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Amazon is intensifying its efforts to go after education market customers by releasing a significant upgrade to its Whispercast tool — plus tossing in a free service to ease the transition from paper to pixel.

kindleapp300300Whispercast 3.0, released today, adds more mass deployment and management features long missing for Amazon in K-12 and higher education. Whispercast is generally used to distribute free or paid content that organizations either upload themselves or get from Amazon (eBooks, eTextbooks, and certain apps) to a wide variety of devices.

The new version now supports buying digital content with purchase orders and purchase cards, not just credit or gift cards.

It also gives administrators more granular permissions control over device and content management features. That means certain types of activities can be decentralized and handed off, for example, from school districts to individual schools, teachers or others in tiers and groups.

New Whispercast 3.0 permissions feature
Whispercast 3.0 groups and permissions feature (image: Amazon)

Whispercast, which works with devices that run the Kindle reading app, has been around, at no charge, for a couple of years and is used by businesses and educational institutions. So upgrades are expected.

But perhaps the biggest change is not a feature that comes with the Whispercast 3.0 tool, but a new, free service: what Amazon calls “Digital Transition Services” to provide a kind of handholding for K-12 and higher ed institutions. Representatives from Amazon will be available to help education organizations implement switching to, and scaling up, the use of digital content.

Purchase order payment option added
Purchase order payment option added (image: Amazon)

Rohit Agarwal became general manager of Amazon Education this month, after joining Amazon when the company acquired the math education company he co-founded, TenMarks, in 2013.

“We’ve all seen for the past couple of years the trend toward one-to-one deployment of devices” in schools, he says. “We believe giving every student a device is a great starting point, but it’s not the be-all end-all.”

Digital Transition Services “isn’t a piece of technology, it’s more human,” Agarwal adds — a kind of glue for the tech. “This is not something we’re charging for.”

A final new feature is an improved user interface with a step-by-step setup wizard that’s designed to eliminate training in how to use Whispercast, something that likely will be welcomed by overwhelmed (and any non-tech-savvy) educators.

Whispercast eBook Start
Whispercast eBook distribution (image: Amazon)

Whispercast supports all devices that can use the free Kindle reading app, including traditional Kindle e-readers, Fire tablets, iPads, iPhones, Android tablets and phones, Chromebooks, and Macintosh and Windows computers.

Amazon pointedly isn’t placing bets on any individual brand or type of device in schools including, apparently, its own. iPads were hot out of the gate as an edtech darling when they were introduced in 2010. Chromebooks subsequently have picked up speed in K-12 schools due to their low price and centralized management features.

Amazon’s device-agnostic strategy, Agarwal says, is the correct one: “We want to be the provider of the right content, for every device, as students need it.”

There were hints of Amazon’s emphasis on the Kindle reading apps in a large deal it announced in Brazil a year ago, in which more than two hundred textbook titles were converted and wirelessly distributed to hundreds of thousands of public high school teachers using Whispercast. That delivery was to roughly 600,000 government-issued tablets, all using the Kindle reading app.

The new version of Whispercast, Agarwal says, makes it more easy, “to be able support the ability of a district that says it wants to buy 10,000 copies of a book.”

In a statement, Amazon said Whispercast is being used in more than half of the 250 largest school districts, and nearly all of the 30 largest universities (including the University of Texas at Austin and Seton Hall University) in the U.S.

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