"Malcolm Shanders" sits in the computer lab at a suburban high school in Colorado, searching the Net on a spanking-new computer. His social studies teacher expects his research project on slavery in a few days, but this kid's in luck -- his computer has been designed to deliver specific information tailored to the 11th-grader's research needs.
The only really difficult thing for Malcolm (a pseudonym, as he requested anonymity) is that his exploration of this preselected slice of the Web is constantly interrupted as his attention is drawn elsewhere. In one corner of the computer screen, a video plays, showing a group of soldiers storming a target. It turns out to be an ad for the U.S. Army. A click of the mouse on another corner of the screen brings up a full-screen interactive video for Kodak cameras. "Cool!" declares the 16-year-old.
Welcome to the brave new educational world of ZapMe, a company that offers free state-of-the-art computers and Internet access to schools in exchange for delivering students' eyeballs to commercial sponsors. Check it out at back-to-school night.
ZapMe's arrival at Harrison High School in Colorado Springs is like manna falling from heaven, says Terry Smith, the technology coordinator at the school. "With our small budget we could never have purchased a lab like this," Smith says.
Lisa Seed, Malcolm's English teacher, agrees: "I realize we are selling our kids to advertisers, and I don't like it. On the other hand, I'm happy to be sitting in a room with 15 free computers."
Ever since President Clinton declared his goal of "connecting every classroom in America to the Internet by the year 2000," schools have been scrambling to get online. Yet, despite the federal government's spending billions of dollars on school technology over the past eight years, when classes begin in a few weeks, millions of students still won't have access to computers or the Internet and the educational benefits they offer.
Last year, the federal government spent $789 million on technology for schools -- but only about $42 million of that went toward wiring classrooms. (That doesn't include the $2.25 billion allocated for the E-Rate program, which helps schools obtain Internet access at a discount.)
And while the Department of Education asserts that 96 percent of all public schools are connected to the Internet, that figure is highly misleading, according to Joy Kamiko of the department's Office of Educational Technology. "'Connected' can mean one computer tucked away in the principal's office or in the library," she says. "The key is how many students per class have Internet access. There is still a vast need for equipment and training in schools."
Increasingly, budget-crunched public schools are turning to private companies like ZapMe for a solution. According to the San Ramon, Calif., company, some 6,000 schools have signed up for the service since it launched two years ago. So far, 1,800 schools have been connected, representing 1.5 million students.
The schools get a sweet package of hardware: 15 state-of-the-art personal computers with jumbo screens, a furnished computer lab, high-speed Internet access, a printer and a satellite dish. Under the ZapMe contract, participating schools must promise that the system will be in use at least four hours per school day and that the company will have access to the system for its own marketing use after school hours.
For students, ZapMe means Net access with a hitch. The system limits kids to about 13,000 educational sites chosen by ZapMe editors, and forces them to view everything through the ZapMe "Netspace," a bordered frame containing a constantly rotating series of ads and on-screen videos for corporate sponsors like Dell Computer, Frito-Lay and Topps bubble gum.
And while the kids don't seem to mind, plenty of educators and politicians are up in arms about such programs. "Interactive media is the most powerful marketing tool ever known to mankind," says Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education, an electronic-media public interest group in Washington. "It sends a powerful, shaping message to young people. Teachers and students need to pay much closer attention than they are," he adds. "Right now, they're playing Russian roulette with our kids' psyches."
Of course, ZapMe is hardly alone in bringing us commercialized classrooms. For years the Channel One Network, the in-school commercial cable TV network, has provided schools with free TVs and cable connections in exchange for airing its daily ad-filled news program. Newer entrants include HiFusion, a McLean, Va., company that promises to link schools to students' homes over the Internet. It offers free educational content, shopping links and online portals where teachers can post homework assignments. Meanwhile, Thinkwave.com allows parents to gain access to their children's daily grades, attendance records and disciplinary reports -- without their kids' knowledge -- along with a daily dose of targeted advertisements. And ScreenAd/Digital Billboards of Ontario, Canada, has come up with the idea of installing screen savers with a rotating series of corporate advertisements on students' computers.
"This is part of a no-holds-barred corporate strategy to target kids no matter where they are -- online, in school or in their bedrooms," says Chester, who agrees with other critics who view these ventures as a digital Trojan horse for corporate efforts to control the buying and spending habits of children.
Schoolchildren represent the largest untapped consumer market in the country, says David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis. "Where better to go after kids than where they are held captive for six hours a day."
What especially alarms critics is the potential for corporate snooping and spying on students. Utilizing the two-way nature of the Internet, ZapMe, HiFusion and other companies can gather personal data from children, such as name, address, sex, school location, Web-surfing habits, even parents' credit card numbers -- information that can be provided to outside marketers. This policy has prompted critics like Ralph Nader to call ZapMe a "corporate predator" and the "Big Brother" of schools. An unlikely coalition of liberal activists and religious conservatives, including Nader and Phyllis Schlafly, are leading a national campaign to oust the company from public schools.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., along with Sens. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., recently introduced legislation that would require schools to get parental permission before a company could collect or distribute marketing data on students. Schools that did not comply could lose their eligibility for federal funding. "If parents do not want their children to be objects of market research firms while in school, they should have the right to say no," Miller says.
Rick Inatome, ZapMe's CEO since November, insisted in an interview "that the company had never collected personal data on students" and that aggregate data is collected for "internal use" only. Inatome said ZapMe is sensitive to the issue of privacy, even going so far as to hire the firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers to conduct independent privacy audits of its network. "I've changed the focus of the company away from commercialism and marketing to education," said Inatome. He said school contracts this fall will reflect this change. ZapMe's current contract states that it may ask students for "personal information" and that it may "compile statistics and demographics" about the "viewing habits" of users and distribute them "for commercial purposes." A draft of the new contract indicates that some of this wording has been dropped, but nowhere is it explicitly stated that ZapMe has stopped online profiling.
One educator who's resisting the corporate come-ons is Bill Dierdorf, business manager for the North Clackamas public school district near Portland, Ore. Dierdorf says he is showered daily with offers from companies for computers, Internet access, e-mail accounts, curriculum packages, even mouse pads covered with ads. "We were approached by ZapMe and other vendors, but we rejected them," Dierdorf says. "We don't believe we should sell out our kids to the highest bidder. Our job is to educate them, not to bombard them with ads."
Dierdorf says it's usually lower-income districts like his, not well-funded ones, that are the most eager clients of ZapMe and Channel One. "It's a shortsighted solution that buys some time. But schools won't be better off in long run." Indeed, such deals may undermine poorer school districts' ability to attract state funds or develop an appropriate technology plan. The danger is that school administrators will become dependent on corporate handouts, and forget that it was the failure to provide schools with adequate public funding that led them to the begging bowl in the first place.
The debate over ZapMe will be familiar to anyone who has followed the saga of Channel One. The daily news program for teenagers reaches more than 8 million students every school day, five times the number of teens who watch network and cable newscasts combined. Yet the network has been under fire since flamboyant media entrepreneur Chris Whittle launched it in 1990. (It is now owned by Primedia Inc.)
Last year, Channel One's practices were scrutinized by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and the network has come under renewed attack from children's groups. In response, Channel One has mounted an intense lobbying effort in Washington against its critics. Jeff Balabon, executive vice president for public policy at Primedia, characterizes such critics as "extremist anti-business and anti-technology groups with an anti-capitalist agenda." Yet even Balabon makes an effort to distinguish Channel One, which he says provides "real news content," from ZapMe and companies like it. Although Channel One is said to be developing an in-school ad-driven Internet program of its own, Balabon denies it will based on the ZapMe model.
Still, Fege says, Channel One has joined with ZapMe and other education-technology companies in opposing the Miller parental consent law. "I've never seen a fiercer lobbying effort against a piece of education legislation," Fege says. "These companies are going ballistic over these bills, because they see their passage as the beginning of the end of marketing to kids in school."
Meanwhile, this summer has seen even more ambitious efforts by public school systems to reap benefits from the Internet. In June, for example, the New York school board unanimously approved a proposal to create its own revenue-generating Web site and portal. According to school officials, the portal will be the fifth largest in the world and will help pay the costs of providing free or leased laptop computers to all 1.1 million public school students in the city through advertising and e-commerce opportunities. "Everyone else is cashing in on the new economy, why not schools?" says Paul Wooten, a member of the school board's Cyberspace Task Force.
After the scheme was harshly criticized by the newly formed New York Coalition for Commercial-Free schools, the board promised to shield children, though not teachers, from any direct advertising. But the coalition is asking the school board to postpone a scheduled September 13 vote on the proposal until it can be reviewed at a public hearing.
At Colorado Springs' Harrison High School, students are largely unimpressed by the debate over their ZapMe computer lab. "Sure, the ads can be distracting," says one 16-year-old junior, adding that he doesn't see anything unusual about being pitched at in school. After all, he says, "we see ads everywhere we go. It just seems natural." And about the possibility that students' every mouse click could be monitored from afar? "Big deal," replies another student. "That starts the day you get a Social Security number."