As personal technology becomes increasingly integrated into our daily lives, Joel Klein is determined to bring it more seamlessly into the classroom. The former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education is now the CEO of Amplify Education, the educational arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. This spring, students in a dozen school districts across the United States are walking into classrooms, taking their seats and instead of pulling out their books, powering on their Amplify Tablets. The 10-inch Android-based tablet, chock full of content, reference tools and software specifically designed for K-12 teachers and students, is Klein’s company’s latest initiative.
Klein believes that the reasonably priced Amplify Tablet (starting at $299 with a data subscription that is generally paid by school districts) will make it affordable for schools to provide computers to all students. More importantly, Klein argues that the functionality built into the tablet will lead to individualized and, as a result, more effective learning. His critics, including some leaders of teachers unions, say the tablet is an excuse to increase class size. Others think the whole venture is fueled by money rather than a sincere desire to affect change. Read what Klein has to say in the interview below.
In March, you said, “Technology has revolutionized the world, but not the classroom.” What do you mean by this?
I never thought it was about technology. In other words, giving a kid a computer in and of itself is not going to change the educational outcomes. I am much more focused on technology improving the teaching and learning experience. If that happens, then I think technology can be a real asset.
In the large sense, and I’ll quote one of my colleagues, it is not that teachers need to learn more about technology, it is that technology needs to learn more about teaching. I think that is the powerful differentiator at this point in history.
Why have schools kept computers in computer labs, separated from regular classrooms, for so long now?
First of all, we didn’t have many of them. Schools were buying computers one-to-ten [one computer for every ten students], so they put them in a lab, rather than integrate them in a learning space. The lab, even figuratively, in terms of what it was connoting, was something out there, different, weird.
Second of all, I don’t think people thought through what we and others are now thinking through, which is how to support schools in going through the change process. When I was in New York City, there were literally schools that still had their computers in the basement unpacked. That’s how convinced they were that they weren’t going to be impactful.
How is the device specifically designed for K-12 students and teachers?
Giving a kid a tablet, while that’s a fine thing, I don’t think that will change the quality of a child’s education, because it won’t change the quality of that child’s learning experience. Whereas if you look at our tablet, what you see is something designed with the teacher and student in mind.
Let’s start with the very simple kinds of things, like being able to do spot checks to take the temperature of the classroom. The teacher wants to know, for example, are the kids getting it? It is the easiest thing in the world for students to click on the tablet and say I’m getting it. She can see which kids are getting it and whether the predominant group is getting it. She can do a test quickly to see whether people understand the concepts. If the class is lost, there is no purpose in going forward.
On the other hand, if a few kids are lost, there comes a time, and our tablet enables teachers to do this, when the teacher can then say to certain kids, “Okay, this group of five, you work on this core concept together and come back with a report, or you work individually, read this thing or do these examples.” Then, the teacher can focus on the kids that she now knows are not getting it. For kids who don’t like to raise their hand in class, the tablet provides a very convenient way to let the teacher know that they have comments.
Then, there is content that we put on the tablet. Every kid starts with an Encyclopedia Britannica. Every kid gets a dictionary on there. Every kid gets access to CK12 open source textbooks. They get access to Sal Khan’s videos. These are things that are building blocks. Over time, there will be more and more content that will be made available. Schools will want this particular book or that particular video; we will be able to get those as well.
How did your experience as chancellor of New York City public schools inform your approach to the Amplify Tablet?
One of the things I started pretty early on in New York was to create an innovation zone to look at new and different ways of really improving the teaching and learning experience. The School of One was developed on our watch; it combines four years of high school and two years of community college and you end up getting certificated as a technologist. What I began to see is not tech for tech’s sake, but tech for changing the learning experience of our kids. I found that very, very exciting, and that’s why I thought a rich school-focused tablet could become the platform to do that in a much larger scale.
A Wi-Fi enabled Amplify Tablet costs $299, when purchased with a 2-year subscription at $99 per year. And the Amplify Tablet Plus, with a 4G data plan, is priced at $349 with a 2-year subscription at $179 per year. Is this something that cash-strapped districts can afford?
I think so. We all wish districts today had a lot more money, and we are hoping over time that that occurs. But I do think that districts have discretionary money for things that are valuable.
I also expect that we will generate through these processes real cost savings, in terms of teachers’ time, the ability of teachers to be more effective and to do things in the future that they couldn’t do in the past. I think it is a compelling financial proposition.
Some of your critics worry that, with the Amplify Tablet, you are depersonalizing education. The kids get their instruction from a computer instead of a teacher. What do you say to this?
I think you certainly want the teacher to be the core conductor of this orchestra. There is no question about that. This is not like saying to kids, here is eight hours, go sit down on a computer and then go home at the end of the day. It is not about the machine.
At least in schools where we have been working, the teachers themselves will tell you that this really enhances what they are doing. What we want to do is really make sure that the teacher’s time is maximally impactful and effective. Right now, I think too often we expect teachers to do everything, and we don’t give them the tools to succeed. Now we are giving them the tools that will enable them to improve the things that they care about. By the same token, in the end, the human dimension of learning is always a critical dimension, and we are going to need to make sure that that is enhanced not undermined.
I think there are times when these things should be shut off. When the teacher says, right now I need your undivided attention, and here is what we are going to be doing, one click and she’s got it, whereas if she says to kids, right now shut off your cell phones, sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Teachers are wary of “tech for tech’s sake,” or the pressure to use technology that does not actually enhance learning. So, what are the proven benefits?
Tech for tech’s sake—you can’t do this. Teachers are right to say that if they don’t think this enhances the teaching and the learning experiences then it is not going to work. What I know from the pilots is that we are getting very, very positive feedback.
We have gotten little tiny things that measure things like the amount of time kids are spending writing and reading. Those things have been positive. But in terms of actually trying to correlate to test scores it is still too early, because we are working through the pilots right now.
Are you seeing the tablet change the typical class period? We are so used to seeing a teacher standing at a white board leading students in a lesson. How does it look now?
It is not a teacher and the chalk and talk. It’s a much more engaging experience. Kids are no longer passive. We did a pilot in Putnam County, Georgia, and I was just blown away by the fact that the kids themselves will say how much more empowering the experience is. They talk about how they can do much more creation on this tablet. They feel like they are participating more in the classroom.
Clearly, for the kids it is such an instinctive and normal way to engage. One kid said, in the evening when he goes home, if he is having trouble with his homework, he just clicks on his machine, and there is going to be several other kids on there working. He can ask them for help. It becomes a community device. It extends the day and it extends the year. All of that is changing the education experience.