Amping Up the Classroom
The goal of a single place to log-in to start teaching and learning is a step closer to being a reality with the introduction of Smart Technologies’ Amp. The online service acts like a repository and portal that brings the world of digital education to classrooms.
Based in the cloud, Amp can do things that local curriculum storage can’t. It can integrate Google apps, the company’s Smart Notebook-based lessons and all the material on Smart’s online Exchange as well as deliver the curriculum from 28 individual curriculum providers. The list currently runs from Ablenet to Zondle. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Discovery Education are the service’s major anchor publishers.
It’s a pretty good start and the list of participating publishers continues to increase. Rather than working with one curriculum provider, Amp’s goal is to be agnostic as to educational services. In fact, the more the merrier is their concept. While Amp doesn’t consolidate the payments and licensing for the world of online learning, it provides a single log-in point for students and teachers and gives them an effective delivery service to bring curriculum and collaboration to the classroom.
The key is that rather than using a series of native applications to run the software locally, Amp delivers everything over the Internet to students and teachers in a browser window. Think of it as a virtualized environment that can bring lots of different material together onto a single screen. This makes Amp appropriate for a school with mixed systems and software packages and perfect for a BYOD school with many different systems and software.
Getting started is easy because the company offers a 30-day trial that’s instructive as to the system’s strengths and weaknesses. I used a full version over the course of three months with several different teacher and student client machines, including Android tablets, PCs, Chromebooks and iPads.
To start, there’s no software to load because everything is delivered over the Web to a familiar browser window; it worked well with recent versions of Internet Explorer, Chrome and Safari; while it’s not specifically supported, Opera worked fine as well. A big bonus is that no matter what you’re using, you always have the most recent version of the software.
A one-stop shop for classrooms, Amp can use a Google ID to sign-on to the service and it can bring up classroom items stored on GoogleDrive. This makes it particularly advantageous for those schools that have integrated GMail and other online services. Plus, the use of GoogleDrive within Amp doesn’t count towards your storage limit. Unfortunately, Amp hasn’t incorporated the recently introduced Google Classroom software, but it should be just a matter of time.
In addition to starting with a class list, teachers can add students by having them log in and use a six digit code or snap a shot of a QR code that can be sent to them. After that, they’re automatically part of the digital class.
To start teaching, I created a Workspace that I filled with everything from Smart’s existing lessons, stuff stashed on GoogleDrive and the content of publishers that I have an account with. It’s, ironically easier to grab stuff off of the Web than from a local server at school, though.
There are nine different templates to start with, from a sheet of graph paper to a storyboard for examining plot development. Of course, you can work from a blank screen as if Amp were a digital board. The teacher can work alone, with selected students or the whole class at once. Alternatively, kids can work on their own or in groups with the teacher periodically looking in.
A big step forward for neophyte and technophobic teachers is that there’re several how-to videos that can help get them started. Regardless of what you do, Smart is always saving your Workspace lessons; deleted items can be retrieved. Unfortunately, there’s no way to undo a change, but you can use the eraser to make any annotation disappear. Those lessons you plan to reuse during the day, year or career can be turned into templates.
It took me a couple of lessons to get the hang of using Amp, but I suspect that kids will figure out the ins and outs of the software. Items can be dragged to the main screen to be worked on and kids can work together over a single screen or share a virtual desktop space with a student or teacher across the room or country.
Over the course of lessons on grammar, math and geography, the system worked well. The items on the screen can be brought forward or back, and locked into place and the service’s pen and markers offer a variety of colors and line weights. It works better with a touch-screen system and finger or stylus, but if you’re careful a touchpad should suffice.
The leader can pass control to a student or work one-on-one with any child and control what appears in the browser window. On the downside, Amp can’t lock a student’s screen to keep inattentive students from wandering to other sites or local apps.
Based on Smart’s heritage, as you might guess, it works well with an interactive projector or digital board, but you don’t need to use a Smart product. In fact, I used Acer and Epson projectors and everything worked without a hitch.
With everything in place, the system can allow teachers and students to work through the material on their own or in groups, grabbing different elements from different sources. In this regard, Amp allows teachers and students to create their own curriculum from the best sources available.
Amp has a place in both traditional lessons as well as flipped curriculum. It has three big extras for thoughtful teachers and administrators: it is perfect for keeping children stuck home sick engaged in the lesson and means that a snow day doesn’t have to be dead time. It can even be used for afterschool enrichment away from school.
The key to Amp’s feedback is its Dashboard. Here, a teacher can see who’s connected, start a lesson and review assignments and assessment results. The software includes six different test formats, including True/False, numeric entry and multiple choice.
All this can put more stress on the school’s data infrastructure than traditional digital apps that work locally. Rather than the immediate response of a local program Amp can take a few seconds to grab and display a screen on a student’s computer. Most schools can handle the extra flow, but I suspect that schools with marginal data connections and internal networks will find them quickly overwhelmed and in need of a revamping.
While it works well on a notebook or desktop computer, Amp can feel cramped on a smaller slate or phone screen and require zooming, scrolling and panning to see everything. Of what I’ve seen and experienced, Amp is off to a good start with some impressive integration and lessons. With Amp starting at $8 per student per year, the service can streamline how kids are taught by consolidating their instruction resources. As is the case with school software, the larger the school or district, the lower the price for Amp.
At the moment, it is a work in progress and only time will tell if they are able to aggressively add more publishers, but for now, Amp can deliver the lesson regardless of where it is coming from.
$8 per student
+ Brings digital lessons to kids
+ Works with a variety of hardware and services
+ Google ID log in
+ Free trial
+ Works well with interactive displays
+ Provides collaborative space
- Need to purchase curriculum separately
- Limited array of providers