Homogenizing Tablets

Here in the overly large school district we are buying lots of iPads.

Nothing particularly unusual about that. While the brand of the tablet may vary1, many educational institutions are trying to figure out if this new format could be a good classroom tool.

And I think most of our schools don’t understand what they have purchased.

Most iPad owners probably realized very quickly that it’s not a computer. There really isn’t a good, short generic label for it, but everything in this relatively new category of mobile communications devices2 was designed to be for individual use and to be easily customizable.

Schools on the other hand want to use these devices in the same way they’ve used “standard” computers for the past twenty years: very clone-able and offering the exact same experience for every person who sits down at it.

In some ways this dichotomy mirrors the disconnect between our traditional factory model of education and the growing personalization of learning out there in the real world. We continue to try and maintain an homogenized approach to schooling while the opportunities for individual and high social learning is exploding.

Ok, maybe stretching things a bit, but the point is that these can and should be highly individualized learning devices if we were thinking in those terms for school as a whole.

In the meantime, there are more than a few companies trying to build a “school tablet”, one that does allow for the tight controls our IT department lusts after (and those in other districts, I’m guessing). The latest example is the Amplify Tablet, announced this week at the South by Southwest Education conference (aka sxswedu).

According to the company, Amplify is designed to give “teachers the ability to both monitor and control what students do with the device”.

Teachers can conduct lessons with an entire class or small group and can instantly see what websites or lesson areas students are visiting. A teacher dashboard allows them to take instant polls, ask kids to “raise their hands” virtually and, if things get out of hand, redirect the entire class with an “Eyes on Teacher” button that instantly pushes the message out to every screen.

In other words, Amplify is really no different from what we have now, both in terms of computing devices and how we use them. The purpose of this table is to foster the same nice, neat, uniform, teacher-directed instruction that has been the centerpiece of schooling for more than a century. If it’s not there already, I fully expect Amplify to come with an app for taking standardized tests since the whole package is designed to address the holy grail of American education: higher scores.

One of the reasons I’m such a big advocate for bring-your-own-devices programs is that I hope it will force a change in the way we use technology in schools by making it more individual and personal. Unfortunately, it will take more than allowing kids to use cell phones and tablets inside the building to force the kind of major changes in the traditional school structure we need.

By the way, all the press on the Amplify announcement calls this a “start up” company but it’s hardly in the same class with other small tech groups scrambling to make a name for themselves. Amplify Education Inc. was formed following the purchase of education start-up Wireless Generation by News Corp., and its CEO is former New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

Klein is very wedded to a traditional, test-driven vision of education while News Corp is very driven by making money any way it can. Not a good combination.

1 Not a fan of Apple? From this point on, feel free to substitute your favorite tablet brand for iPad. My point won’t change.

2 MCD? Nope, that doesn’t work.

The Daily Loser

Preceded by plenty of breathless rumor, The Daily was released last Wednesday, promising once again to revolutionize the news business.

In case you missed the hype, this is the iPad app developed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp at a cost of $30 million and supposedly backed by a staff of 100 creating exclusive material.

I’ve been playing with The Daily since it showed up in the app store and there’s no way I’ll be paying the 99 cents weekly charge ($39.99 annually) when the sample subscription runs out.

Beyond the version 1.0 bugs (slow, inconsistent navigation, way over-cute interface, annoying crashes, did I mention slow?), the biggest problem is the content.

First of all, there’s nothing unique about it. Several of the articles showed up in other places on the web and the rest is full of gossip and fluff pieces.

Then there’s the fact that the material is updated daily (hence the name), a concept that’s dying as fast as the paper version of the Washington Post that lands on my porch each morning (not my choice). Plus, the actual news consists of stories that show up in my aggregator as soon as I open it.

However, more than anything, I don’t want to pay for news from the megacorp that offers such crap as the New York Post and Fox News.  Just being picky I guess.

Ok, who’s next to revolutionize the newspaper industry?

Profiting From the Process of Learning

Lots of education reform types seem to think schools can learn a lot from emulating business practices.

Like New York Mayor Bloomberg who likes hiring people with absolutely no experience to run the city school system. Or those who fall at the feet of Bill Gates to hear his pronouncements (and pick up some of his cash).

And many companies have interests beyond getting kids ready to work for them as evidenced this week when News Corp. bought an education technology company called Wireless Generation.

So why would a huge global media conglomerate want to buy a relatively small business that builds “large-scale data systems” to manage student information for school systems (including the biggest, New York City)?

According to CEO Rupert Murdoch, “When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching.”

Of course, “great teaching” is the far less important part of that statement. As Valerie Strauss notes in a recent entry at her Washington Post blog,

The current wave of education reform based on “data” and “accountability” hasn’t done much to improve public schools, but it sure is helping improve the balance sheets of a lot of for-profit companies.

She goes on to offer this very accurate assessment of why accepting education reform advice from CEOs is more than just ineffective.

When business people decide to get into the education world in a big way, their support for specific reform measures has to be seen through the prism of money-making opportunities, not what research says works best for kids.

Allowing business people to drive education policy is a very dangerous business. Why the Obama administration thinks this is a good idea is way beyond me. (emphasis mine)

Meanwhile, as Mr. Murdoch is looking for his share of large profits in the education business, he’s also trying to figure out how to stop his old media properties from losing customers (and ad dollars) to the evil web.

News Corp’s latest idea seems to be the “world’s first ‘newspaper’ designed exclusively for new tablet-style computers” like the iPad.  It will be called The Daily, cost 99 cents a week, and will include only material from News Corp properties.

Daily as in once a day? “Newspaper” as in the same information found in dozens of other places, except with no links outside of one source?

More than a few observers with a much better understanding of how digital media works than Murdoch aren’t optimistic for this concept to be any more successful than his other web adventures (MySpace, anyone?).

So, what’s the connection between Murdoch’s search for profits in the education market and his ongoing campaign to erect a paywall around “his” information?

I have no idea, other than it all seems to be about making corporate-sized profits from the process of learning, which for some reason, seems fundamentally wrong.

Profit or not, however, in the end I doubt either of these business plans will be beneficial for those of us who are not Murdoch and his stockholders.