Amazon’s Brazilian Textbook Deal Stirs Speculation About Its K-12 Ambitions

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Amazon is an instantly recognizable player in the e-commerce market, but to date its presence in schools has been limited, at least compared to other industry giants. But a recent big move by the company in an expanding international market has raised speculation about whether the company has bigger designs, and a strategy to match them, in K-12.

The Seattle-based company recently announced that it is working with Brazil’s Ministry of Education to wirelessly distribute textbooks to teachers throughout the country, using a free Kindle reading app. The textbook material would be delivered to teachers on their Brazilian-government-issued Android tablets, according to Amazon.

The Brazilian ministry’s National Fund for Educational Development is using Whispercast, a platform that says it offers a single access point for users of Kindle to purchase and distribute its products, to manage the catalog of e-textbooks and organize the information flowing to teachers.

The project’s size, as described by Amazon, seems enormous: The company says that to date, more than 40 million e-textbooks have been delivered through the app project, and that textbook materials are being delivered via Whispercast to 600,000 tablets used by teachers across the country. More than 200 different types of textbook titles have been made available, according to the company.

Teachers using the free app can “read, highlight, make notes and reference the dictionary directly in the textbooks, even when the tablets are not connected to the Internet,” the company said.

In one sense, it’s no surprise Amazon would pursue opportunities in Brazil. The South American country has one of the world’s biggest economies and drawn the interest of major ed-tech companies in recent years, as the buying power and tech use of its population has grown.

But some observers also speculate that Amazon’s work in Brazil offers a likely glimpse into the company’s broader designs for the school market.

Education consultant Frank Catalano, for instance, notes that to date Amazon has aggressively sought to market the Kindle in the postsecondary world, but has been largely “passive” in promoting the product in K-12.

But the move in Brazil suggests Amazon’s education strategy “may not be selling Kindle tablet hardware after all,” Catalano writes on Geek Wire, via EdSurge. “It may be the Kindle app.”

In doing so, Amazon isn’t focused on delivering content on Kindles or Kindle Fires, but providing it for free through a reading app that runs on iOS, Macs, Windows and Androids, Catalano points out. The Kindle reading app is free, which would appeal to schools, and because it runs on nearly any manufacturer’s tablet, it essentially “turns every tablet into a Kindle: that is, an Amazon delivery device,” he says.

“It may be that Amazon isn’t disinterested in the overall K-12 education game,” Catalano adds. “It may simply prefer to redefine the game’s rules and playing field.”

In addition to the app project, Amazon recently became more focused on selling Kindle devices themselves to Brazilian consumers online, Reuters noted. That’s despite cumbersome barriers in the  country’s market, including tax, labor, and logistical burdens that make e-commerce challenging, according to the report.

Over at the site Publishing Perspectives, Carlo Carrenho urges caution about overstating the scope of Amazon’s school deal in Brazil, saying the government process will allow for plenty of room for competitors to move into the market there. He also said claim that 40 million e-textbooks should be viewed skeptically.

“Making a long story short, Amazon scored a goal with the government,” he writes, “but it is far from winning the championship or even the match.”

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