From Now On
|Vol 10|No 7|April|2001|
Beware the Grey Flannel Trojan Horse
by Jamie McKenzie
Please feel free to e-mail this article to a friend, a principal,
There are billions of dollars at stake.
As companies rush forward to help schools network, are school boards, school leaders, and teachers asking enough tough questions about the impact of this commercial wave?
Are schools challenging the value, the neutrality, and the reliability of these new educational partners? Are they sifting through the marketing claims, the hype, and the promises to determine what and who they can trust?
Are principals, teachers, and librarians evaluating the new "digital materials" with the same zeal and care once applied to print materials?
Do schools now question the appropriateness of content saturated or surrounded with advertising as they did when first offered free televisions from Channel One more than a decade back?
Why are so many schools at the youngest levels installing software bundles called "Office?"
Why is there no software program called "Microsoft School?"
What do schools sacrifice in the way of objectivity, balance, and value when they allow companies to channel students through educational portals?
What are the pros and cons of running schools with the skills, attitudes, and values of a Firestone, a Microsoft or an Amazon.com?
Billions of Dollars for Connectivity
According to Andrew Trotter, writing in the September 20, 2000 issue of Education Week, "Rating the E-rate," the E-rate program has provided 5.1 billion dollars in discounts to support the networking of schools in the United States. Meanwhile, countries such as Singapore, Australia, and Canada have also advanced huge sums.
This rush of computers into classrooms amounts to a flood. Trotter points out that Internet computers are now available in more than a million American classrooms. The pace of change and the torrent of dollars has been remarkable.
The extent of federal support for such networking is outlined in "E-rate and the Digital Divide: A Preliminary Analysis From the Integrated Studies of Educational Technology," (U.S. Department of Education, September 2000).
Unfortunately, this report illustrates one of the major problems decried throughout this book - the tendency to put cart before horse - funding equipment and infrastructure without adequate corresponding funds for professional and program development.
Most E-Rate Funds Are Used For Internal Connections The largest share of E-Rate funds (58 percent) has supported the acquisition of equipment and services for internal building connections, while 34 percent is used for telecommunications services, and eight percent is allocated to the cost of Internet access.
"E-rate and the Digital Divide" - Page xi
This surge of hardware and connectivity spending has attracted a legion of salespeople and consultants eager to support school efforts with products, advice, and adult learning programs of various kinds.
Minding Ones Own Business
Those who have devoted a lifetime to studying schools and how students learn best should look cautiously at the products and offerings of newcomers and outsiders who may have little or no experience, training, or knowledge of how schools work or children learn.
Unfortunately, many people outside of schools possess little respect for the thinking, the experience, or knowledge of teachers and educators. For decades now, as Larry Cuban (1986) has fully documented, there have been powerful entities outside of schools who have seen new technologies as a way to displace many school practices viewed as ineffective.
Many of the ill-fated reform efforts of the past two decades have originated outside of schools at the insistence of corporate leaders who began offering "help" soon after the release of the 1982 report, "A Nation at Risk." That report sparked a host of proposals to improve schools that often tried to impose business strategies on schools as if they were factories and students were products rolling through a factory. In many cases, these reformers would simply transport greater competition or tougher tests into the educational world as if they could transform schools with a few quick gestures.
The landscape is littered with failed reform initiatives imposed by state legislatures that have acted without sufficient understanding of how schools might change, often imposing new measures at the behest of corporate thinkers who think they know best.
When it comes to educational technologies, we are seeing history repeat itself, as legislatures rush to be early and impressive in the networking game, committing huge sums to cable schools and run state networks without heeding the lessons of the past regarding the full cost of implementing such programs.
"Dot Compost" suddenly appeared in the weeks before this book went to press - a term that captures the demise of the fabulous dot.com empires that emerged at the end of the last century but collapsed in this one.
In some states, legislatures have foolishly started networking at the lowest grades where the Internet does the least good and many educators question the value of such technologies.
In other states, nearly all the money has been poured into equipment without supporting professional development. Such actions distort the agenda and may actually slow the pace of improvement.
For several years, state leaders, federal leaders, and major telecommunications and computing companies emphasized connectivity as if an Internet connection in a classroom would automatically work a miracle without addressing all of the other key elements outlined in this book.
In some particularly unfortunate cases, partnerships between state and provincial leaders on the one hand and hardware, software, telecommunications and publishing companies on the other hand direct the design of the learning programs at the very pinnacles of power.
These relationships can promote bad business and worse schooling.
Decisions that shape classroom realities are made far above and far away, then handed down as bundles, packages, contracts, and faits accomplis. Many of those involved negotiating these deals have little understanding of schools or children but spout phrases and rhetoric about the knowledge economy or digital generation with the same certainty and arrogance that was typical of dot.com prophets during the end of last century.
How do these packages and deals adversely shape the lives of teachers and students?
In some cases, the leaders contract for professional development with companies that will use an applications training model straight from industry.
The trainers may have never taught children in schools. They teach software. They know Excel. They know Access or Front Page. They use templates and examples from the business world. They know nothing about curriculum . . . less about integration strategies.
They often march through the software skills continuum without customizing the lessons to match the developmental needs or styles of the learners. They know little about adult learning. They know nothing about the value of these software tools within the context of schools.
This is bad business. Worse schooling.
Instead of winning the enthusiastic support of teachers for new technologies and literacy, such partnership may undermine support, provoke cynicism, and slow progress.
Sometimes schools will buy rights to educational packages, digital resources and "portals" that may not honor basic educational values. Some violate notions of privacy, decency, and neutrality.
Many software packages are set so that students automatically begin their educational tours through gateways and portals designed by companies to stimulate buying appetites.
Sometimes the portal is more like a gauntlet than a gateway!
As an example of the conflicts of interest implicit in such sites, such advertising and such partnerships, we have one credit card company offering educational materials designed to show young people how to manage their money responsibly!
"Why pay today when you can borrow and delay payment at high interest rates?"
As students cruise through the lists of online resources, the sites often appear within a shell of advertising to match the student inquiry.
This heavy influence of advertising, marketing, and corporate image building stands in stark contrast to educational portals created by librarians such as KidsClick!
KidsClick! is a project of the Ramapo Catskill Library System. Unlike most of the commercial portals, there is a clear statement regarding selection policies.
An Education Week Technology Update on October 20, 1999 listed several companies now offering portals to schools and covered the pros and cons of such sites.
The list included INET Library, Inc., Electric SchoolHouse, Inc., FamilyEducation Co., Lycos, Inc., Lightspan Partnership, Inc., Copernicus Interactive, Inc., and ZapMe! Corp.
Some of these ventures promise a great deal but end up disappointing participating schools.
Forbes.Com reported in November of 2000 that "ZapMe Kills Computers In The Classroom." November 28 article by Betsy Schiffman was available online but is now gone.
Launched in 1996, ZapMe of San Ramon, Calif., wanted to give away free computer equipment and access to U.S. schools. The hitch was that the equipment and access would be supported by banner advertising, a concept frowned upon by educators. Still, ZapMe launched two successful pilot schools in 1998. By the end of the third quarter of 2000, ZapMe had wired 2,300 schools in 45 states, providing approximately 2 million students with Internet access.
Plagued by criticism and disappointing revenues, ZapMe has been forced to take away the "free" part of the program.
The company now has directions at LearningGate.Com explaining how schools may purchase the labs they thought were free. No purchase, no computers!
"Lets keep learning together," the company suggests warmly.
Some of the commercial sites have a greater focus on shopping than they do on pointing students and educators toward curriculum related materials. While waiting for slow loading educational content pages, banner ads sometimes flash high priority messages grabbing for the attention of the waiting browser.
Looking for professional development opportunities? One of these portals sends you first to its strategic partners. This is not an "open door policy." More like steerage . . . If you persist and click through several levels, you may find a list of other providers, but the strategic partners remain prominently displayed at the top while all the others are listed farther down the page out of sight with prominent competitors ignored and unmentioned.
Unlike a good library, some of these portal sites unabashedly direct members and visitors to information not because it is the best available but because it is provided by business partners.
Recommendations at some sites are for sale, like shelf space in a grocery store. If you want prominent placement or mention for your product or your information, a company may have to sign a partnership agreement or pay for a high ranking. Payola has become a standard way of doing business in a dot.com world.
Rankings in search engine listings are also for sale at sites like GoTo (http://www.goto.com) which has the equivalent of an auction with top ranking for a search such as "educational technology" going to the highest bidder.
What does all this have to do with schools?
The whole notion of "channeling" (steering, directing, leading) runs counter to long-standing traditions of education that argue for independent thought. The minds, preferences, and brand loyalties of young students should not be for sale or for rent by those entrusted with their upbringing.
Stemming the Tide
Even though corporate partnerships are all the rage in some quarters, boards of education and school administrators should remain vigilant and cautious when it comes to marketing intrusions into the learning process.
Most boards have policies prohibiting advertising in schools. This is a good first step, but the incursions have become so subtle and so pervasive for any student browsing the Internet that it is probably impossible to block all advertising unless filters are installed.
The most serious intrusions are those that limit choice and sanction marketing on a large scale. When districts or schools sign agreements with portals or providers that severely restrict access to information and promote brand loyalties as if they were family values, they do their students a great disservice.
"What kind of education did you get?"
"Barnes & Noble."
The trends outlined in this chapter are disturbing, Comfortably wrapped in lucrative partnerships of their own, some national organizations that might have been counted on to warn against such "Faustian" deals in the past have sadly "gone over to the other side." They have become cheerleaders and bandwagon proponents rather than protectors of childhood rights and values.
Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.