NEW YORK – Former New York City schools chief Joel Klein left to run News Corp.'s education division but spent much of the past year defending boss Rupert Murdoch in the phone-hacking scandal that has rocked the British media.
The investigation into the use of information taken from stolen phones is continuing, but Klein is back in New York to launch Amplify, News Corp.'s entry into the burgeoning field of digital learning.
Amplify and AT&T will fund a pilot project that will put tablet computers in students' hands in the coming school year.
None of the schools selected to participate will have to pay for the program; profits will come down the road. Students will use the tablets at school and home, and the system will track their progress and tailor lessons to each student's level.
"What we're trying to do is really become a hub for serious thinking and trying to make sure that technology is a positive force," Klein said in an interview. "Because I've long said that just giving a kid a computer isn't going to change the game."
As chancellor of New York City's 1.1 million-pupil public school system from 2002 through the end of 2010, Klein championed policies like increasing the number of charter schools and closing schools deemed to be failing. He earlier served as assistant U.S. attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's Antitrust Division in the Clinton administration.
Klein said he has been working full-time at Amplify since mid-June after News Corp. hired general counsel Gerson Zweifach to focus on continuing fallout from the hacking scandal, which broke about six months after Klein started working at Amplify.
He would not discuss the scandal other than to say, "The company hired a world-class general counsel. I can go back full-time to something that I'm passionate about."
Klein, 65, is from a textbook generation. He pointed to bookshelves lining his office in News Corp.'s midtown headquarters but said today's students are less attached to the printed page.
"These kids are so used to a world of social networks and data aggregation," Klein said.
He said digital materials can engage students in history, science and other subjects. He envisions students reading the Gettysburg Address and clicking on the words "Four score and seven years ago" to learn why Abraham Lincoln traced the nation's birth to the Declaration of Independence. Then they might fight the Battle of Gettysburg themselves.
"If games will get them engaged in the work and excited about it, isn't that great? If they're educational games," Klein said. "I don't want them to sit there and play Minesweeper."
Amplify will incorporate the student assessment software business Wireless Generation, which News Corp. acquired in 2010.
New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli rejected a $27 million contract with Wireless Generation to build a data system for tracking student performance last year, in part because of the phone-hacking scandal. But Klein said Wireless Generation now provides services to 3 million students in all 50 states.
Amplify joins a growing educational technology field that includes startups as well as traditional publishers like McGraw-Hill. According to investment fund GSV Capital, the number of companies that received funding to develop K-12 educational technology doubled from 2010 to 2011.
News Corp. announced Wednesday during its fourth-quarter earnings call that it will boost investment in Amplify by another $100 million from a year ago to $180 million in the coming fiscal year through next June.
The National Venture Capital Association says investment in education technology companies nationwide shot up to $429 million in 2011 from $146 million in 2002.
Betsy Corcoran, the CEO of EdSurge, which publishes a newsletter and website on educational technology, said school districts are sorting through the available products to find what works.
It may take a few years, she said. "Even though there are promising hints, we lack compelling evidence of sure-fire successes in education technology."
Nabeel Ahmad, who teaches an educational technology course at Columbia University's Teachers College, said Amplify's push for tablets in the classroom seems promising, but schools may not be ready to embrace the technology.
"A good bet now is to find ways to slowly introduce it," he said. "To go fully digital for the entire school in the way that they're envisioning is still several years out."
Companies selling classroom materials in the coming years will strive to align them with the Common Core, a new set of academic standards that have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia.
Ann Flynn, director of educational technology for the National School Boards Association, said the Common Core makes developing new educational products much easier than if a company had to meet 50 sets of standards in 50 states. She added that News Corp.'s experience owning the social networking site Myspace could help it to develop digital learning products.
Flynn also said she didn't expect any fallout from the hacking scandal to affect Amplify.
"The success of Wireless Generation, and its reputation with the larger education community, may have a far greater (and positive) impact on how this new endeavor is viewed than the News Corp. scandal," Flynn said.
Some critics distrust the rush to profit from public education. "I don't approve of for-profit ventures in education other than companies selling books and school supplies," Diane Ravitch, New York University professor and author of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education," said in an email.
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, whose union representing 75,000 teachers often clashed with Klein when he was chancellor, said the phone-hacking scandal makes News Corp. a poor choice for the classroom.
"I don't know how anyone with any sort of common sense would say, 'Oh, yeah, let's buy thousands of these devices and give them access to information,'" Mulgrew said.