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit that oversees Education Week.)
Amplify's new curriculum will come with a year of materials the company says will be aligned to new Common Core State Standards in grades 5 through 8, as well as a digital library of more than 300 books and digital games.
It also houses diagnostic and analytic tools designed to provide students, and teachers with information to tailor lessons to student needs, including a vocabulary tool that gives them feedback on how many words they've mastered, and which words they're using most often in their writing.
The digital media offer a bunch of features, including everything from dramatic readings of texts by movie and theater stars to artistic renderings of texts and interactive "quests" that immerse students in texts through reading, role-playing and expressive writing.
The new curriculum will sell for $45 per student annually. The curriculum works not only on Amplify tablets, but also on iPads, Chomebooks, personal computers, and Macs, a spokesman for the company said.
In a call with reporters, Klein said the timing was right: States' adoption of the common core, he said, "enables us to write curriculum across the country," and districts' growing interest in 1-to-1 computing programs is ready to be accelerated by "great, rich content."
Company officials said the product is part of an effort to step into producing curriculum in English, math, and science. The company will also begin offering a hybrid print-and-online curriculum for K-12 English language arts and a supplemental curriculum in math and science, beginning this fall.
Amplify almost certainly draws attention and scrutiny because of its ties to News Corp., the mass media corporation led by Rupert Murdoch. In speaking with reporters, Klein and Berger emphasized that News Corp. will have no control over the editorial content offered in the new digital curriculum.
Klein said Amplify's status as a new player was actually an advantage, in that "we weren't in a position where we had a lot of legacy content to reposition and repurpose," he said, but rather could begin its work by focusing on the common core.
Check back on this blog and on the Digital Education blog for more coverage of SXSWedu from Education Week staff writers Benjamin Herold and Michele Molnar.