Schools As Information Businesses

As schools become increasingly wired to the outside world, they are busy testing the innumerable educational applications the new information infrastructure is bringing to the classroom. But school administrators would do well to heed the financial implications of the advancing classroom network.

Although schools explore new curricular applications, online teacher support services and administrative software, most have not budgeted for the ongoing costs of such services. Federal grants and subsidies such as E-Rate will help pay for the foundation of the networked classroom. But such programs are not designed to maintain the network, which year after year will be put through its paces by the not-so-delicate keystrokes of 6- to 17-year-olds.

In looking for ways to offset the cost of maintaining their new information infrastructure, schools might want to examine the commercial potential of their information assets, which include selling advertising to corporations that want access to the captive audience of teachers, students and parents.

Whether or not schools leverage these assets, they must recognize the economic implications of their decision. Although schools have paid some attention to commercializing their physical space, most have not considered online advertising.

However, most schools are not inexperienced at cooperating with the private sector. Most are accustomed to accepting handouts in the form of foundation grants, corporate contributions and old equipment. And schools raise discretionary income through bake sales, events and fund-raising drives. But most schools generally are not accustomed to pricing and selling access to their community.

Advertising in schools is not altogether new. In exchange for cash and services, schools routinely sign exclusive arrangements with soft drink companies to put vending machines and other passive advertising in schools. The news service Channel One for years has given schools free TVs, a cable connection and educational programming in exchange for the right to sell advertising on the channel. The Internet is simply a new medium to deliver the same kind of messages and content.

Today, information-even public information-is a commodity. Corporations recognize this and are beginning to harvest school information-for a profit. For instance, the Family Education Network provides free World Wide Web space for school districts, schools and teachers to post general school information, such as cafeteria menus, bus schedules and school calendars. In exchange, FEN gleans advertising and electronic commerce revenue.

Internet service providers are developing similar school-based services to sell subscriptions and offer advertising. As schools overlay more sophisticated administrative and management software onto their budding infrastructures, they will be able to provide even more specific teacher, class and student information. And as school information becomes more extensive and accessible, schools can stand to derive far greater value from the information that they generate.

Such value-added services, although often beneficial to schools, raise many unexplored ethical, political and economic questions. Should impressionable students be subjected to advertising in an educational institution? Can students avoid it? What are the guidelines for acceptable advertising? Can sensitive information be protected? Should information generated by taxpayer dollars be "resold?" If schools should engage these services, are they using their assets wisely? If schools forego commercial services, are they funded well enough to provide these services themselves? If they provide information services themselves, should they sell advertising space as well?

These questions require parents, school boards and administrators to think carefully about the information services that they want to provide, the cost of these services, the value of their information assets and the resources available to the school. As schools are forced to become more fully integrated into the information economy, they must think like the information businesses that they are.

Burck Smith is co-chief executive officer of Washington, D.C.-based Smarthinking Inc., which provides real-time online instruction and tutoring for higher education.

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