Amplify Curriculum Release Highlights New Questions for Districts

By Benjamin Herold — March 03, 2014 6 min read
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Dramatic readings by famous actors. Graphic-novel style animations developed with input from leading scholars. Minecraft-inspired learning games in which algorithm-powered virtual characters ask students questions about the specific texts they’ve been reading.

Officials from New York City-based ed-tech company Amplify say there are plenty of “impressive bells and whistles” in their new middle-grades digital English/language arts curriculum, launched today in an aggressive bid to grab the spotlight at the annual South by Southwest education conference in Austin, Texas.

But what do the fancy new instructional materials—and other similar products from other vendors—mean for students and teachers in real classrooms? And what should districts be weighing when considering whether to purchase the new curricula and tools?

While rich digital materials are important and valuable, districts’ focus should be on providing “the opportunity for teachers and students to create their own content,” said Leslie Wilson, the CEO of the One-to-One Institute, a Mason, Mich.-based nonprofit that advises schools and districts implementing student-computing initiatives.

“Today’s education system is one of creation and production—not consumerism and regurgitation,” Wilson said.

Turning that vision into reality can be a challenge, however, particularly for districts attempting to do so at scale.

A variety of approaches

I’ve written quite a bit in recent months about how vendors and schools alike are wrestling with this issue. Take publishing giant Pearson, which recently began rolling out a soup-to-nuts digital curriculum as part of the much-discussed iPad initiative in the 641,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. Like Amplify, Pearson touted alignment to the Common Core State Standards and the power of interactive digital resources to engage students as reasons to believe their comprehensive materials can yield dramatic learning improvements.

Other vendors are attempting to take a more middle-of-the-road approach: In Education Week‘s forthcoming Technology Counts report, for example I write about the new PEAK platform from Fuel Education (the recently rebranded district-services division of K12, Inc.), which aims to give educators flexibility by letting them access publisher-created content, bring in third-party content, and upload their own content, all in one place. The report is due out next week.

And some schools and districts are choosing to occupy the other end of the continuum. Rather than purchase an all-in-one digital curriculum or single digital learning platform, the 210,000-student Houston Independent School District, for example, instead focused on providing teachers and students with a suite of “Web 2.0" tools as part of its new 1-to-1 computing initiative.

There’s no right answer, yet.

During a Friday conference call with reporters, Larry Berger, the president of Amplify’s learning division, described his company’s approach as attempting to give educators “the best of both worlds,” but the curriculum demonstration for reporters was light on tools that let kids and teachers create for themselves. (Berger serves on the board of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit that oversees Education Week.)

Berger said Amplify’s belief is that approach “runs out of steam at some point.”

“It’s hard work to assemble a great learning experience from trolling around on the Internet,” he said. “The goal here is to enable teachers to have some days when they are creating their own lesson plan and using these kinds of digital tools to bring [those lessons] to life, but to also have a lot of days where that lesson plan has been developed for them with the kind of rigor that an individual teacher isn’t [always] able to do.”

One big benefit of relying on experts, Berger said, is getting a “coherent build” of content across units and activities—something he maintained is difficult for individual teachers to provide.

Reasons for caution

For Amplify and others, carving out a chunk of the still-developing market for digital instructional materials won’t be easy.

For one thing, districts are getting savvier about their purchasing, and skepticism about some of vendors’ more hyperbolic claims—particularly with regard to common-core alignment—is growing. Wilson of the One-to-One Institute said school officials are thinking more deeply about the instructional goals they want technology to support, are getting smarter about ensuring compatibility across devices and the importance of getting upgrades and updates to ensure the longevity of new content, and have more nuanced notions of what kind of return on investment they should expect for big purchases of learning materials.

Some critics of for-profit involvement in K-12 education have also targeted Amplify, contending that the company has a business strategy of “courting public officials” for its staff to help grease the skids for new contracts. Moves like the recent hire of former New Jersey state education commissioner Chris Cerf offer “a huge advantage for winning lucrative technology contracts to fatten Amplify’s bottom line,” Sabrina Stevens, the head of Integrity in Education, a new nonprofit aimed at exposing corporate influence in public education, wrote in an email.

And perhaps the biggest reason for caution is recent history: Just last year, Amplify rolled out new digital tablets to much fanfare at SXSWedu, only to see their biggest deployment get suspended after major hardware problems were reported. Hours after unveiling their new curriculum on Monday, company officials also announced a new partnership with Intel Education to use a “more ruggedized” tablet.

Amplify officials dismissed concerns about their hiring practices and say they’ve learned their lesson from North Carolina.

“We realized that, while we’d built the world’s best platform for mobile learning using anyone’s content, we needed to come up with a device that was ready for the physical demands of the school environment,” said Amplify CEO Joel Klein in a statement released Monday. “That’s exactly what we’ve done with this new tablet.”

Getting to market

Amplify also maintains that several factors will help its new curriculum stand out in the increasingly competitive marketplace.

The company decided against “rushing to market” with its new product and thus has a coherent, yearlong curriculum that is ready to be implemented wholesale, CEO (and former New York City Schools chancellor) Joel Klein told reporters Friday. It’s hard not to take that as a swipe at Pearson, which began rolling out its Common Core System of Courses in the LAUSD well before it was complete, prompting complaints and questions from teachers, school board members, and others.

Klein also described Amplify and its predecessor, Wireless Generation, as “a leader in the field” of data privacy. Despite the new curriculum’s sophisticated analytics engine and the company’s connections to huge media conglomerate News Corp. (caught last year in a major privacy-related scandal involving the hacking of users’ cellphones), Klein vowed “we’re not going to commercialize the data we collect.”

And Amplify says the quality of their media, games and interactives is not only “world-class,” but well-thought out and educationally sound.

During a demonstration for reporters, they pointed to a 7th grade unit on Edgar Allen Poe as an example. One lesson is actually a multi-player “social game” and lesson woven together into a “quest” for students, who assume the roles of characters from Poe’s life and times and must research coroner’s reports, read other contemporary stories, maintain a “detective’s notebook” to gather clues and evidence, and work together in teams to figure out who killed the famous poet.

When it comes to getting to market, said Klein, “we’re happy to let the product speak for itself.”

Photo: Joel Klein, CEO of Amplify, speaks during an interview in his New York office in 2012. (Richard Drew: AP File)

Follow @BenjaminBHerold for the live updates from SXSWedu.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.