Tablets in schools: What could go wrong?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Amazon (AMZN) said on Thursday that it had acquired TenMarks, a company that makes math apps that comply with standards for the Common Core curriculum, which has been adopted by a majority of U.S. states. TenMarks says its products are already in use at tens of thousands of schools. The deal allows Amazon to load up its Kindles with exclusive content. This will bolster its pitch as it elbows for space in the crowd of tech companies trying to get in on the educational-technology buying binge.

According to Interactive Data Corp. (IDC), the U.S. educational market for PCs and tablets is worth about $5 billion, with tablet sales to educational institutions doubling from 2011 to 2012. Taxpayer money is being set aside to fund many more purchases. As they shop around, school districts are going to approach this a lot like consumers: They’re going to buy the devices that have the best apps.

They’ll have choices. Apple (AAPL), which is also focused on selling to schools, said it sold 1.1 million iPads last quarter as part of its education initiative, making up 7.5 percent of overall sales for the period. Amplify, the educational arm of News Corp. (NWS), has started selling Android tablets loaded with its own educational content to school districts. The companies are landing lucrative deals by selling schools on the ability to tailor lessons to individual students, clever ways to update content automatically, and a general sheen of modernity. It seems inevitable that learning is going to look at lot different in the near future.

Still, it’s already clear that this march towards a brave new world of education is going to be about as orderly as a fire drill for first graders. This school year is only weeks old, and the nation’s schoolchildren are already showing us what can go wrong.

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