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Taking the Learning Tablets

The latest innovations promise big improvements in teaching

WHO killed Edgar Allan Poe? The mysterious death of the 19th-century author features in a new online school curriculum from Amplify, the education arm of News Corp. Pupils follow clues that require close reading of Poe’s stories (the assassin’s identity varies, to prevent cribbing), and take machine-graded comprehension and vocabulary tests along the way. Another section teaches mathematics by setting quests, such as an Alaskan dog-sled race for which pupils must plan, budget and manage provisions.

Two decades of fitting classrooms with computers and whiteboards have gobbled rich countries’ school budgets and done little for attainment. But the latest technology promises to improve teaching methods, rather than merely shifting them from blackboard to screen, and to give all children the personalized education once only available to the rich. Game-style lessons let pupils progress at their own pace, getting instant feedback at every step. Even homework is more fun: when Pearson (a part-owner of The Economist) supplied tablet-based courses to schools in Alabama, they were such a hit that Wi-Fi was installed on school buses so it could be done en route.

When pupils work independently, teachers can spend time on individual coaching rather than routine tasks such as marking. The data captured as pupils progress are used to improve both the software and classroom management. InfoMentor, an Icelandic firm that works with schools in several European countries, crunches data to find out where pupils drift or stall. Teachers can see what has been learnt and who is struggling. Its software has been adopted by a fifth of Swedish, and almost all Icelandic, primary schools. Catherine Luthman, a head teacher in Kungsor in Sweden, credits it with helping her move her school from “poor” to “outstanding” in just three years without changing staff.

Universities are quaking at the thought of being replaced by tech upstarts. But few people think that under-16s can do without schools and teachers; it is just that new tools could help them do a better job. That may make them keener on ed-tech, and quicker to adopt it. Resistance is also being overcome by involving teachers in product design. Their fears that device-driven classes would curb spontaneity or cause pupils to ignore them prompted Amplify to include an override that lets them lock devices, so that pupils look up and listen.

The new chalk and talk

At $199 per pupil, per year, for tablet, set-up and software, Amplify looks pricey. But research by the Gates Foundation shows that spending on America’s schools has more than doubled in the past four decades, with much of the extra money going on textbooks and updating computer hardware. Hand-held devices that can be customized look like a better deal. Investors are convinced: according to CB Insights, a consultancy, American ed-tech start-ups attracted $1.25 billion last year.

Amplify is the first ed-tech firm to deliver a product pre-loaded with the middle-school curriculum for America’s Common Core State Standards Initiative, which specifies what pupils in most states must learn by the age of 18. It claims its system, currently being piloted, means children progress far faster through literacy and comprehension material. Indications from broader independent studies are promising. One from 2002-05 in Missouri showed that integrating technology into teaching helped children progress better, regardless of social background. A meta-analysis of online learning by Johns Hopkins University found small positive effects on test outcomes in reading and mathematics.