Why we should advertise to children



So the title is probably a little more provocative than it needs to be, but there is something to consider in here. As schools should we be worried about the way our students are advertised to online? It feels a little like another one of those fence around the swimming pool vs. teach them to swim arguments. We always seem to err on the swim side of these debates, but as a Google Apps school I know their position is to remove all ads for the education customers so maybe there is something more in this…

Does advertising matter?

Do we mind that we are being advertised to? I don’t think it is news that the advertisers are the core customer for the free social web services, but it is down to us to choose how much we personally take from that. Google are more than happy to place adverts relevant to my email down the right hand side of my inbox (personal email account rather than the apps account…), but it is rare I read them, let alone click on them. Ditto Facebook, it’s there but it is not a major focus for me. In online ad terms this is all about the CTR (clickthrough rate). There’s some fascinating research around success rates in this area.

Television has advertised at us for a long time, it is just that we are more familiar with this medium so it doesn’t seem to generate the objections that the online ads are at the moment. Even with the publicly funded BBC you can see how they edit the shows to be divided up by adverts in countries that buy their content (or even when it ends up endlessly repeated on Dave..). People seem comfortable with advertising on television, they go and make a coffee while it happens, or Sky+ their way round them.

An interesting aside here is product placement is being introduced into the UK– this is obviously a new route around the Sky+ style viewing. But, after some initial public whining we seem to be just getting on with it

I would also suggest that these adverts can be a positive if they are correctly targeted. I don’t think our position should be that all advertising is bad, if done well it could be genuinely useful. More on this later.

Those new literacies

Part of our role as educators is to prepare students for the world outside of the institution. Would it be completely unreasonable to take a position stating that these commercial models for online advertising should be present in education so students can learn how they work, and how best to interact with them? We spend time talking to them about bias in the media, the dangers of social networking, etc- this is the same area. If we are not part of the Facebook world (whether through use of the service or working with the company to help develop their offering) our students won’t just abandon it, they’ll just be there unsupported.

Control, schools and the web services

As a school working with tools like Facebook places us in their hands in terms of how the product develops, there is always a risk that a feature we use will just disappear. It happened with the Google Wonderwheel a while ago, and I have discussed this point in a previous post about Second Life.

But, I don’t think the problem is unique to this environment.

We all buy into (in some form depending on license, etc) VLEs and various other products, I don’t think we are any more separate from the risks associated with the commercial needs of these companies than we are with a free web service with commercial needs that are met by advertising revenue. It has been argued in various journal articles that initial VLE designs came from a commercial perspective (think Sharepoint..) and education shoehorned their techniques into them. Is this not exactly the same thing?

The only difference between the 2 models is how the income is generated. Microsoft recently dropped a whole load of services they had previewed for Live@edu that many schools were expecting, same problems, different business model. Same is true of Adobe updates, we hope the features we make most use of make it through to the next version, or the improvements we need happen, but there is no guarantee really. The new subscription model Apple have introduced to the App Store is proving largely unpopular with everybody, but we continue to use it if there is enough value.

This point seems more obvious on the hardware side, Apple again are a superb example. Schools and colleges love their products, but we never have any idea what they are going to be, or what/when the updates will be. Only the other day we suddenly discovered the Macbook had disappeared from the product line, only to then be told it would be available to schools still. It was pretty limiting that the first iPod Touch didn’t have a camera, but it didn’t stop us buying them. We have no control in that process- we work round it, we don’t mind.

To me, these examples suggest we are just as controlled by commercial requirements elsewhere so we can discount the risks associated with control and free web services.

A couple of examples:

  • Facebook will only let a teacher have one profile rather than maintaining a second presence on the network to interact with their students.
  • Google+ will only let people use their real names.
  • Every Twitter account you create must have a unique email address associated with it.

There are countless rules in place to control how we use web services. Most of them we never really notice, but with each of the examples above I can see that these have the potential to cause problems for educators.

But are the restrictions placed on us by these tools any more limiting from the perspective of the learner than those placed on us by National standards, examinations boards, etc? In the same way the that the needs of the assessment process can pull in the opposite direction to the learning requirements of students using e-portfolios, is the need of the web 2.0 companies just another conflicting limitation?

Making use of the model

I would be really interested to look at Universities that have embraced the ad-targeted market. We look at the powerful tools companies have to direct content at you as a potentially scary area, but how useful would this tool be if I was a University marketing manager attempting to sell places on my courses to relevant interest groups?

At a smaller scale would it be good if a lecturer could use the Google/Facebook ads model to target learning resources at their students? I haven’t seen it happening yet, but the Kahn Academy would be ideal for using this kind of system to push their content.

As a purely financial decision if an institution could remove all of the costs of hosting and supporting their web services by adding advertising to it how much would you need to save before that became a serious consideration?

Alternatives/the way forward

This post has largely been a series of questions in a difficult area but I like to look at the options for solving it. On what I would see as a descending scale of good:

  1. Make use of the tools for our benefit as institutions, educate our users.
  2. Work to generate protected, ad-free environments for use within education.
  3. Keep out of the social networks, stick in the safe, institution controlled, spaces we already have.

Personally, I don’t see the advertising model adopted by web 2.0 companies to be a bad thing providing we can educate our students to understand it. If we take this view the benefits clearly outweigh the risks, and our route forward sits somewhere around the top of the list.

Image sources- Billboard by Hans S, American Idol screengrab, Money and Calculator by Images of Money, Giant pop-up by Feureau

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