Consumer Electronics

News Corp. Wants a Mulligan on Educational Tablets


(Corrects third paragraph to clarify that an Amplify charger melted, not a tablet.)

Almost exactly a year ago, Amplify launched its own tablet, accompanied by custom software and a lot of ambitious talk about reshaping education for the digital age. On Monday, the company acknowledged that things hadn’t gone exactly to plan; it is scrapping the tablet and starting over with a new model.

This has been a rough year for Amplify, the educational technology arm of News Corp. (NWS) About 20,000 of the company’s first generation of tablets were distributed to schools during this school year, with 15,000 of the devices going to a single school district in Guilford County, N.C. Like many newcomers to unfamiliar schools, the tablets got beaten up. Within weeks, the Guilford school district reported that about 10 percent of them had suffered broken screens. At least one charger melted. The program was—using Amplify’s euphemism—”paused.”

Forced to reassess, Amplify cut ties with its technology partner, Asus (2357:TT). It is now working with Intel (INTC) and has designed a tablet to better withstand what a company spokesperson described as the “rough and tumble” environment of schools. The tablets are physically beefier, have Gorilla Glass screens, and use dual antenna radios designed to pick up weaker Wi-Fi networks common in public schools. While the company said that the melted tablet was due to an “external cause” and not a manufacturing defect, the new tablet uses a charger that is certified at the same safety levels as children’s toys.

Guilford County, which paid for the tablets through a federal grant, will begin a pilot program within months and will fully launch the replacement tablets in September. Amplify will charge new customers $199 per year for three years, as opposed to the original tablet’s initial price of $299 with a commitment for a two-year contract at $99 per year. The company has announced no new customers since its initial launch. It is also facing tough competition from the iPad, which is immensely popular as a consumer device but has encountered its own problems in educational institutions. Last fall, students in Los Angeles quickly found their way around Apple (AAPL) filters intended to keep them from accessing non-educational apps.

Hardware is only half of Amplify’s business, though. This week, the company announced the creation of a digital curriculum, its first. The curriculum costs $45 per student and is designed for middle-school kids, using multimedia features, digital games, and adaptive learning techniques meant to customize content for individual students. It is unclear whether school districts are willing to forgive the company for the rough start, but Amplify seems undaunted. As he described the new tablet to reporters on Monday, Chief Executive Officer Joel Klein boasted that Amplify has inspired a national conversation on digital education. This time, the discussion may not focus so much on fire safety.

Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

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