At last year’s conference Amplify announced its own custom-built educational tablet with great fanfare. Since then it’s had a rocky rollout with a recall in Guilford County, NC due to broken screens and melted chargers. Amplify is reimbursing the county to the tune of $4.8 million in devices, services and cash.
This digital curriculum has been half of Amplify’s two-pronged strategy from the beginning, now it’s part of a do-over for its brand image. It is device-agnostic; it can run on iPad, Kindle or PC and in some cases smartphones. Amplify is launching with a Common Core-aligned English Language Arts curriculum for 6th, 7th and 8th graders, to be followed soon by social studies and science. It will be available this fall, starting at $45 per student.
The curriculum is a good example of what is coming, likely to most classrooms in the next decade, with the convergence of textbooks, materials and to some extent assessment in the digital format. As Joel Klein, former New York City schools superintendent and Amplify’s CEO, points out in our interview, the Common Core, as controversial as it is, creates both a great need for new materials and a unified marketplace for companies like his to create them.
“The NEA recently came out echoing what a lot of people have been saying –the Common Core is hard. Teachers are going to need the support. You need immersive content that helps kids engage better in the learning experience. What we’re doing, and I say this in sincerity, I think it’s really unique, different, and it’s going to have a profound impact on the debate going forward.”
The Amplify ELA curriculum, explains president of Amplify Learning Larry Berger, was designed with three key metrics in mind: to get middle school students to do three times the typical amount of reading (which only gets you just above an hour a week), to write three times more pages (around 200, total, in 7th grade), and to get three times as much feedback both from the program directly and from teachers.
The lessons include a reading mode with highlighting, notes and vocabulary features, a writing mode with various word processing tools like a word counter, and a wide selection of digital multimedia content, including a library of 300 ebooks and games.
For example, students can watch actor Chadwick Boseman, star of last year’s Jackie Robinson bio-pic, dramatizing an excerpt of Frederick Douglass’s writings; or an animated version of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, commissioned from an Oscar-winning animator with a voice performance by a Tony-winning actor and critical input from a Poe scholar at the University of Alabama. The resulting moody, black-and-white cartoon is part of one of the curriculum’s “quests,” a multi-day creative lesson plan that casts students as detectives seeking to solve Poe’s murder by reading his best-known works.
In addition to the official curriculum, Amplify is introducing a suite of 40 computer games designed by independent game designers. There is a World Of Warcraft-like universe called Lexica where students gain powers and points for their characters by reading books and playing grammar games, and a group of science games that bring to life processes like digestion. The games are designed to enrich and complement the curriculum, to compete for students’ free time, although some may also be assigned as homework.
All of this digital content, in my brief peek, appears high-quality and engaging. It’s designed with great attention to scope and sequencing. Berger points out that unlike a textbook publisher, Amplify tests and tweaks every lesson they develop on real students, first on a group of middle-schoolers who come to the headquarters after school (rewarded with pizza and gift cards) and then on students in classrooms.
The aspect of the digital convergence that may raise eyebrows is that products like these allow teachers, if they wish, to essentially put their classes on autopilot. Unlike a textbook, which may offer a few questions at the end of each chapter, Amplify, Berger told me, is designed to “orchestrate” or “choreograph” every five minutes of instruction, and often delivers it, along with feedback, directly to the student so the teacher doesn’t have to. This is a level of heavy lifting that some teachers will welcome taken off their shoulders; others, who prefer to curate classes on their own, may see it as intrusive or even a Trojan horse for increasing class sizes in a quest for efficiency. In either case, implementation and professional development will be everything.