STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, this week, a division of News Corp. - a division called Amplify - unveiled a new digital tablet. It's intended to serve millions of schoolchildren and their teachers across the country. News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch is counting on new revenues from his educational division, to help shore up the finances of his newspapers. NPR's David Folkenflik brings us this report for today's "Business Bottom Line."
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: In Amplify's telling, taking attendance will take just a few quick seconds in the school of the future; teachers will more effectively coax out shy students; and kids will be able to go at their own pace to complete coursework - all thanks to a specially designed digital tablet from Amplify. I recently got a sneak peak from Amplify's Stephen Smyth.
STEPHEN SMYTH: What you see here is - two things. So a series of apps - a teacher dashboard, we call it, and on the right-hand side, you see, essentially, a feed of what's happening in the class. And we call this a playlist.
FOLKENFLIK: Why not just rely on an iPad or another digital tablet? Smyth argues that Amplify offers the only tablet designed to allow students to interact with teachers instantaneously.
SMYTH: These devices are connected. If you go to Best Buy or a retailer, and buy a tablet off the shelf, it can't do this. These devices are talking to each other. And really, what we're trying to solve here is actually, how to have teachers use tablets in the classroom environment.
FOLKENFLIK: News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch has described education as a market worth hundreds of billions of dollars. In May 2011, at an event in Paris, he argued that schools have failed to take advantage of leaps in technology.
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RUPERT MURDOCH: Today's classroom looks almost exactly the same as it did in the Victorian age: a teacher standing in front of a roomful of kids with only a textbook, a blackboard, and a piece of chalk.
FOLKENFLIK: The person Murdoch hired to lead his charge is familiar in education circles - Joel Klein, a Democrat and a former assistant attorney general under President Clinton, who became chancellor of the New York City school system for more than eight years.
JOEL KLEIN: Critics and others have said, you know, well, technology's been around a long time, but it hasn't changed the learning experience. It's not about hardware. It's not about devices. It's really about learning. And if this does what I believe it'll do - which is, enhance the teaching and learning processes - then it's going to be a home run.
FOLKENFLIK: Klein joined News Corp. in 2010, in order to invigorate Murdoch's efforts in education. The company paid $360 million for an educational tech venture started by several of Klein's former employees. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The founders are not former employees but did contract work for the New York City Department of Education when Klein was chancellor.] And they used it as the basis of what they rechristened Amplify. But before they could get very far, Murdoch's newspapers in London became embroiled in the criminal, phone-hacking scandal.
New York state revoked a $27 million contract for an education database with Amplify, citing concerns about the integrity of the parent company, News Corp. And Klein was pulled away for awhile, to help Murdoch clean up the legal mess.
KLEIN: The good news was that while we had a problem in the U.K., that problem wasn't a global problem.
FOLKENFLIK: Klein, now back at Amplify, knows there is some suspicion of his boss' politics, too. In this country, Murdoch is closely identified with Fox News. And he's also a player in the educational reform movement, pushing for greater reliance on charter schools, giving money to selected candidates and criticizing teachers' unions. Klein says Amplify is a separate creature.
KLEIN: Rupert realized this from the beginning - this is a division that's going to be focused on education. We don't have a political mission, none whatsoever.
FOLKENFLIK: Yet teachers unions and other critics say Amplify's efforts are part of a disturbing trend - dangling the illusion of big savings to politicians by claiming teachers using the tablets will be able to handle more students per class and thus, reduce how many teachers school districts will need to employ. Leonie Haimson is executive director of a not-for-profit called Class Size Matters. She says Klein and Murdoch...
LEONIE HAIMSON: ...believe that public school kids should have larger classes, and instead of getting personalized instruction via their teachers, should do it via a computer.
FOLKENFLIK: Haimson says the tablet may well be fine on its own, but argues that Amplify's goal is less about helping school children than turning a profit.
HAIMSON: And it's all part of the same vision they have for transforming education by privatizing it. And we have seen - not just in New York City, but nationwide - an avid pillaging going on, of public resources for private ends.
FOLKENFLIK: Klein says that's offensive to companies that do good work, and he says that misrepresents Amplify's goal.
KLEIN: People say this is - you know, designed to eliminate teachers or designed - that's - you know, my view is, I want the teachers to embrace, be excited and get behind this, so that their work is more effective and better.
FOLKENFLIK: Klein says the tablet will redeem Murdoch's promise of dragging schools into the 21st century.
David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.