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The Gamification of Education?

Tablets have a place in the classroom, but are far from a panacea.
March 7, 2013

Yesterday, at the SXSWedu conference in Austin, Amplify, the education division of News Corporation, debuted a new tablet computer. The tablet was presented by Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City schools who is now the CEO of Amplify, report the New York Times and others.

Amplify bills the tablet as the only one designed for K-12 education. It starts at $299 with a $99/year subscription fee. In terms of hardware, the device is similar to ASUS Transformer Pad TF300TL, with a Tegra 3 quad-core chip. It runs on Android Jelly Bean, and there’s the option to give it 4G LTE.

On the whole, at first glance, Amplify’s efforts are to be praised. You can tell from its videos that the software has been thoroughly thought through, and the device has already been tested in hundreds of schools. The iPad has shown great effects with certain student populations, even though it’s not specifically designed for educational use; so it stands to reason that a tailor-made version headed up by a man who has thought deeply about education would fare even better. This video makes clear that Amplify means business.

And yet I have two concerns with the burgeoning role of tablets in the classroom. The first is that while new technology in the classroom is welcome, a top priority should be making sure that underserved populations are able to take advantage of already-existing technology. A recent Pew Research Center poll revealed that in poorer districts, there is often a serious lack of access to technology. “Teachers whose students are from the lowest income households feel they are at a disadvantage when it comes to using the internet and other digital tools such as cell phones, tablet computers and e-readers to enhance the learning process,” Pew’s Kristen Purcell said, per PC Mag. It’s important that the introduction of new technologies not serve to simply grow the digital divide.

My second and perhaps more sweeping qualm came from this sentence in the Times report: “Outside the classroom, children can use it to play games, like one in which Tom Sawyer battles the Brontë sisters.” While that demonstration video shows that Amplify offers an almost Godlike control over what apps students can and can’t use at any moment, it’s hard to see the educational value of some sort of Street Fighter rebranded with literary figures. Not to say that this has happened yet, but I worry that in the constant quest to make education fun, we might lose some of what makes education educational.

“We hear a lot from the kids that it doesn’t feel like learning anymore,” Chris, a teacher from one of the Amplify Tablet pilot schools, says exuberantly in another of the company’s videos, below. But that’s what I’m afraid of.

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