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Amazon announces digital content site for teachers, schools

E-commerce giant Amazon said Monday that it will offer a new digital marketplace for teachers and schools called Amazon Inspire.

The portal initially will offer free content for teachers to share and upload, and is expected to expand as a marketplace for educational products, including everything from textbooks to software.

The initial content offerings on the site should be available online by late August or early September. Inspire will offer free instructional items for educators, including lesson plans, student worksheets, as well as full content modules for courses.

Jennifer Mendlowitz, a New York City-based educational technology consultant, said the concept of open educational resources (OER) has been around for two decades with a plethora of companies offering such materials — from Apple and Google to EngageNY and K-12 OER Collaborative.  But Amazon brings its own brand heft to the market, she said.

"Amazon is launching its own OER platform because of the ecosystem. And it's all about winning the ecosystem," Mendlowitz said of Inspire. 

"The reason Amazon is getting into this — it's like what it's done with everything else. They got into the tablet business with Kindle Fire. With that you get all these freebies. They want you using their games, their Goodreads, their Kindle apps, even Amazon Prime and all of the video, for free. It goes on and on. 

"Right now, they are going to give this content away for free, to suck you in, but there's always a catch," she's said. "It's not sustainable in the long term unless people are going to buy into their other services. This is just another way of sucking us in. Amazon has the brand name recognition, it has the resources. It does have the advantage over competitors this way."

Amazon, operating Inspire now on a beta site with a tagline "innovative teachers wanted," encourages educators to sign up this summer for early access to the teaching material portal. Once in the system, Amazon asks new members to "share 5-10 of your own resources," as well as offer ratings and reviews of the materials already uploaded there.

It also is inviting "states, districts, schools, and other creators of educational resources to collaborate with us," the site notes.

Amazon touted the open online community via social media using the new handle @AmazonEdu, Tweeting Monday that "we're dedicated to open dialogue with educators."

Much like Amazon's shopping experience, those using Inspire can review content and course materials posted on the site by user ratings, relevance and popularity, allowing for immediate crowd-sourced feedback on what has been successful. The site will allow users to search for materials with criteria such as grade level, for example, as well as standards, and they can curate the content they like into a collection they can share with their colleagues.

“Amazon joins educators from around the country in recognizing the power of digital learning to transform the classroom, by creating a personalized, engaging learning environment for all students,” Rohit Agarwal, Amazon's general manager of K-12 Education, said in a statement announcing Inspire.

“However, we also know that making that promise a reality is a time-consuming proposition and teachers tell us that they spend upwards of 12 hours a week searching for and curating resources for classroom instruction, placing a high degree of trust in resources shared by their peers," he said. "With Amazon Inspire, we aim to quickly and easily put the best and most trusted digital resources at teachers’ fingertips, saving them valuable time that can be devoted to what they do best and enjoy most — teaching.”

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Technology praised the project.

"To truly transform learning in our schools and ensure educational equity for all students — regardless of grade level or zip code — it is crucial that we put high quality, open educational resources at teachers’ fingertips,” said Joseph South, director for the Office of Technology in a statement. “The leadership of states, districts and innovative platform providers is critical for setting a vision and creating an open ecosystem where educators and students can access the tools, content and expertise necessary to thrive in a connected world."

Amazon's new education launch, kicked off to coincide with the International Society for Technology in Education conference in Denver this week, marks an expanded push by tech giants to encourage more and better technology use in the schools and to embrace open educational resources for their growing digital classrooms.

A recent study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that just 25 percent of the nation's high schools teach computer science, even as the White House and state education chiefs have funded and encouraged the growth of STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math).