The future of digital learning? News Corp.’s Amplify debuts its tablet for K-12 classrooms

A classroom management tool that lets teachers collect real-time feedback from students. A social platform for sharing class updates and assignments.  A digital textbook comprised of open-source content. In ed tech, there are plenty of startups providing those and other digital learning and instructional tools, but with its new tablet debuted this week, News Corp.’s (s NWS) Amplify aims to roll them all up into one device.

On Wednesday at the SXSWedu education technology conference in Austin, the company will take the wraps off of a new tablet that it touts as a one-stop shop for K-12 teaching and learning. The announcement comes less than a year after News Corp. announced the creation of Amplify, which builds on technology developed by Wireless Generation, the ed tech company News Corp. acquired in 2010.

The device, which is a 10-inch Asus tablet running the Jellybean Android operating system, doesn’t just come pre-loaded with content and apps curated by Amplify, like textbooks from open content provider CK-12, Khan Academy videos and the Desmos graphing calculator. The company  said it worked at the manufacturer level to optimize the tablet for use in schools.

Joel Klein: Hardware alone isn’t enough

“Simply giving kids hardware or another computer, I think, is not going to change what’s going on,” Joel Klein, Amplify’s CEO and the former New York City Schools Chancellor told reporters on a press call. “That’s why we focused instead on creating a rich, robust learning platform for the school space.”

Amplify’s tablet, which comes ready for student use out of the box, lets administrators and teachers distribute content across an entire class or grade level, allows teachers to control the content on students’ screens and gives students different digital ways participate in class. To enable those features, the company said, it couldn’t just run its software on any device, it needed to get deeper into the operating system.

From her tablet, a teacher can see if a student is checking his email instead of following the lesson, block certain apps from running on students’ tablets or shut down digital access altogether with a one-click “eyes on teacher” feature. For teachers who see digital devices as synonymous with distraction, Amplify’s hope is that greater control over student content will encourage adoption.

Enabling real-time student feedback

The new tablet also builds student feedback into each lesson. Teachers can quickly poll students during class to assess comprehension, view a quick report of who is following along and then route extra content to those that need extra support.

Additionally, it supports a curated set of apps through Gooru, an education-focused search engine, as well as some apps from Google Play (s GOOG).  Although the product doesn’t launch with analytics dashboards for teachers, over time apps running on the tablet could give teachers and schools a clearer picture of achievement at the individual and broader levels, the company said.

Using various apps and services, schools could enable teachers and students to do some of what Amplify’s tablet can do on regular iPads (s AAPL) and Android devices – classroom clickers and startup ClassDojo, for example, provide classroom management tools, social education startup Edmodo provides a platform for sharing content and collaboration and Pearson (s PSO) and McGraw-Hill Education (s MHP) offer digital textbooks that aim to personalize learning.

But Amplify’s pitch is that their device gives schools and teachers unrivaled control, as well as a platform for supporting an entire ecosystem of ed tech products and ongoing support and services.

Can schools afford it?

As cash-strapped school districts weigh various options for bringing technology into the classroom – from purchasing new iPads, Kindles and Android devices to supporting BYOD (bring your own device) initiatives – Amplify said it believes its prices are competitive.  The Amplify Tablet, which is WiFi-only costs $299 for the device when purchased with a 2-year subscription at $99 per year; and the Tablet Plus, which includes a 4G data plan, costs $349 with a 2-year subscription of $179 per year.

While that’s a big investment for any school district – and likely too big for many at this point – the devices themselves are cheaper than Apple’s WiFi-only iPad 2, for example, which costs schools $399 each. And, Amplify argues, other options don’t include setup and ongoing support services (it has a 24-hour customer service center), admin controls, data integration with Student Information Systems (SISes) and the suite of learning and instructional tools. The company said the tablet is already in the hands of thousands of students piloting the device in districts across the country, but it’s now beginning a greater sales effort.

As the company makes its bigger push into K-12 schools, Klein himself could be a factor in whether districts embrace the technology. While many support his education reform initiatives and efforts to evaluate teachers with student performance data, teacher unions remain critical. And though Amplify doesn’t play up its tablet’s evaluative possibilities and it emphasizes that the schools will own the data, the product will generate more data that could support data-driven teacher evaluation initiatives. It will also be interesting to see how schools respond to a product backed by News Corp., which has spent much of the last year trying to control damage in the aftermath of its phone-hacking scandal.

Helping educators find effective ed tech solutions

But growing momentum in the ed tech sector is on its side, as more educators open their classroom doors to new technology but need help figuring out the best solutions. And Amplify executives emphasize that they know they’re just beginning a multi-year journey.

“There are school systems that are looking to bring mobile devices to schools because they see the power and the potential … and I expect we’ll be able to participate in that,” Klein said.