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Commercialism Report Slams Digital Strategies for Marketing to Students

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Student privacy issues around the use of technology and digital strategies in advertising are major and growing concerns identified in an annual study about the impact of commercialism in the nation's schools.

"These digital issues became an area of interest to us because now the students themselves are being commercialized," said Alex Molnar, lead researcher on "While Policymakers Do Little, Marketers Are Busy in Schools." The report on school trends was released this week from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"Schools are becoming a portal for profit-making firms to actually turn students into profit centers," he said in a phone interview, citing Education Week's story today about Google coming under fire for data-mining students' emails.

"Within the general trajectory of privatization, private vendors are now offering an array of services that require information about students," said Molnar, who has studied the intersection of business interests and public education for 30 years, and is the director of the Commercialism in Education Research Unit at the University of Colorado Boulder. "The security of the information they gather is not clear, and, in fact, what the vendors may do with it themselves—potentially turning information about students into a commodity that may be bought and sold—is also not clear."

The 63-page report defines commercialism as "a value system that promotes profit above all other concerns...that seeks to transform all relationships into commodities that can be exchanged for money." The authors identify various forms of advertising and marketing that they say fit this definition—from brokers that find companies willing to pay to post their names, logos, and messages in school spaces like entrances, band rooms, and gyms, to exclusive school "pouring rights" sold to beverage manufacturers, and sponsored STEM competitions that carry the brand names of companies, like the Intel Science Search and Verizon's Innovative App Challenge.

According to the report, neither federal nor state lawmakers are moving to control the practice of allowing companies to use schools as a way of introducing their brands and pitches to children.

However, it finds that anti-school commercialism advocacy is meeting with some successes, in the areas of nutrition—where proposed federal rules would ban junk food advertising during the school day—and resistance to the consolidation and sharing of student data via inBloom. An Atlanta-based education nonprofit, inBloom aims to host states' data, to clean, organize and secure it, and to facilitate the development of new tools for schools and districts by approved third-party vendors granted access to the information. 

One example cited in the study is Microsoft Corp.'s rollout of Bing for Schools last year. The search engine removes advertising, filters out adult-oriented content, and provides digital literacy instruction. Adopted at the district level, the product filters out advertising, but still advances the Microsoft brand, and promotes a "Bing Rewards" program for parents, who can assign their points to their school, which can use them to buy Microsoft tablet computers, the study's authors say.

Removing advertising is a positive for students, compared to other search engines that link ads to searches, according to researchers. However, the authors say that Bing's marketing strategy is a variation of one used by Google, and before that by Apple. Offering a suite of products for free opens avenues to adoption. "[S]tudents who get used to Bing in school may very well become customers for life. The marketing model creates a mutually reinforcing environment between school and home," the authors say.

The researchers, who cite many examples of what they call commercialism, find little public will to influence policy in a way that would change the stream of funding that is coming into schools. That mindset prevails in our political, educational, and cultural institutions. "We have a culture in which consumption has become the definition of what it means to have a good life," said Molnar (who is not related to the writer of this blog item.) 

He disagreed that significant amounts of money are supporting education as a result of these types of corporate initiatives. "I don't see any appreciable amount of money being raised that, actually in some material way, would have an impact on school programming and the quality of education received," he said. "It's not enough money to do that."

The full report is available here.


Follow @EdWeekMMolnar and @EdWeekIandI for the latest news on industry and innovation in education.

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