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March 6 (Reuters) - News Corp's education division, Amplify, on Wednesday introduced the first tablet computer built specifically for the classroom, in a bid to capture a slice of the billions of dollars spent in U.S. public schools.
The Amplify Tablet hits the market at a time of soaring interest in digital learning. Global textbook companies and scrappy startups alike are flooding the market with products that let students dissect a virtual frog, manipulate fractions on a touch screen or learn about the Constitution through an interactive game.
Amplify is betting that school districts will be willing to spend several hundred dollars per student, even at a time of steep budget cuts, to run all that software on a custom tablet. Among the features: A kill switch that lets teachers disable applications on her students' tablets so she can be sure they aren't playing Angry Birds when they should be working. Another feature lets teachers send frequent multiple-choice quizzes to student tablets to check their comprehension mid-class.
"It's going to transform the way teachers teach and students learn because it is designed just for them, by them," said Amplify Chief Executive Joel Klein, who headed the New York public school system before joining News Corp in 2010.
But rivals said most of the new tablet's signature features already exist on Web-based software platforms that can run on any device - iPads, Android tablets, smartphones or laptops. Textbook giant Pearson reaches nearly 20 million students a year through two such platforms, according to Jonathan Harber, chief executive of Pearson's K12 Technology Group.
The platforms are flexible enough that some school districts have opted to let students access digital content through their personal devices. Other districts have chosen to buy devices for each student, but no one device has emerged as the most popular choice.
"There's still a lot of experimentation going on," said Scott Kinney, senior vice president of Discovery Education, a leading provider of digital content to classrooms. "Do I think there will eventually be one winner? I doubt it."
Executives at Amplify, which projects an operating loss of about $80 million for this fiscal year, said they are confident school districts will want to spend on hardware. They pointed to a recent speech by Houston schools superintendent Terry Grier, who said he would like to see as the district buy a laptop for each student. They noted, too, that the Los Angeles Unified School District recently announced plans to spend $50 million on tablets, though the district has not specified which brand it will purchase.
Amplify's sister company, News America Inc, this week donated $250,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Los Angeles school board. Klein, Amplify's CEO, has given $25,000 from his own pocket to back the slate.
Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for Amplify, would not comment on any discussions the company may have had with Los Angeles school officials about the planned tablet purchase. Hamilton said Klein focuses his donations on candidates he believes will improve public education.
The Amplify tablet is open sourced, wi-fi enabled and runs on Google Inc's Android operating system. It comes pre-loaded with Amplify software as well as products from outside providers, such as Encyclopaedia Britannica. Teachers can also upload their own content.
Amplify executives said too often, teachers use technology only briefly in class. "They may use it for 10 minutes, then it's 'Let's put the tablets away.' We don't like hearing that!" said Sean Farrell, product director. He said the company aims to make the tablet essential throughout the school day, in part by letting teachers customize which resources and assignments pop up on each student's screen.
Amplify's basic tablet, slated to roll out next fall, is priced at $299 when purchased with a two-year subscription at $99 per year. An upgrade with a 4G data plan costs $349 when purchased with a two-year subscription at $179 per year. Those prices include teacher training and access to a help hotline.
By comparison, Apple Inc's iPad2, a popular choice in many schools, costs $399.
Amplify, which has about 1,000 employees, will be a part of News Corp's publishing company when it splits from the company's entertainment properties this summer.
News Corp's foray into digital technology has been mixed at best. It sold the once-mighty social media site MySpace after Facebook zoomed past it in popularity. And its ambitious digital-only newspaper for tablets, The Daily, published its last edition last year after it failed to catch on with readers.
News Corp made its first big step into education when it purchased Wireless Generation, an educational software company, in 2010.
The following year, Wireless Generation lost a $27 million contract to build a student data system for New York after the state comptroller raised concerns about News Corp's involvement in a phone hacking scandal in Britain.
Wireless Generation officials have said they have nothing to do with that scandal. The company has since secured other contracts that involve tracking and analyzing student data.