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Wednesday, 25 July 2012 09:55

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation Quietly Jump-Starts an Education Division

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Any enterprise that has Rupert Murdoch's fingerprints on it should be accompanied by a, "Warning: Danger Ahead" sign. A recent report by Education Week's Jason Tomassini detailing Murdoch's News Corporation's rebooting of its efforts to develop and market digital educational products to public schools will either have you shaking your head in disbelief, or make your head explode.

According to Tomassini, Murdoch's News Corporation recently "jump-started its fledgling - and mostly quiet - education division ... unveiling Amplify, a new brand for its education business that will include education software products and, in a surprising move, curriculum development."

Education Week's Tomassini pointed out that "The re-branded division will include three initial focuses, beginning with pilot programs during the upcoming school year":

+ "assessment and data analysis, mostly through Wireless Generation, the software company News Corp. purchased a majority stake of in 2010";

+ "a tablet-based digital learning platform that will customize content, assessments, and course materials to each student using performance data and will be delivered, at least initially, through a partnership with AT&T";

+ "English language arts, science, and math curriculum, adapted to the Common Core State Standards. The content will be licensed from other publishers or written by Amplify in-house and combine text, interactive elements, and assessments to adapt to individual students."

According to the New York Times, News Corporation, "spent $72 million in the last fiscal year on developing and licensing costs for Amplify," and hired a former chancellor of New York City schools who frequently clashed with the teachers unions to be Amplify's CEO.

"It is our aim to amplify the power of digital innovation to transform teaching and learning and to help schools deliver fundamentally better experiences and results," said Joel Klein, in a News Corporation Press Release. "Amplify will introduce new products in a thoughtful way, so that technology can finally live up to its promise to advance learning and augment teaching for students, teachers and parents everywhere. A prosperous economy and an equitable society require that all young people have the chance to succeed and excel, and we're excited about the potential of our products to help achieve that goal."

A Scandal Drenched Murdoch

Earlier this year, a British Parliamentary Select Committee called the man who brought us a string of sleazy tabloids, a monumentally disgusting phone hacking scandal, and the extremely partisan Fox News, "not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company." Most likely due to the piling up of bad news, earlier this week Murdoch stepped down as director of British newspapers "The Sun," "The Times" and "The Sunday Times" as well as from the boards of News International Group, Times Newspaper Holdings and News Corp.'s U.K. investments.

He will however, remain as chairman of News Corp.'s publishing and entertainment divisions. Amplify is slated to be part of the publishing division.

A News Corp. statement called the Murdoch move "nothing more than a corporate housecleaning exercise prior to the company split." Matthew R. Farrell reporting for NewJerseyNewsroom.com was a bit more skeptical: "Housecleaning indeed; although this is more like covering up the stench while leaving the mess to sit. Murdoch is trying to distance himself personally from the British media properties while maintaining control of them, but it might not work. U.K. communications regulator Ofcom is in the process of deciding whether the Murdoch should be allowed a license to broadcast in the U.K. If the agency does not find him ‘fit and proper,' News Corp. could lose a big slice of its income."

Amplify Enters a Crowded Field

The New York Times' Beth Fertig reported that a number of education publishers "including CTB/McGraw-Hill and Pearson, and software companies are racing to develop ... digital products for iPads and other tablets that can customize instruction and analyze classroom data."

But News Corp.'s Amplify might have a financial and logistical leg up on its competition.

Education Week's Jason Tomassini told Fertig in an e-mail that "Through its sheer resources and breadth of services, News Corp., or at least its Amplify entity, is now a competitor to companies like Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Blackboard, but, in a strange twist, is something of an upstart."

"Whether schools will be impressed enough by the product and comfortable enough with the News Corp. name to switch to Amplify is a whole other story," Tomassini added. Evidently, as chancellor of New York City schools, Klein and the city's teachers unions had a number of skirmishes.

When asked how Amplify would distinguish itself in a crowded digital educational landscape, Klein: "This is not digitizing textbooks. This is really creating a very interactive curriculum."

According to The New York Times, "Amplify's products will be made by Wireless Generation, the Brooklyn-based education technology company that was bought by News Corporation in 2010. Wireless Generation also helped design ARIS, the web-based platform for tracking information about student achievement and teachers in the New York City public schools. Klein spearheaded the project, which came under scrutiny when it didn't live up to expectations."

Education Week's Jason Tomassini reported that "Since being purchased by News Corp., Wireless Generation, which says it serves 3 million students in the United States, has grown from about 400 employees to 830 employees. There hasn't been much news out of the education division during that time."

In addition, "Wireless Generation also lost its effort to build a statewide data system when its contract was rejected by the state comptroller." As Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, asked, in a New York Times interview at the time, "What parent would want personal information about themselves and their children in the hands of Rupert Murdoch, given the current circumstances?"

The Times also pointed out that "Klein, who headed the antitrust division of the United States Justice Department during the Clinton administration, spent most of the past year at News Corporation leading the internal investigation into the phone-hacking scandal at Murdoch's British tabloids. His role in the investigation ended last month."