Commercializing the Classroom

Despite billions of federal and private grant dollars spent to wire K-12 classrooms and connect them to the Internet, few schools have the money for computers or the teaching tools to use on them. Indeed, on average, observers believe schools are finding it tough to drop below a ratio of 10 students per computer.

"We should have all of the classrooms in our schools wired for Internet drops by the end of the year," said Johnny Van Roekel, director of technology for the Lexington, N.C., city school system. "But we've calculated it would cost another $250,000 to $300,000 to put computers into every classroom, and we don't think we'll get [the funding]."

To help close the gap between the promise of the networked schoolhouse and the computer basics in place in most schools, some districts are turning to commercial service providers that specialize in providing online content to schools. For money-strapped jurisdictions, these companies can mean the difference between getting children on the information superhighway and having a classroom full of unused computers.

"Most schools find that there aren't enough quality services and applications for their new technology," said Sue Bastian, executive director of Teaching Matters Inc., a nonprofit group in New York City that trains teachers to use technology in the classroom. In turning to providers such as ZapMe!, the Family Education Network and Learningstation.com, schools can get free or low-cost computers and Internet connections, along with access to education-specific software and Web sites.

But there's a catch: Schools pay a subscription fee or, in the case of several more advanced services, allow companies to run banner ads on the computer screens as kids-and their parents, in some cases-use the services. The arrival of these and other services presents a challenge to K-12 educators. How far should they go in exposing classes to commercial influences in order to provide students to the most advanced education tools?

To some, the answer is, "Not very far."

"I think there is a need to be concerned about the commercial companies who are getting involved in this," said Bill Rukeyser, coordinator for Learning in the Real World, a nonprofit organization in Woodland, Calif., that advocates a detailed examination of the trade-offs of education technology. "When commercialism is introduced [into the classroom], then students are being converted into a commodity that can be bought and sold."

ZapMe!

The company that takes perhaps the most directly commercial approach to online education is ZapMe! Corp., a privately held company formed in 1996 that provides free to qualified schools a high-speed, satellite-based Internet connection along with high-end PCs, servers, printers and software. It provides individual e-mail accounts and gives students and teachers access to some 10,000 World Wide Web sites that the company has approved as being of educational value. The service allows students direct access to the Internet if parents give permission.

In return, schools guarantee that each PC will be used at least four hours a day. While the PC is in use, students can only use the ZapMe! custom browser to surf the Web. Meanwhile, banner ads under the direct control of ZapMe! are flashed onto the border of the screen.

Advertisers include companies, such as technology firms, that want to target kids or their parents. However, the company requires that such ads be "appropriate" for its audience.

ZapMe! gained about $50 million in venture financing earlier this year and in August filed for an initial public offering. It claims to have signed up about 200 schools so far.

Channel One Redux

In some ways, ZapMe! represents the Internet version of Channel One, an educational media service that since 1990 has offered U.S. schools free satellite dishes, VCRs and TV sets through which it pipes news programs designed for schoolchildren. In exchange, Channel One sells commercial time to advertisers eager to compete for the attention span of the 6- to 18-year-old set.

Although Channel One has garnered more than 100 news and educational honors, including a Peabody Award for broadcasting excellence, critics contend that it's short on educational content and long on ads and filler. For instance, a 1997 study by New York-based Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting said only 20 percent of Channel One air time was devoted to "recent political, economic, social and cultural stories." The rest was spent on ads, sports, weather, natural disasters and features of "dubious" educational value.

"ZapMe! is eerily similar to Channel One," said Andrew Hagelshaw, program director for the Center for Commercial-Free Education, a nonprofit organization that initially was formed in large part to oppose Channel One. "It's just that they use computers instead of TVs. Everything, down to the contract, is very similar."

Not surprisingly, ZapMe! executives disagree. Fundamentally, they say, the banner ads on ZapMe! are no different than ads children would see anywhere they go on the Internet. And kids are constantly bombarded by ads, they say, whether they see them on the Internet or not. "We do understand that the use of ads in an educational context can bring on passionate arguments," said Tracy Keogh, ZapMe! director of marketing. "But we certainly don't align ourselves with Channel One. The decision to use ZapMe! is really made at the grass-roots level in schools. The expense of getting technology into schools is so great that many educators see it as a great way to improve learning at their schools."

That's a little too simplistic, Hagelshaw said. The banner ads that ZapMe! displays are meant for a specific, school-age demographic and are therefore more directed than general Internet ads. "Plus, the fact that the ads are displayed in a school setting represents an implied endorsement by the school of the ads," he said. "The clear preference is that no ads be involved at all."

Target Parents, Not Kids

Some companies that use ads dodge most of the criticism by steering services away from children. The Family Education Network (FEN), for one, is targeted to parents and teachers, not children. It provides free Web sites and tools for school districts, schools and teachers to post school-related information such as lunch menus, school board minutes, school calendars and courses. In return, FEN (www.familyeducation.com), displays banner ads and provides a virtual storefront for educational products.

So far, the company, which recently received $51 million in venture financing, claims a presence in nearly 7,000 schools. "Our primary audience is parents, teachers and school administrators," said Bob Block, vice president for education partnerships at Boston-based FEN, which has enlisted the National Parent Teachers Association, the American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Foundation as partners. "We do not advertise directly to children, and we provide a useful service to the parents."

Pay As You Go

Yet another approach to offering online educational services is Learningstation.com, which provides schools customized Internet portals, productivity and curriculum-planning tools, e-mail and online calendars. Educational software resides on a server supplied and maintained by Learningstation.com. Schools use browsers on PCs they own or on thin-clients supplied free by the company to access services.

Instead of selling advertising, the company charges a monthly fee. The schools pay nothing more for hardware or software. Even old computers the schools may have had for years can be used, and Learningstation.com takes care of server and software upgrades.

Nevertheless, Learningstation.com did have its brush with ads. It delivers services through Web portals that can be customized for individual users. Initially, these carried references to Learningstation.com partners such as Sun Microsystems Inc. and Citrix Systems Inc. But "we were told that our portal was not 'education' enough, so we had to go away and do more development," said James Ransdall, vice president of marketing and business development at Learningstation.com.

"In other words, we were told we looked too much like a commercial portal," he said. "When we asked if people wanted advertising overall on these portals, we were told 'no' in no uncertain terms," although he conceded that this attitude would vary district by district.

Which Way to Go

There's certainly no clear sign yet which way the potential users of commercial services will go. Some schools absolutely will not accept them, as a matter of policy.

"We've been down this road before with Channel One," said Roland Pare, a school technology consultant and the director of information systems at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey. "It only takes a couple of parents to protest the service, and the school will remove it. I wouldn't invest in the [ZapMe!] service."

Oregon's North Clackamas School District was approached some years ago by Channel One and more recently by ZapMe! and turned both of them down. "We have a policy on the use of ads, and we simply don't take instructional products in exchange for advertising," said Blair Loudat, director of technology and information services for the district. "The first consideration we have is what the educational value of a service is, and that comes ahead of the hardware and software that's being offered, even if it is, theoretically, free."

ZapMe! has its supporters among K-12 educators. The Egg Harbor, N.J., school district started using the service last year, creating a ZapMe! "computer lab" with 15 PCs in its main library. Teachers in the schools can book time in the lab and bring classes in to do specific class research or students can use it for individual research.

"We liked the setup they had with the satellite uplink and downlink, plus they were offering very sound computers," said Edward Reinheimer, supervisor of district computer services. "They also had a former teacher as a trainer, and they were very responsive in tech support."

The reason ZapMe! was so attractive was "we just didn't have enough computers for the kids," Reinheimer said. "The library was one of the places where we needed to fill that need. Also, we felt it didn't hurt for our staff to see that there were other ways of [providing computing services] besides the traditional ways."

Indeed, a thirst for alternate ways to procure hardware seemed to drive interest in the service. "I was quite upfront with ZapMe! when we signed on for this," said Michael Sweeder, who works under Reinheimer as technology coordinator for the district. "I told them that if the company goes under tomorrow, we would still probably get to keep the equipment. All we would have to do is change the hub setup so it would link into our own Internet service."

"I've been involved in instructional technology for the past 14 years, and I just thought ZapMe! was going about it the right way," Sweeder added. He said he thought the ad content is minimal. "Some districts are hung up on the use of ads...but we aren't."

Use of ads also doesn't bother Michael Crovi, director of technology for Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools in Charlotte, N.C. ZapMe! has offered to set up a system for the Mecklenburg schools, and to Crovi, it's all a matter of what the acceptable trade-offs are.

"We are in the business of education, so it's basically a win-win situation as far as I'm concerned," he said. "We get the systems and Internet access at a much reduced cost, and as long as the ads don't take away from the educational experience, we have no concern about them."

It seems clear, however, that the need for Internet-based systems will only increase as the amount of information they can carry increases. Most school information, particularly data about individual students and classes, is not organized and automated so that it can easily be put onto the Internet. But that will change, and relatively soon.

Microsoft Corp., for example, is leading a consortium to develop standards that will enable data exchange between school administrative systems. By spring, the first applications based on these standards will enable schools to provide student information, such as attendance records, via automated voice response systems. Administrative data, such as the dates and fines due on library books, will be available in real time and will show up instantly in a school's library software and financial systems.

The demand for these kinds of applications, and others, will ratchet up the demand for systems that can carry them, both inside schools and outside to parents and others. Schools will have limited options available to pay for these systems.

New Jersey's Hunterdon Central Regional High School, which rejected the use of ad-based commercial systems, networked 2,250 students and 1,330 computers with two satellite downlinks to provide dial-in access for students, parents and teachers, e-mail for all, and voice, video and data into every classroom. But it came at a price.

"We made major changes in budgeting priorities," Pare said. "We had to significantly reallocate funds. For instance, we have a full-time network engineer, and that's a continuing cost."

But not every school will be able to handle the costs. If the Internet continues to be a major force in education-something not everyone agrees will be the case-then schools will have to find a way to pay for computers and networking. In that case, commercial services will have a major part to play.

"The question is how to bring instructional technology into schools," said Cheryl Williams, director of technology programs at the National School Boards Association, "and a part of that is how you bring the Internet into schools. Much of the information on the Internet now is free, and teachers are already using it as a part of their lesson structure. Since school districts have a mandate to educate, the question they have to answer is if these commercial offerings are qualitatively different from what schools can get for free."

As long as the value of this commercial content is high enough, she said, then the issue of such things as banner ads probably will not be a major concern. Getting services at low cost or for free will weigh much heavier.

"Until schools have buckets of money available to them," Williams said, "I just don't see schools getting too upset over ads."

Brian Robinson is a free-lance journalist based in Portland, Ore.

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