New All-Digital Curriculums Hope to Ride High-Tech Push in Schoolrooms


English language curriculums built entirely on a digital platform — replacing written textbooks, worksheets or printed study guides — are about to enter the market from several companies, with promises that they will change the nature of classroom learning across the country.

The Obama administration has pledged to provide high-speed Internet connections to 15,000 schools over the next two years, districts are purchasing tablets and laptops for students, and on Friday, President Obama announced $400 million in corporate commitments from the software companies Adobe and Prezi, which will donate software to teachers. Meanwhile, other companies are rushing in.

On Monday at an education conference in Austin, Tex., Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City public schools and the current chief executive of Amplify, the education unit of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, will introduce a digital English language arts curriculum for middle school.

Mr. Klein said the new software, which will run on a variety of devices and is priced at $45 per student a year, includes videos, games and vocabulary apps and allows teachers to track student writing and give feedback directly online. “This is not a bunch of souped-up PDFs,” Mr. Klein said, referring to digital versions of print documents.

McGraw Hill, the textbook publisher, will also announce this week that it has signed a partnership with StudySync, a company that creates digital English curriculum tools that have been deployed in 22,000 classrooms and are priced at about a third of Amplify’s rate.

Scholastic Inc., the children’s publisher, is already a familiar player with Read 180, a digital curriculum that targets struggling readers and is currently used by about one million students in 40,000 classrooms across the country. This year, the company also introduced Codex, a more general middle school English digital curriculum that is being used in 4,300 middle school classrooms.

Among the features of Amplify’s digital curriculum is the ability for teachers to see if students really understand vocabulary words when they use them in Twitter-like hashtags and other social media contexts. The company has also embedded videos relating to a range of classic texts that are included in e-reader form within the software. One example: to introduce “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” the actor Chadwick Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in the film “42,” performs an early scene with chilling intensity.

And for a unit on Edgar Allan Poe, students can play a game in which they try to solve the murder of the author, using clues from several poems or stories as well as simulated coroner’s reports and crime scene files.

Amplify, which introduceda tabletfor K-12 schoolchildren last year, has invested about $100 million over the last two and a half years in its education businesses. The new English language arts software is aimed at sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

Larry Berger, the president of Amplify Learning, the curriculum development unit, said the company planned a modest rollout of the product for the coming school year but eventually hoped to capture as much as 25 percent of the market

Technology in classrooms has experienced something of a bumpy rollout: When the Los Angeles Unified School District introduced its $1 billion effort last year to give every student an iPad (loaded with curriculum developed by Pearson, the large textbook and standardized test publisher), students quickly figured out how to hack the devices and wander onto noneducational websites. And Amplify itself had to suspend its tablet launch in Guildford County, N.C., because of safety concerns. (Amplify has since agreed to extend the county’s contract for another year at no additional cost so the schools can try the tablets again.)

As Amplify introduces its new English curriculum, it could face obstacles from teachers wary of Mr. Klein, whose tenure in the New York City public schools was controversial, and of Mr. Murdoch, whose media conglomerate has been entangled in phone-hacking scandals that could leave educators worried about the company’s respect for student privacy.

“Teachers do not trust either Murdoch or Klein,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest teachers union. “They have a long road to go.” But Ms. Weingarten, who said she had viewed only very preliminary versions of the Amplify digital English curriculum, added: “They may have done some great things that makes it aligned to critical thinking in a way that people will say, ‘Wow, this is fantastic.’ ”

Mr. Berger said that the Amplify curriculum was designed to meet the Common Core, standards for what students need to know and be able to do that have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. He said the software had enough material that a teacher could use it daily for fully planned lessons, but that it offered flexibility for teachers who wanted to design their own instruction.

“What we try to do is classroom orchestration and choreography,” Mr. Berger said, “but not classroom scripting.”

Patricia Depagter, a middle school English teacher in Tampa, Fla., tried Amplify’s seventh-grade curriculum for two weeks last month. She initially worried the students “would just stick their noses into the tablets” and not interact with each other or write much. Instead, while working on a unit reading Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” she said, students “would get up and walk around to talk to other kids, but would look to the tablet for evidence” for their discussion. “It’s so much more natural for them to have this technology in their hands.”

Some teachers said they were not interested in committing to a curriculum entirely from one provider. Sandy Hayes, immediate past president of the National Council of Teachers of English and a middle school English teacher in Becker, Minn., said she loved to pull a range of technological options into the classroom, including programs like iMovie, Comic Creator and Garage Band. “This is the joy of teaching,” said Ms. Hayes, who had not reviewed Amplify’s curriculum, “being able to express your own creativity.”

More generally, some observers questioned whether digital tools would enhance literacy more than superficially. “Being able to poke at words on screen and have them spin out videos for us could be compelling in the short term,” said Audrey Watters, who writes about technology and schooling on her blog, Hack Education. “But I’m not sure it’s intellectually fruitful.”



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